It’s been three years since Japanese noise artist Masami Akita (AKA Merzbow) released collaborative noise/free improvisation album Cuts with saxophonist Mats Gustafsson and drummer Balázs Pándi, playing The Oval Space, London to promote it in April 2014 in support of ambient artist Tim Hecker. Last year, Cuts of Guilt, Cuts Deeper was recorded in a similar vein with the addition Thurston Moore from Sonic Youth. Tonight’s gig is what the 2014 Oval Space performance was to 2013’s Cuts, to the aforementioned 2015 release.
St Johns-at-Hackney church is more than just a space for prayer and worship with brilliant acoustics, ornate décor and stained glass windows. Since 2013, its sessions have hosted some of the world’s absolute best ambient, industrial and drone performances featuring William Basinski (The Disintegration Loops), Grouper (That Man Who Died in His Boat), Julia Holter (Have You in My Wilderness), and an unlikely show featuring German krautrock Faust, supported by Nurse With Wound and William Bennet’s post-Whitehouse project Cut Hands. It’s hardly hyperbolic to say that tonight has high standards to live up to.
The eager audience make their way in, many sitting silently in wait on the uncomfortable wooden chairs. This is an important gig, those unable contain their excitement emitting happy yells of celebration or, later, excitedly telling those nearby, “That’s really him! That’s my Merzbow!” One lady, with Masami Akita as her phone background has brought professional binaural recording equipment which she stores in her bag to record the entire night with.
The audience waits amidst a haze of smoke machine mist and pale lilac lighting, a single microphone standing lonely in the centre, as ambient sounds with piano, then warped beats play on the PA, sure to remind those familiar of late Aube’s Cardiac Strain. Thirty minutes after doors, Olan Monk, aesthetically a passable hipster-type, takes the stage, puffing into the microphone and extinguishing lights one by one. Droney electronic loops and distorted vocals. “Wouldn’t you like to spend some time alone?” he shouts cyclically.
The following duo, NAKED (debut album Zone out on the 30th of September via LuckyMe Records) are an exciting new duo, oozing with irrefutable, immediate sex appeal. Their music combines the more extreme aspects of electronic music, somewhat reminiscent of breakcore artist Igorrr with moody, washed-out soundscapes and almost Björk/Tori-Amos-covering-Slayer’s-Raining–Blood-esque vocalisations. They are well rehearsed and play dramatically with the lighting as they power through a short set featuring songs off their upcoming release.
After a short wait, the quartet take to the performance area, two low steps up from the floor onto a wooden platform before an ornate sculpted tablature. Merzbow does some final checks on his equipment, then it begins. Some collected sounds are played together in a swelling chord, to be sustained through the whole performance. They sound ethereal and angelic, but at the same time, lo-fi and rough. After the introduction, these sounds are rarely heard outside of the softer moments. Pándi, Gustafsson and Moore (electronics/baritone saxophone, percussion, and battered electric guitar respectively) begin adding to the soundscape before Merzbow’s guitar-inspired contact microphone sound generator complimentarily barrages the audience’s eardrums with noise, edited and warped by the vast multitude of pedals (though not enough to rival the collection of My Bloody Valentine’s Kevin Shields).
Not much can be said to describe the music itself, it sounds so far from most things. Fans of harsher Merzbow releases such as Oersted, Artificial Invagination and Green Wheels may have been disappointed by the softer timbres, but it is only until after the captivating performance that one can see how well executed it all was. Pándi’s drumming, though excellent on releases such as the threnody-for-culled-quails album, Annica and Arijigoku, is even more dynamic and intense. Gustaffson’s pained baritone saxophone wails similarly to that of Naked City’s alto saxophonist John Zorn on Napalm Death’s 2012 Utilitarian. Moore noodles away in the background looking like a shy, sheepish teenager behind his shoegazey fringe. Merzbow provides the backdrop that ties it all together. Tonight demonstrates, to those who will give it an open mind, that noise is more than just noise, free improvisation is more than just free improvisation. The quartet play in tandem, birthing a premeditated assault from their tools.
This Merzbow/Moore/Gustafsson/Pándi: Quartet article was written by Fabian Basker, a GIGsoup contributor