Merzbow, “Merzbient” 12xCD

August 1, 2011
By Travis Bird

Merzbient is indeed an apt title for Soleilmoon’s 12-CD box set, because only in the context of his concurrent harsh noise output could this be considered anything close to the “ambient” music we’re comfortable with today.  Rather, Masami Akita’s mode here is more clatter and din, using objects, acoustic instruments, and homemade sound generators (along with synths) to form slices of bizarre but richly sculpted ambience, which is to say, sound environments.   Merzbient was released in 2010 after Akita’s discovery of a box of unreleased late-‘80s material that offered an intriguing parallel to his harsh-noise live shows of the time.  These tapes were made with a wider array of instruments, including a very large homemade box strung with piano wires and bowed.  The resulting set is practically medieval—an engaging, sprawling, raw textured tapestry.

Juxtapositions are key here to crafting these rude, fluorescent ambiences, and absent the now-ubiquitous loops and other generative means, I have to assume Merzbow is using overdubs to create them.  Even if this is the case, he seems to constantly be doing something, which keeps the pieces very intense.  The clatter of what almost sounds like demented cooking utensils, reminiscent of Z’EV’s auto-excited metal objects, is paired with swirling modulated radio static.  Lasery synth crescendos jive with insistent, dumb hammering.  Certain passages (the bookends of disc 5) are more musical, starting out with a heavily struck string and ending with a long passage of toy piano.

The discs progress in what seems to be a thematic sequence as opposed to a chronological one, with more instruments entering gradually, including giant string instrument noodling and dissonant accordion chords (disc 7, second track).  Merzbow resolutely refuses to “play” these instruments in any traditional sense, and as a result his brutal, animal intensity mirrors that of his harsh noise output.  Some of the pounding abstract textures recall contemporaries, like early- or mid-period Illusion of Safety.  The physical clatter in many passages is reminiscent of the more recent mechanized music of folks like Eli Keszler and Ashley Paul, and his maniacal bowing (see disc 10) foreshadows C. Spencer Yeh, showing just how much territory Merzbow was covering in these tapes.

The production also offers a few clues to Merzbow’s preoccupations at the time: throughout every disc, there’s plenty of reverb, mostly digital-sounding, that adds a nice layer of atmosphere to the proceedings and make these pieces sound hall- or cave-like and cold, as if they’re coming from the boiler room of a hospital.  And another factor that can’t be ignored is the unique presence of tape, which is essential to the sound of these pieces.  Tape hiss, compression, and crispy high end—these all gorgeously compliment the atmosphere.

Certainly, especially taken in such a large dose—and the CDs are all pretty damn full—this is occasionally difficult listening, monotonous to these modern, loop-hardened ears.  But what makes even the outermost passages fascinating is Akita’s sense of pacing and transition, and I think that if there’s a musical “lesson” to be learned from this, it’s here.  His pacing is comfortable and somehow very logical, which I think is an essential clue to Merzbow’s appeal—sonic innovation is one thing, but something about these improvisations just makes sense.

I could describe this for hours, but the real question is, how essential is this set?  At this point one could ask the question of almost any Merzbow release, and unfortunately, due to his vast discography, volume doesn’t lend the importance that it would for most others (check the legendary 50-CD box set on Extreme).  Merzbow himself seems to be the arbiter—he found the box of tapes, and so out they come, and fortunately the set does offer an important alternate perspective on Merzbow’s activity at the time.  For their part, Soleilmoon seem to throw up their hands—there are no liner notes or criticism to speak of, pointing perhaps to the impossibility of assessing Merzbow’s huge amount of music, but also to the defiantly abstract, visceral nature of the work.

Soleilmoon Recordings

8/10

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