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Recently a friend of mine asked me how people tell the difference between good and bad harsh noise music. A fair question as for non-listeners of the genre a top 10 list of the best noise albums must seem like a list of top 10 TV static screens or a list of top 10 loudest power drills. However, nearly 40 years into his career Japanese noise musician Merzbow has released almost 300 albums where some are considered absolute staples of the genre such as Pulse Demon and Venereology (not to mention his discography with numerous collaborators) whereas many more fall into forgotten obscurity.
This newest album titled Achromatic is another collaboration, this time with the group HEXA. HEXA are an industrial/dark ambient group featuring Jamie Stewart of cult indie experimentalists Xiu Xiu and Lawrence English. HEXA’s most recent output was a sort of soundtracking of David Lynch’s factory photography. The pair created music that was droning and mechanical, creating lifeless soundscapes that perfectly fit Lynch’s photography.
The title Achromatic itself is a good hint of how the album will sound. Western music typically is made up of twelve semitones and is the basis for all our scales and chords. These twelve notes together are known as the chromatic scale. What Merzbow is doing with this title is giving the listener fair warning that what they’re getting into is a piece of music that is devoid of melody and rhythm and is reduced to something that is purely textural and, thanks to HEXA, rather atmospheric.
The album is split into two parts. The first side Merzhex being produced by HEXA and the second half with the track Hexamer was produced by Merzbow. This choice was quite an interesting move as it gives each a distinctive sound and it allows the listener to see how each artist interprets the work. The core of this release is made up of a few elements: the sonic chaos of Merzbow’s feedbacking harsh noise and HEXA’s low droning synthesisers and distant industrial sounds.
Despite being a noise project Achromatic is basked in atmosphere (at times it sounds like field recordings are being used) and it’s this atmosphere that makes the album so interesting. The combination of the two artists sounds complement each other greatly and throughout listening I find myself imagining all sorts of scenes and environments. HEXA’s droning dark ambient elements form the base of the whole sound, creating an atmosphere and giving the music a sense of slow progression. Merzbow’s signature noise elevates the atmosphere to something truly otherworldly, at times it becomes quite hard to even tell the different elements apart as they combine to create a maelstrom of blaring sound. The combination of these sounds gives the album an ice cold and impenetrable vibe.
Merzhex 2 sounds like being trapped in a huge glacier in the arctic. While trapped inside you can hear the winds batter off the sides and the slow rumbling bass synthesisers imitating the cracking, groaning sound of the glacier moving slowly across the Arctic. Merzhex 3 conjures up the image of a desolate and unforgiving frozen wasteland. H.P. Lovecraft’s ‘At the Mountains of Madness’ came to mind when listening to this track; a story where a group of Antarctic explorers discover a mountain range in a treacherous environment even larger than the Himalayas. In further discovery, they find a mysterious and ancient alien city where the explorers would discover secrets that would lead them to death or utter madness.
Since there is nothing else to go off except from basic titles this album is infinitely interpretative and allows the listeners mind to run free as they are engulfed by the cold sounds of buzzing and cacophonous electronics
Reviewing industrial and harsh noise music can be a fruitless activity. For a start, trying to describe the musical qualities of something devoid of musicality and essentially being a form of anti-music is slightly pointless and honestly, a wee bit daft. Noise also tends to be highly divisive and the idea that some people actively enjoy and even try to review, some would find laughable. To some listeners, the experience can be cathartic and mesmerising but to others, it’s simply one thing: not music, and in a way, they are correct. It would be untrue for me to claim that Achromatic is a brilliantly composed piece of music.
However, what Merzbow and HEXA have released here makes for an engaging listen that also works as a blank canvas to derive your own meaning from. Or maybe you’ll just think it sounds like a big loud pile of nonsense, either way, the combination of each artists sound and the excellent production make this one of the more stands out releases in Merzbow’s gargantuan discography and if you have an open mind then it’s well worth checking out.