Out here in the Midwest, there's always a certain number of fascinating things going on under the surface. I've known many people to deride this part of the country, but I contend that you just have to dig a little bit to find plenty of great things. The noise scene is one of these things. It sure isn't for everyone, but here in St. Louis and in many other cities there are small albeit dedicated followings for this kind of music. Here, we have two venues very friendly to the scene: the Lemp and Camp Concentration (underneath Apop Records). I've been to the Lemp several times with friends or to see friends perform and it's always quite fun.
Since I started reviews, I've wanted to write about a show there, and now I'm finally ready to do it. This weekend is NoisefeSTL V, the fifth annual instance of bringing together noise musicians from across the Midwest to a single venue for a long weekend. I attended the first night, and I'd like to write about what I saw. I'll start by describing the bigger picture and then each performance and my reactions. I'll give each act a score.
Event: NoisefeSTL V (Day One)
Venue: Lemp Neighborhood Arts Center
Location: St. Louis, Missouri
Date: 17 October 2008
If you aren't familiar with the noise scene, it deserves a certain amount of explanation. The scene is dominated young musicians that tend to be male and a part of the counterculture. Most of the acts are soloists, but duos and collaborations are frequent. Full bands of three or four or more are the exception, and they tend to be more of a structured noise-rock thing, like Einstürzende Neubauten or Neptune. Many of the musicians simply have huge pedals boards that they use to process and filter whatever their input is. Simple sine-wave generating oscillators can be found right next to microphones, home-made percussion, guitars and bass guitars (often fairly maligned and atonally tuned), and the occasional keyboard or synthesizer. Signals are frequently overdriven and distorted. Tonality is normally absent and the volume levels are very high. (Earplugs are a necessity).
Most artists work just with sound, and if they vocalize, there are no audible words. Those that do sing or speak generally process and distort their vocals; the subject matter is diverse but often is based on social commentary and rarely just about relationships and the standard matter of pop songs. The overall sonic quality is very harsh, and the artists frequently get very into their music. It is not uncommon to see musicians jumping around and lashing out, occasionally even hitting each other, walls, or the audience (which, at the Lemp, stands around the artist at a distance of just a few feet without any sort of elevation or officially designated "stage"). There is usually no consistent beat to the noise, but many audience members focus on the beat frequencies of atonalities or just whatever they feel like and end up moving their bodies in any number of ways along with their notion of the beat of the music. Often, audience members' gyrations are out of sync with each other, but there is more consistency when things get intense and people start to move their bodies around more.
Crowd sizes vary; the Lemp has a dedicated base with several people who seem to be around just about every night. An official city document above the door to the place claims the fire code limit to be 70 people; I'd estimate at any given moment at this night of NoisefeSTL that number was not exceeded, but probably nearly so. Throughout the night there were probably a hundred people there.
Also: the whole night was just $6, and they had coffee, awesome lentil-butternut squash soup, and a few other dishes all for free. This was just the first night of three plus an afternoon and three workshops, so there is much more to come (that I will not be able to write about). To the artists:
Porcelain Dorsal Fin (from Milwaukee, Wisconsin): This artist used a didgeridoo as his input into a series of effects pedals. His performance was short and consisted of a lot of thick noise and distorted screaming. I liked the didgeridoo, but I felt like the sound he produced wasn't very interesting.
Unknown (I can't figure out who this was): This artist simply used a microphone to generate massive feedback from his amplifier. I think he was playing with his input jack to generate some more noise. I was not particularly impressed; the passion was there but this is the type of thing that literally anyone can do.
Peter J. Woods (from Milwaukee, Wisconsin): This guy started out by criticizing a few of the musicians from last year's NoisefeSTL, then explained the point of his set, which was something along the lines of "do your own thing" and "we're all family here, and if you don't like, it's just how it is". He started by reading some lyrics, then also making some very pleasant ambient drones on a bass guitar. Gradually both the vocals and the bass got harsher and harsher until he was thrashing on his bass strings and screaming "there is romance in this" over and over. Eventually he set his bass down and screamed his last lyric with every bit of his body that he could. Very intense.
Ghost Ice (from St. Louis): I've seen him before, and he hasn't let me down yet. He uses a series of pedals in a big cabinet and has a keyboard (or maybe just oscillators?) and a mic for inputs. It seemed like he was vocalizing, but because of his processing, there was no apparent correlation between his vocals and what came out of the speakers, which is a weird thing to observe. He got a lot of sounds and was all over the place (in a good way). He had some good dynamics and several layers going on.
Boar/ARU (from Iowa): These guys were a very intense duo. One had a drum machine and a feedback loop along with several pedals. He also had single drum that he used near the end of their performance. The other mostly vocalized (at one point putting the mic in his mouth) and maybe had some oscillators. He got really into it and started jumping around quite a bit, hitting some audience members at one point. Their noise had some movement to it, though. There was a building-up, and the beats from the drum machine and drum meant the audience had further incentive to get into it. I dug it.
Charlie (from St. Louis): He started with some vocal processing but then began focusing more on his keyboard and the effect pedals hooked up to that. It seemed that he used something to keep some of the keys depressed so he could fiddle with knobs with both hands and modulate more effects. Near the end he added some more distorted vocals to the mix. I liked parts of what I heard, but a lot of the middle section just seemed like jumbled blurts that didn't seem to have any connection. The result was that I'm not sure that any of the effects being modulated were really given a change to show themselves. I really liked some of the vocals and sounds earlier in his performance, though.
Dave Stone and Danny McClain (from ?): These guys were really a avant-garde free jazz band (if any label fits). They are a duo, sax and drums. They played a very frenetic extended piece. The saxophonist would just go all over the place and wail as he saw fit, while the drummer kept a constant clatter of snare and toms with only some hi-hat. I thought their energy was great, and I liked that they weren't on quite the same spectrum as most of the rest of the performers.
Eric Hall (from St. Louis): He did something of an ambient dub performance with sampled loops. It started very ambient, just warm tones, but he had a drum machine come in at one point. That's where the dub qualities came in – the snare had huge reverb. He also had a DJ's CD player and would "scratch" it and play with and process that sound to add some nice touches. Near the end, either his drum machine or some other source got some extra kicks and he was making some rougher noise, but it was still fairly warm. (It reminded me of the noises in Radiohead's "Palo Alto", if that helps.) He kept it up for a while, but the beats kept the audience swaying. I liked it a lot, and I appreciated that he opted for more pleasant tones instead of the harsher tones favored by most of the other artists.
Ben Allen (from ?): His most interesting feature was some sort of sound generator that appeared to be similar to a theremin (one of my favorite instruments, much like the ondes Martenot). His version worked such that his hand's nearness to an antenna jutting out of the box controlled either pitch or some distortion effect. He must have also had some other means of generation. He was alright but mostly kind of lost me in his continual, messy noise. I liked the instrument but once he stopped playing with it as much his dynamics were lost.
Overall, this was fun. I'm happy to be able to say a few words about these artists, because they are at a level of underground that simply does not ever get reported on. I was sad that there were another four artists or so listed on the tentative schedule that did not perform. Nothing was announced about them at the show.
Anyway, if you like the avant-garde and are into sonic experimentation, check this scene out. Many of these artists have MySpace accounts, they usually play shows fairly frequently, and many have highly-independent albums and singles out. If you catch this post in time, try to catch the show tonight or one of the ones tomorrow.
Overall score: B