Noise rock: A how-to guide for the perplexed
“Noise rock” is perhaps the laziest genre descriptor, like, ever. Just like “noise” proper, the term could easily apply to thousands of different sounds. But we must work with the vocabulary we’re given, and attempts to get more specific usually wind up confusing the matter. Robert Christgau used to call it “pigfuck,” which is why I don’t listen to Robert Christgau.
For our purposes, when we talk about “noise rock,” we’re thinking of material that embraces the first half of the phrase rather than the latter. I haven’t included a lot of the poppier material that gets labelled as such, (Pissed Jeans, Dope Body, Karp, etc.) and am sticking mostly to the more abrasive stuff. There will be some obvious overlaps between bands often considered straight “noise” here too that are included for posterity.
There are also bands that I’m not including that I’m certain purists will tell you are absolutely essential. They’re probably not wrong. But this list serves not just as an introduction to one of the strangest musical developments of the late 20th century, but a guide to some of its more challenging, and ultimately rewarding, creations. That means no Big Black, no Rapeman, and… actually, basically just no Steve Albini.
Let’s dig in.
No wave is arguably where the whole thing started. One could make the case that some of the more abrasive psych rock bands of the late ‘60s paved the way for this whole thing, (Captain Beefheart, et al) but I personally think that’s a bit of a reach.
Typically based out of New York City, no wave bands eschewed punk’s simplicity in favor of atonality, arrhythmicity and abrasion. It lent itself especially well to dark lyrical topics. It was also tragically short-lived, but some modern bands are still really into aping its aesthetic, to varying degrees of success. Here are some of the essentials:
Clangy, repetitive, chaotic, beautiful. “Orphans” could act as a definitive introduction to the sound. The vocals are phenomenal, when there are any. This release is also important for introducing the world to Lydia Lunch, whose storied solo career warrants an entire article of its own.
A lot punkier than TJATJ, but Mars’ disdain for conventional song structure is clear. Mars were one of the first truly noisy bands to use bass primarily as a melodic anchor, allowing everything else to swell chaotically around it. The Jesus Lizard and other bands like them really took this to heart a decade later.
Probably the best of the No Wave crop. DNA deftly incorporated keys, and wrote some truly angry shit. Arto Lindsay has an amazing solo output as well.
Around the time the above bands were banging on pots and pans and making a big ol’ racket, there was another development occurring under the no wave umbrella. Artists like Branca and Rhys Chatham were constructing wild, orchestral-like compositions, mostly with guitars. The Ascension is Branca’s best album, combining the abrasion of the above bands with a composer’s restraint.
The Contortions were the progenitors of the “punk jazz” movement, paving the way for bands like the excellent Plot to Blow up the Eiffel Tower. They rebranded as James White and the Blacks after this album and took a hard-left turn, making an excellent proto-house record.
No wave sort of died off in the very early 80s, but paved the way for a whole new crop of bands that took the concept of embracing dissonance and ran with it. There’s some really amazing stuff that came from this period, and also a bunch of total garbage. Many bands in the latter category in some way featured Steve Albini, an insufferable prick who I fittingly adored in high school. That being said, if you’re interested in having an understanding of the so-called classics from this period, it’s worth giving Big Black’s Songs About Fucking a cursory listen.
In the interest of keeping things varied and less clinical, you also won’t find any Sonic Youth, Butthole Surfers, Royal Trux or Swans here.
Rudimentary and outrageous, Loud is one of the best noise rock albums period, much less of this decade. There’s little to say about this band that hasn’t already been said elsewhere, but brothers Jad and David Fair smacked their instruments around better than anyone, and have a vast discography worthy of deep exploration. An absolute classic.
Featuring two members of The Jesus Lizard, Scratch Acid did everything that band did with more ferocity, grit and spirit. You still get David Yow’s trademark howl and David Wm. Sims’ incomparable bass, with lousier production that makes the whole thing feel way more claustrophobic.
A phenomenal entry in the noise rock canon from the immediate aftermath of no wave. It’s much punkier than any of those bands were, more brutalistic and obnoxious. Its walls of feedback and punk spirit are what so many bands that followed have tried (and failed) to emulate.
No Trend were the perfect noise rock band. This comp is an excellent introduction to their frenetic, melodramatic and often horrific world. The band’s discography is divided into two distinct periods: one with guitarist Frank Price, and the other with a completely new backing band and, for one album, the addition of Lydia Lunch on vocals, (on 1985’s A Dozen Dead Roses). Both eras are great, but the rawness of the first better captures the spirit of this guide. Problem pulls the nastiest material from their various EPs with Price on guitar.
Brainbombs have a reputation for being a band for edgy tryhards. I don’t think that gives them nearly enough credit. Brainbombs is a project centered around a decades-spanning exploration of stupid, animalistic violence. The lyrics are primal and often brazenly offensive, delivered by a drawling, monotone Swede. It’s even, at times, comical, in a David Lynch circa-Dumbland sort of way. It’s easy to write them off as chauvinistic, but their plodding, repetitive riffs and dogshit production make for an endlessly intriguing and often brilliant listen. The Mentors Brainbombs are not.
