Nearly 40 years ago, poet Ted Joans compared the sound of Albert Ayler's trio to someone screaming "fuck" in St. Pat's cathedral. Ever since, "noise" has been tagged the province of vandals, pranksters, and holy fools. (Ayler may have been the latter, but he was no one-dimensional shrieker. He was capable of moments of almost obscene lyricism and introspection.) Fixated on by critics like Richard Meltzer and Lester Bangs in the '70s, noise was midwifed by '80s pigfuck-theorist 'zines like Conflict and Forced Exposure and carries on in things like David Keenan's asinine "noise primer" in The Wire a few months back.
According to received wisdom, noise is a bulwark against pop, a venue to be scatological in public, a rent in the social fabric. It's also shockingly middlebrow, very white, and masculine to the point of camp. (Keenan described noise grandpa Merzbow's guitarmy recordings as a "series of endless money shots.") Its anti-PC slant usually masks a pathology no deeper than the desire to act like a seventh-grader in public, but occasionally spills into real fascism or nihilism. Needless to say, it's very insular.
Lurking at the end of Keenan's primer was a record from Michigan trio Wolf Eyes. Children of that '80s moment when the 'zine/tape-trading network united the disparate noise tribes, Wolf Eyes exist in a time where, bizarrely, noise is "hot." At some point in the late '90s, a lot of hardcore fans realized they had pushed the old engine about as hard as it would go, and when it began belching smoke they happily embraced the clatter. The noise scene in 2004 is a bit like terrorist cells: only vaguely united by ideology, fractious, and connected by the Internet. But Lightning Bolt, Animal Collective, Black Dice, and others have crawled out of the limited-edition cassette playpen and into the light of something like acclaim. And now here's Wolf Eyes, a commercial proposition on the level of Inuit folk songs, releasing a record on Sub Pop.
When I reviewed Wolf Eyes' Dread EP, an anonymous fan spent three times as many words as I'd written telling me how I got it all wrong. But whether I accurately captured the poetry of Midwestern skate ramps and scrap heaps or not, dread is the right word for it all. Over dozens of mostly nonessential releases, the "Wolf Eyes sound" has come to be defined as a queasy, seasick rumble. Drum machines are abused until they make the ones Sly Stone used on There's a Riot Goin' On sound like Clyde Stubblefield (James Brown's funkiest drummer) on three pots of coffee. Feedback scalds the ears while sub-low-pressure loosens the bowels. Calling Burned Mind the rawest Sub Pop release since those early Mudhoney and Tad singles is like saying Ebola is the worst disease since the flu. It sounds like a screwed and chopped version of a badly dubbed copy of Black Flag's "Damaged (1)." Like Ayler's obscene intimacy, Wolf Eyes are abject, almost preverbal. If ambient and shoegaze are a return to the womb and Merzbow-style extreme noise terror is alpha male, then Burned Mind is a motherless child. It's a connection that might register uncomfortably with Wolf Eyes' fan base were they more interested in introspection than shouting "faggot" on a crowded message board.
Meanwhile, on the other side of not quite ready for prime time, Sunburned Hand of the Man are—take your pick—free folk, nü-jam, or "New Weird America" (there's that guy Keenan and The Wire again). SHOTM are far more "musical" than Wolf Eyes, but that's always going to be relative. Imagine an MC5 where the Sun Ra influence was more superstructural than surface, with the odor of hairy old Krautrock hanging in the air. Bass is more prominent than in Wolf Eyes, but no less physical or important to the overall effect. On Rare Wood (Spirit of Orr), it provides a (very) loose structure around which the group (16 members on this release alone) spin concentric orbits of sound and fury that sometimes collide in a Fourth of July explosion. Drums alternate between straight-ahead grooves and aimless "tribal" pitter-pat. "Camel Backwards" revs up a bone-shaking groove hanging onto its Stone Age funk by its fingernails while brass and noise strafe like lightning. Everything is fed through such ridiculous, in-the-red levels of echo and static that it sounds like the missing link between Stockhausen-style electro- acoustics and the outermost journeys of the Grateful Dead. Except SHOTM's nominal leader, John Moloney, goes on so much about how "labels like 'jam' and 'improv' . . . make my ghetto bones go cold," he'd probably balk at such a suggestion.
However much they want to hug you, and however much they deny it, SHOTM are hippies. All the photos I've seen of SHOTM have been sweaty spectacles of almost homoerotic revelry. But my own experiences with "noise culture"—as a fan and as a critic—have revealed a hostility to difference that's pure locker room, no matter how they dress it up. Bands are not their fans, of course, and in their own weird ways, SHOTM and Wolf Eyes are screwing with noise's strictures. SHOTM attempt a radical refusenik democracy in a genre where every man is an island with a ring modulator. Wolf Eyes mass-release one of the most emotionally cauterized records I've ever heard. Maybe the howl at the heart of horrible noise isn't get away from me but is anybody out there? after all.
All of which makes this stuff sound far more po-faced than it actually is. Wolf Eyes, in particular, are a fucking hoot, in love with all of metal's pomp and gore, with titles like "Urine Burn" giving the game away. Cradle of Filth are funnier, of course, with no stale indie-boy irony and plenty of female fans. Like SHOTM's sweaty penile catharsis, noise in general sports an invisible "no girls allowed" sign. ("I know girls who love them" is the new "I have plenty of black friends.") With noise culture, it's sometimes like the nerds have taken over the frat house, and it's not an edifying sight. If they ever remake Lord of the Flies, Wolf Eyes should be first in the Rolodex.
Wolf Eyes play Chop Suey with Comets on Fire, Rubber O Cement, and Smegma at 9 p.m. Mon., Nov. 15. $10 adv.