The Official TovH Noise Rock Primer
We fans of loud weirdness collectively lost our gizz last week when noisecore darlings Ken Mode dropped a new track that sounded… different. It was certainly loud and intense, but… not very metal. I mean, why is Jesse Matthewson just talking over the opening riff? What’s up with the messy tone? Why is the bass mixed so fucking loud, and why is there so much treble in it? If these are questions that trouble you, I think you have a bit of learnin’ to do about a lil’ something called noise rock. Welcome to your official TovH Noise Rock Primer, wherein I hope to give you some essential history on this oft overlooked patch of the heavy music landscape that I believe is poised to have a resurgence of popularity and become a big influence for young bands in the coming decade.
“Noise rock” isn’t quite a monophyletic genre. It should be thought of like “sludge” or”grunge” in that’s it’s a useful description of a tonal center that can be approached from multiple perspectives. The roots of noise rock lie in punk (and/or what would eventually become “post-hardcore” ala Drive Like Jehu), but right from the start of the movement OG badasses Melvins were almost heavy enough to qualify as metal, and some weirdos like Swans take the idea of noisy rock so far it starts to question the notion of what qualifies as “music” at all.
In spite of all this diversity, there are some common themes and sounds that describe the noise rock scene centered in the Central and Northwestern parts of the U.S. and neighboring parts of Canada in the late ’80s and ’90s. The guitar tone is jangly and has lots of low end, quite unlike the razory, high gain tone favored by shredders of the day. Bass tones are equally raunchy, with tons of clacking and fuzz. Tempos are right in the headbobbing Goldilocks zone – not too fast, not too slow. Lyrics tended to focus on real-world subject matter of an unpleasant variety. The vocal delivery itself is more snarky than harsh; these bands know something you don’t, and they’ll tease you with your sense of security like a cat plays with a mouse before eating it. Notable bands of this era and mold include Shellac, The Jesus Lizard, and the legendary Cows.
Overall, the goal of this music is to make the listener uncomfortable. If hardcore punk is the sound of violence in the streets, and heavy metal is the sound of Satan or Middle Earth or whatever, noise rock is the sound of a lonely middle class breadwinner suffocating from the oppressive blandness of their suburban environment while a junkie dies screaming in the garage.
I’ll close this piece with a dump of bands that have elements of both metal and noise rock. Hearing these should offer context for the most direct inspiration behind bands like Ken Mode, of which I predict there will be more in the near future; personally, I’m looking forward to the New Wave of American Noise Metal. If you want to explore old-school noise rock more thoroughly, check out the discographies of the record labels Amphetamine Reptile (Melvins, Today Is The Day, Helmet), Touch And Go (Shellac, Die Kreuzen, Don Caballero), and Sub Pop (Sonic Youth, Codeine, Dinosaur Jr., some band called Nirvana), or the absurdly long list of bands recorded by Steve Albini. If you dweebs like this article, sometime soon I’ll write another about the flourishing modern noise rock scene and therefore actually include some Youtube links of music from after the year 2000. Flush on, hombres.