Review: Merzbow – Cafe OTO
Among the most notable—and prolific—projects in extreme music for the past four decades, Merzbow‘s output in recent years has been highlighted by collaborations with Lawrence English, Bastard Noise, Prurient and Boris. Recorded during a double show residency at London’s Cafe OTO in 2016, the latest Merzbow release—a remastered, expanded version of the more limited 1.10.16 release on OTOroku in 2017—is as much a documentation of Masami Akita’s musical progression and dynamism in the 21st century as it is a solid live recording that highlights the capabilities of Akita the performer, instead of Akita the collaborator.
As an example of the Merzbow improvisation process, Cafe OTO is elucidating. How Merzbow layers music is incredibly interesting to me, and has always been best shown through his live material. Since the early 2000s, Akita has focused on music that creates an immense sense of scale and weight, stacking endless, reverbed tracks on one another, always recontextualizing the music preceding it, with colossal soundscapes that still retain a sense of intimacy and warmth.
“Untitled Knife II” is the most explicit example of Akita recontextualizing his noise—a relatively loud, sheet metal dronescape is “overdubbed” with a more directly violent, oddly rhythmic squeal of feedback. Suddenly the shift in timbre and intensity contorts what was once oppressive and off-putting into a familiar, almost comforting foundation that Akita builds from.
I was in a cafe trying to get some work done during the week, and the sound of clanging utensils, boiling water, and cash-register transactions was initially a mild distraction, a first-world minor annoyance. Then, suddenly a food processor is turned on; its volume makes a small sensory dog panic and bark, all shrill and yappy. When the processor stopped and the dog relaxed, the sounds of utensils, water and purchases returned, and it felt closer to ambience than it had ever done before, almost comforting. It made me think of what I’ve just described about Merzbow, and how commonly Akita’s music is associated with heavy machinery, the sound of industry, of the sound of great, jagged cogs turning. To me, though, Merzbow has always represented smaller experiences. The sound of wind ripping past the window of a night-bus, the hum of a halogen light in a car park, small disruptions in a cafe.
Having mostly distanced himself from the sexual and fetishistic fixations of both some of his older work and vast swathes of other noise releases, he nonetheless retains a specific warmth and sensuality to a lot of his performances, in a way that’s different from many other noise artists. Merzbow’s material sometimes has a reputation as being clinical and detached but this never seemed true to me, and I think his live performance elucidate how engaged and switched-on the music truly is.
Following the monophonic introduction of “Untitled Knife I”, Akita blasts the listeners with an enveloping warmth of distortion, lowering the track’s intensity almost as respite. By the track’s mid-point, thumping synthetic bass pumps like a heartbeat in a circulatory system, injecting the performance with unexpected warmth—something prominent in much of Akita’s releases for the past two decades. The surrounding music becomes brittle, a weak tremolo threatening to die out—the blood flow of the low-end being the only thing keeping the track alive.
“Untitled Knife II” leers into earshot with a truly overwhelming drone that gives way to easily the most violent part of the record: swamping, reverbed feedback pounding off like muffled gunshots. This is followed by a polyphonic drone that wrestles with itself, dueling through both the high-end and low-end, interspersed with skittish, disjointed bursts of electric distortion.
Like “Untitled Knife I”, there’s relative respite in the second half—a quieter but nonetheless disruptive synth that rattles like an amplified Geiger counter. This is followed by a musical break filled with low-end distortion that mimics a howling wind. It’s one of the more panoramic pieces I’ve heard from Akita, a musician who has in my opinion always produced very human-sounding and human-centered music, despite his initially repellent sound and explicit endorsement of both vegan and broader environmental causes. However destructive Merzbow’s music is, the absolute density and subtle depth it contains always paints very human portraits for me.
Extreme performance is perhaps always going to be limited in a recording, and is the aspect of the record which is most lacking. The viscerality of Akita’s explosive performance is muted in the translation to recording: the uncontrollable volume and corrosive, static reverb that sets your teeth on edge. This is true of most extreme music, but Merzbow live shows, in combining both his enveloping, fortissimo soundscapes alongside his music’s performative intimacy, are particularly sapped of power when translated to wax. You have control when listening to an album, but lack of control is often what makes extreme art so exhilarating. While nothing definitive or career-defining, Cafe OTO remains a solid document of a solid show, and a testament to the unwavering dynamism of Merzbow.
3/5 Flaming Toilets ov Hell