Drunks With Guns are very much of the Brainbombs school of noise rock. Crude, neanderthalic, mixed very poorly, often offensive, but with moments of utter brilliance. This self-titled effort is far and away the best.
The ‘90s were a particularly interesting time for noise rock. A lot of the bands mentioned above had a palpable punk influence, but as noise music, particularly power electronics, partially entered the public consciousness, plenty of bands started to really go wild. The rise of industrial rock clearly interested noise denizens, and there’s a lot of overlap between the two.
There is also some godawful shit from this period. Bands like Karp and Shellac are mostly boring music for 40-year-old dads who hate the internet. Beneath that, though, were some all-time classics, many of them by tragically short-lived projects.
The psychiest entry on the list, full of big warm swaths of sound and gentle, lulling vocals. If Spacemen 3 went full noise, this would be it. An excellent reprieve from the ferocity of everything else mentioned here.
The Fellers had a remarkable ear for melody, a hallmark of this period that I think was perhaps its defining trait. There’s something about the cacophonous instrumentals and borderline poppy vocal arrangements on these tracks that really made this album something special.
A particularly excellent example of the intersection between industrial and noise rock, and living proof that the one thing Steve Albini is good at is production. Distorted Pony are everything you like about Unsane, (listed at the end of this section) but much, much better.
Melt-Banana have not released a bad album, and they’re constantly improving on their formula. Scratch or Stitch is their most fully-realized effort, combining wild electronic noise with elements of punk, grind, and sometimes pop.
Harry Pussy did full-band noise better than anyone. Known for their highly confrontational live shows and goofy sense of humor, they also made some of the more punishing records in the noise rock oeuvre. Member Bill Orcutt later went on to do this same sort of thing as a solo acoustic guitarist on Mego, and it’s also great. Take a minute to enjoy this live video. (“Are there any Primus fans here tonight?”)
The marriage of math rock and noise rock is rarely successful. Laddio Bolocko, however, absolutely nail the synthesis of those two genres, definitively on this record. Full of odd time signatures, discordant song structures and fuzzy production, this is one of the most criminally overlooked albums in the noise rock canon.
Grandiose, brutal, and one of the most unique albums of the late 90s. Featuring members of the legendary Whitehouse, as well as Sutcliffe Jugend. The slurred vocal delivery makes this thing.
The perfect mix of bright, life-affirming psych and chaotic Japanoise weirdness. The band features Yamatsuka Eye on vocals, famous for once driving a bulldozer through the back of a venue when he played in the band Hanatarash. The entire Boredoms catalog is worth delving into, but Newsun is an excellent starting point.
The 2000s to the present is the closest noise rock has come to going “mainstream,” (whatever that means). The successes of bands like Pissed Jeans, Dope Body and The Men signaled that more people were becoming interested in abrasion and discordance. Unfortunately, most of those bands are not very good. Some are fun, but the true misanthropy and challenging nature of the genre remained firmly outside Sub Pop and Matador’s catalogs. Arguably the weakest period in the genre’s history, but not without its gems.
One of the best modern noise bands, and another one that’s too often overlooked. They play regularly at noise festivals and appear to tour constantly, so the odds of you getting to see them in action are high.
Bizarre, instrumental math rock without any of the fuckery typically associated with the genre. No bright, sparkly, life-affirming vibes — just a chaotic, tightly-wound mess that you’ll never be able to find the beat of.
Lightning Bolt take everything cool about Hella and make it 100% better. The drum-and-bass duo is probably the most melodic thing on this list, but also the most compositionally realized. They have really excellent songwriting ability, but are more than willing to throw it out the window when the moment calls for it.
Listening to this album, you’d think Drunkdriver were about twenty years older than they actually are. Frenetic enough to be truly considered noise rock, but not so restrained by genre conventions that they just sound like a ripoff of everything that came before.
Now that Bandcamp, Soundcloud and other self-starting streaming platforms have come to prominence, there’s a whole glut of bands recording live onto Tascams and generally fucking shit up. A lot of it is really good, even! It’s tough to pick definitive albums given the sheer volume of releases, so here is a brief overview of the best of the aughts.
Raw, uncompromising hardcore meets harsh noise — not always on the same track, but often!
Full-band noise. Very dark, with unique vocals and really excellent production. The lyrics are phenomenal, and even audible!
Excellent combination of powerviolence, grindcore and harsh noise, featuring everyone’s favorite militant vegan laptop artist Merzbow.
A welcome return to the industrial rock of the 90s, with some harsh electronics in the mix.
Red Hot Chili Peppers + Death Grips + Arab on Radar. Whatever that means to you!
A personal favorite, Boy Man Machine is a genuinely frightening mix of industrial and noise, reminiscent of White Suns if they got super into Ligotti and the Cybernetic Culture Research Unit. I pray that one day Drose get the recognition they deserve.