Arts & Culture

Noise rock defies musical convention

Fort Thunder in Olyneyville was the incubator for the musical style’s upbringing

Senior Staff Writer
Friday, October 4, 2013

The categorization of noise rock as a genre contradicts its most basic essence: to spill out of the bounds of musical theory and uproot everything it stands for. If tempo, tonality and scale comprise the skeletal structure of music, noise rock — a musical movement with a rich local history — jumps out of its own skin and celebrates the gutted and guttural mess left behind as what is ultimately real.

If this description seems overly violent, just listen to the music. A refined ear might describe it as a barrage of cacophonies, a Jackson Pollock of sound, dousing kerosene over tense, tuneless riffs and lighting the match with a splintered time signature. To the casual listener, it can resemble anything from the grinding screech of a multiple-car pileup to the earth rending apart at its core. And though Providence is no longer a dominant hub of noise rock, the genre’s influence remains.

The noise rock movement began with the Velvet Underground, wrote Jeffrey Terich, founder of Treblezine and an assistant news editor for the San Diego Daily Transcript, in an email to The Herald. In the late 1960s, the band adopted a “confrontational approach” to music, incorporating elements of “free improvisation, feedback and loads of distortion where other bands wouldn’t have dreamed of doing anything of the sort,” he wrote, though he added that these innovations weren’t widely adopted by other musicians until the “aftermath of punk” over a decade later.

The overarching mission of noise was to disrupt the status quo, Terich wrote. “They existed to shake things up, to pull people out of their trances and to basically cause trouble on an artistic scale — in a positive way, of course.”

The French scholar Jacques Attali arrives at a similar conclusion in his book, “Noise: The Political Economy of Music.” He argues that music serves as a “subconscious” expression of society and interprets the breakdown of musical structure in noise as foreshadowing societal upheaval.

It is appropriate that an artistic vision driven by such an unruly undertow draws from some of the most iconoclastic movements of the 20th century­ — most notably Dadaism and Futurism.

Reflective of these countercultural ideologies, noise inherits from Dadaism a politically charged anti-aestheticism and from Futurism an aggressive manifestation of this pursuit. Noise rockers achieve this by wholly immersing their audiences in the chaos they produce.

Providence was a hotspot for noise bands such as Lightning Bolt and Arab on Radar. Though Arab on Radar broke up in 2002 and then again after a brief reunion in 2010, Lightning Bolt is still actively, if sporadically, producing music.

Lightning Bolt formed in 1994, when Brian Chippendale teamed up with fellow Rhode Island School of Design student Brian Gibson, according to the band’s biography.

In what began as an attempt to save money by combining studio space with living arrangements, Chippendale and several other RISD students transformed the second floor of an abandoned textile warehouse in Olneyville into a sanctuary for restless and artistic minds known as “Fort Thunder.” Eventually, over a dozen artists — largely cartoonists — called the fort home.

An online gallery of the venue shows it to be as chaotic and cluttered as the music its residents created. Its walls were plastered with clippings and collages, murals and memorabilia. Bicycles in various states of disrepair gouged out from the ceiling in a jungle of handlebars and spokes. Desk and shelf surfaces lurked somewhere under a lasagna of art supplies, Halloween decorations and empty alcohol bottles.

The fort was a haunt for members of the Providence art community and local bands because of its low-key, experimental atmosphere, according to a 2004 article in Comics Reporter.

Though it began as somewhat of an open secret in the avant-garde community, the fort steadily gained more mainstream attention until it established itself as a highly influential art collective.

But in 2001, the fort began to face harassment from real estate developers who wanted to gentrify the city’s mill properties. These tensions rose and ultimately erupted with the residents’ eviction at the peak of a record-cold winter. The eviction was followed by the demolition of the creative space to make room for a shopping center.

Though Lightning Bolt and Arab on Radar developed sizeable cult followings, the Guardian review of the former noted that it “almost (seemed) designed to frustrate any kind of commercial success,” citing a sense of “wariness toward press and promotion.”

Gibson stressed this in a 2005 article in the Providence Phoenix.

“We don’t do too much press,” he told the Phoenix, adding that he was recently “upset” by an article that classified Lightning Bolt’s music as noise rock. “People see your name around a lot, you’re fitted into some category and suddenly that becomes the thing, more than the experience itself.”

“I think when people come to a show — and they forget this — but what they really want is to get lost,” Gibson said.

The unconventional theatrical strategies of many noise bands illustrate this emphasis on the music as a transcendental experience. Lightning Bolt performs on the floor — not the stage — of its venue, a spatial dynamic meant to “dissolve the space between band and audience,” according to a 2009 BBC review.

A 2009 review in the Guardian described the results of this removed barrier, citing the thrashing swarms of fans that engulfed Chippendale and Gibson to the point where they seemed “in danger of being swept away.”

Arab on Radar further blended the boundaries between its interacting components. Band members adopted pseudonyms that transformed them from individuals to personified psychological disorders: Mr. Type A, Mr. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Mr. Clinical Depression and Mr. Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, according to the band biography on its record label’s website. The biography said this erasure of names took place because the band members “felt the focus was on the songs and the idea of Arab on Radar, as opposed to the people creating the music.”

Arab on Radar, like Lightning Bolt, infused its performances with offbeat theatrical tricks. A New York Times review cited band members’ “strange” habit of tuning their guitars between songs — a counterintuitive exercise in light of their music’s consistent atonality. But the review said these twanging tune-ups watered down the “density” of the set list, serving as ironic extensions of the songs themselves.

But despite the feverishness of their sound and the urgency of their social message, Terich wrote noise rock bands burned out as rapidly as they flared up. While he added that this was partially due to the limited financial prospects of attracting such a narrow fan base, it was also in the nature of the music itself to be short-lived.

“If you’re the kind of musician who starts a band to provoke or set fire to conventions, there’s also probably a high likelihood of losing interest in a sound once its flavor dulls,” he wrote. But he added that other bands such as Sonic Youth and Butthole Surfers, working from a similar framework, steadily filtered out the noisier elements of their music — resulting in a broader commercial appeal and success.

Gradually, noise rock evolved. Though the tamer genres of grunge and shoegazing music still contain remnants of their wilder roots, Terich wrote that by the early nineties, most of the original noise rock bands had either broken up or moved on to more lucrative projects.

Since its heyday in Providence, noise rock has diffused to other areas of the country, with bands such as Black Dice in Brooklyn, N.Y., and Wolf Eyes in Ann Arbor, Mich., gaining recognition. But according to a 2010 article in The Quietus, noise rock today is declining in intensity, progressively transitioning from “confrontational” to “comfortable.” Even in current bands that claim to pay homage to the genre, “there is little in them that could wantonly confuse, terrify or assault the listener” aside from sheer volume, according to the article.

“These days, society seems to be on this serious path,” Chippendale said in a 2011 interview with The Stranger. “I’ll settle for our music kind of being a ticket into something primal to remind you of that. It’s like stretching every day. We’re reminding people that they’re human.”


One Comment

  1. marinela potor says:

    I just came across this after a very personal noise music experience in Dayton, Ohio (!): and I think this post gives some great background information on noise music! My favorite analogy: Noise music is the Jackson Pollock of sound, I think that pretty much says it all.

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