Fri, Jun 27, 2014 - Page 11 News List

Live Wire: Dismantling the zeitgeist

By Joe Henley  /  Contributing reporter

Performances by Torturing Nurse push not only sonic but visual boundaries as well, testing the limits of the audience in ways they never imagined.

Photos courtesy of Cao Junjun

Mike Shinoda of Linkin Park recently said rock isn’t influencing the zeitgeist. Why mention Linkin Park (and I mean ever)? Bear with me. Where do you go if rock isn’t moving the proverbial cultural yardsticks? You’ve got to get weird. All the way weird. I’m talking beyond Zorn and Zappa levels of oddness. When was the last time rock did anything but get bloated, fat and boring? When did it last do anything but suckle the fat teats of corporate radio? Who knows? I certainly don’t. By and large I gave up, tuned out and dropped out when Nickelback broke big. It has been all downhill from there. In a perfect world, the Melvins and Melt Banana would be the biggest bands in the known universe. But that’s a world we’ll never know.

So what are we to do? Just lay back with the headphones on and a glazed expression of acceptance beaming from bovine eyes? Hardly. The answer is what rock once was, or rather what it could have been if it hadn’t become big business. Let’s just settle on what it tried to be before the cultural colonialist suits came long. Pure rebellion instead of all this yeah, yeah, yeah, ha-ha, baby, baby, baby, arena rock jock jam mom and dad fist pumping. No heart, no soul. Radio Nosferatu. The undead that won’t just go curl up in a nice dank grave somewhere out of the way.

The answer isn’t even punk. There’s life in the old girl yet. Plenty of bands still waving the middle finger. But that digit was long ago co-opted by pop culture. Our greedy white paws have proven themselves adept time and again at strangling the danger out of anything that dares to bare its pearly fangs. That’s why the future — the only one worth living in, anyway — is noise.

What noise does, exactly, is reduce everything we know as music — everything comfortable, mundane, forgettable and marketable — to an absurdity. An uncomfortable, calamitous blast of reeking miserable humanist truth. Noise confronts in a way that which we traditionally regard as music never could. It berates us with the unwelcome, the unexpected, the unnerving.

Noise artists are also prolific in ways commercial music makers will never be. Unbound by the monotonous necessities of the corporate world, they put out self-dubbed tapes and CD-Rs of harsh feedback, looped pedal effects, and all manner of the grinding, the grating and the viscerally schizophrenic. The most prolific artists of the genre, such as Merzbow, have hundreds of releases to their name. Shanghai’s Torturing Nurse (虐待護士) has nearly 300. The harsh noise duo is regarded by some as the founder of the Shanghai noise scene, and even that of all of China, a fact that half of that pairing, Cao Junjun, aka Junky, couldn’t be less enamored with.

“Torturing Nurse may be China’s first pure harsh noise groups, but I do not care,” he says candidly.

Despite a near complete disregard for recognition, Junky curates the semi-regular NOIShanghai series of gigs, attended, by anywhere between 10 and 30 people. The largest crowd he’s ever performed for, by his own estimate, is somewhere around 200. That’s the noise scene, in a nutshell. Small, almost militantly introverted, strange. Watch the documentary People Who Do Noise, about the experimental music scene in Portland, Oregon, and you’ll get a clearer picture of the kind of person drawn to this extreme end of outsider art. They see things differently than you and I, let’s put it that way. Then again, maybe they’re not so different. Maybe they just have a lower tolerance for normal. Even Junky got his start in mainstream rock bands. It wasn’t to last, however.

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