On Saturday 19 April, three of Londonist's bravest aural explorers arrived at ULU to undergo some serious sonic punishment in the form of Satori, Sutcliffe Jugend and the unmistakeable king of Japanese noise, Merzbow. For fun, naturally; people are strange, as Jim Morrison once said. Whilst Time Out placed the event in their "Rock, pop & dance" section, we assume that's only because the "My Cock's On Fire" section was full. Strange is probably also a good way to begin to describe the first opening act we saw, having sadly arrived too late to see Satori; let's just say that Sutcliffe Jugend aren't going to be profiled in the Mail on Sunday any day soon. The band's sound is dislocating, alienating and profoundly unsettling, not to mention so loud that merely standing in the audience became a test of endurance.
A power electronics project named after Peter "Yorkshire Ripper" Sutcliffe and fronted by Kevin Tomkins, Sutcliffe Jugend had no traditional rhythmic structure to speak of, with Tomkins' vitriolic vocals spitting over the harsh hiss of static and bass-heavy rumbling produced by collaborator Paul Taylor. This formidable duo made the most lo-fi and primitive black metal demos we'd ever heard sound like a Mozart sonata by comparison.
The band began the set by layering the sound of a clarinet with a delay effect into a cacophonous mass over which Tomkins screamed, at times with two microphones. The lyrics were aggressive, with lashings of sexual hatred ("were you surprised when he wore your mother's clothes?") and violence, along with unhealthy doses of paranoia ("they're shutting it away"). We were reminded, thematically and stylistically, of extreme metallers Stalaggh, who recorded inmates in a mental asylum and used their demented howling as vocals.
Despite (or maybe because of) being so inflammatory and filled with rage, a Sutcliffe Jugend concert would probably easily work as, say, a performance at the Tate Modern. So much of the power in their performance, however, comes from having to consume it in a rock, pop & dance context as a gig. In a gallery as an installation, it would be castrated. Because of the strong performance art aspect, the audience composition therefore wasn't a surprise—a mixture of old punks, some metalheads, arty Shoreditch types and a variety of others all wishing to experience an act that goes beyond music to something more visceral in its unpleasantness.
Tomkins and Taylor left the stage after about an hour, but purposely left the deafening feedback loops running, giving the audience no respite, as well as giving the sound engineers a hell of a job to try and stop the noise. After a quick break where we repeatedly thanked the powers that be for the invention of decent earplugs, Merzbow took the stage.
Merzbow's recordings and live performances envelop the listener like a sea of noise, in more recent outings punctuated by a slowed-down jackhammer-like chugging beat. Strands of violent ululations and squeals rose out of that sea like malicious waves. It was an intensely challenging listening experience that left us feeling empty and shellshocked. Our attempts to formulate descriptions of the sound yielded phrases like "the sound of the panic inside the mind of a priest who has just lost faith in God", which now that we think of it, would make an excellent Striborg song title. Masami Akita, standing over two laptops, was completely in control of the horrific aural assault he was unleashing on the audience, like a sadistic high priest of noise terror. The imagery on many of his albums explores bondage and S&M, a fascination which clearly extends to the sonic relationship he shares with his audience. If Merzbow is the punisher, then we were all masochists by not only enduring, but also paying for and enjoying this experience.
Merzbow's set was fully instrumental in that it featured no discernible vocals. The multiple layers and forms in the noise functioned as the structure in Akita's work, comparable to brush technique in an abstract painting. At the abrupt end of the set, hands in the audience rose and clapped, accompanied by a hoarse cheer that few could actually claim to hear.
Whilst it's hard to think of a more extreme form of music than Sutcliffe Jugend (and its infamous relative, Whitehouse), Merzbow can actually be cathartically soothing, especially live. Being crushed under a heavy noise onslaught from a massive sound system can never measure up to headphones or anything anyone sane has at home. Sutcliffe Jugend's relentless violence is terrifying and harrowing, but Merzbow's abstract noise can be anything you want it to be. The moment the sound begins is incredibly harsh, but once you overcome the initial shock, it can be a wonderful place to lose yourself. As Whitehouse's William Bennett once barked in their song "Mindphaser", "You like that, don't you?" Strangely, we do.
By Jo Tacon, Kai Hoffman and Dave Knapik.