By Hans Morgenstern
By Joseph Hess
By Peter Gilstrap
By Julia Burch
By Jeremy Essig
By Nathan Smith
By Julie Seabaugh
By Julie Seabaugh
Once upon a time, "extreme" denoted something far removed from the norms and mores of society. That was before the marketing experts realized the selling power of the word and co-opted it to promote certain genres of music, sports, movies, video games, militia groups, carbonated beverages and an entire network of professional wrestling. Like the goatee (which once was considered "extreme facial hair") and tattoos (also a former symbol of "extremeness"), the word "extreme" itself has been assimilated and adopted by the very masses that once shunned these trappings as "too beatnik" or "too garage mechanic."
Now you can't swing a cat without hitting some doofus sporting a nose ring, an "Austin 3:16" shirt, a barbed-wire tattoo around his biceps and a Surge in hand. These people are intimately familiar with the Insane Clown Posse's body of work, and they often own several camouflage garments and perhaps a Gilligan hat or a pair of voluminous cargo pants. They are "extreme" and "in your face" and a host of other macho-bullshit phrases they picked up from TV, and if you laugh at them, they'll scowl menacingly and tell you to "know your role."
Ignore them, for they are harmless. Their "extreme lifestyle" is a sham. Their "extreme clothing" was purchased at Old Navy; their "extreme music" is available at Wal-Mart; their "extreme attitude" was developed from surviving the mean streets of Maplewood. They are a marketing strategist's wet dream come to life; they have disposable income and will buy anything if they believe it will make them more "extreme." They have been brainwashed by commercials and MTV and a steady soundtrack of rap/metal-hybrid bands that typifies the Madison Avenue version of "extreme." They are paper tigers, and they are as innocuous as a Scientologist or devotee of Young Country or any other cult member.
The truth is, the most extreme man in the entertainment business is neither Shaggy 2 Dope nor Stone Cold Steve Austin. He is Masami Akita, a long-haired, soft-spoken, bespectacled Japanese man in his 30s who wears a lot of black and looks like a well-paid artist or perhaps an architect. Akita is in reality Merzbow, a.k.a. the Pornographer, and he creates vast fields of streaming noise that engulf the listener in their roaring soundscapes. For 18 years Merzbow has been working on his personal blend of noise terrorism, and to commemorate his prodigious output, he recently released a boxed set of more than 90 CDs. Supplies are quite limited, but then, so is demand. Merzbow's sound is produced using a wide array of ring modulators, synthe (sic) racks, filter banks and his own homemade "noise electronics" instruments. No drums. No guitars.
It is electronica, but not the block-rocking beats of the Chemical Brothers or the sound collage of Bomb the Bass. It is the sound of electronica being tortured, vivisected and reconfigured by a smiling man who is part mathematician, part scientist and part genius. It is not the sort of music you unwind to. It is not party music. Merzbow would play well in St. Louis, because there's no way you can dance to it. It is uneasy listening. It is something you endure. The beauty of the Merzbow is the beauty of being repeatedly, and with great force, struck in the face -- not by a series of assailants or blows but by the same assailant using the same blow, the initial punch being delivered over and over at the same angle with the same force at the same interval with the same intent every time the blow lands: to transform you from someone who desires only those too-brief moments of not being struck into someone who comprehends and savors the subtle technique of the brute force that is relentlessly effortlessly furiously coldly passionately mechanically calmly emphatically pummeling you into oblivion.
What's most remarkable about Merzbow is that he is not operating in a vacuum. He is just one of dozens of Japanese artists who create beautifully unlistenable albums of overwhelming noise. Though the audience for power electronics is quite small, fans of the genre are devoted enough that they will pay exorbitant amounts to acquire the very limited and hard-to-find albums their favorites release on any number of small, obscure labels (oh, how we pay). Through Web sites, word-of-mouth, mail order and friend-of-a-friend taping, power electronics flourishes in the shadows of the music industry. It is a fringe element that can never be assimilated, or adapted for use in a Mountain Dew commercial, because of its brutality and limited appeal. What follows is a list of the best of Japanese noise, a handbook of sorts for the new extreme. Be forewarned that many of these releases will damage your stereo and your speakers if played at a high volume, but the physical side effects are well worth the risk (nausea, vertigo, general disorientation). Iggy Pop once postulated that his body chemistry had been altered by constant exposure to the sound of guitars and his own amplified voice, and research into sonics has proved that certain frequencies can be harmful to internal organs and tissues. Most of these bands operate at levels that meet or exceed those dangerous frequencies. It's part of the thrill, but it can really mess you up if you don't take precautions.