When it comes to noise music, no artist can hold a candle to Masami Akita, known by his musical pseudonym of Merzbow, both in terms of innovation and influence. Inspired by the infamous Metal Machine Music, a 1975 album released by Lou Reed that featured over an hour’s worth of the dissonant melodies and pulsating rhythms of modulated feedback and guitar effects, Merzbow sought to apply Reed’s incorporation of drone and industrial music with a similar emphasis on both melody and rhythm, whilst expanding this approach to include feedback and distortion from sources besides guitar modulations. Such a forward-thinking employment of abrasive soundscapes would later prove to pave the way for the development and acceptance of noise music as a genre, with Merzbow now being recognised as a figurehead for the genre and as a representative of Japanoise, an umbrella term used to describe the flourishing experimental and harsh underground music scenes of Japan. As an artist, Akita embodies freedom, not solely in his free-form and anarchical approach to composing, but even in the themes and philosophies recurrent in his work, ranging from the sexual freedom of BDSM and, specifically, Japanese bondage to animal liberation, with the musician often being noted for the vegan stickers displayed on the laptop he uses at live shows. Not only has Merzbow released some of the most pivotal and commercially successful noise recordings of all time, such as 1996’s Pulse Demon, which is routinely cited as a classic album within the genre, but he has also expanded his craft to encompass aspects of a myriad of styles, from progressive rock to electronic music and from metal to jazz. Moreover, outside of his prolific solo discography, Merzbow has collaborated with many fellow genre-defining artists, particularly in the metal scene with the likes of Sunn O))), Boris and Full of Hell, whilst also having branched out to work with artists of various stylistic backgrounds, from legendary New York rock band Sonic Youth to the eclectic avant-garde jazz stylings of Sun Ra. Indeed, say what you like about his music, but few could criticise Merzbow’s work ethic. In fact, the man is so productive that even I, as someone who is enthralled by his work, often find his new material to have slipped through the cracks, with his latest project, Aodron, only having come to my attention two months after its release. On this album, there is certainly an air of some of Akita’s previous work to be found in the crevices of mechanical colour across these five tracks, but Merzbow is never an artist to tread water. Indeed, the walls of harsh noise that Merzbow has built throughout his extensive career seldom stand for long, with the musician continuously deconstructing such stylings to build with bricks of new styles, ideas and philosophies. As such, the industrial soundscapes of Aodron may be built within a similar foundation to that of previous Merzbow projects, but the musical sensibilities employed by the artist are as diverse as ever, creating for another fascinating exploration of the place of rhythm, and occasional smatterings of melody, in contemporary harsh noise music.
Despite being the shortest cut on Aodron, the opening track, Ao, Pt. 1 is amongst the most impressive of this new batch of compositions in terms of the vibrant yet abrasive way in which the kaleidoscopic collisions of oscillation and distortion are layered, with Merzbow crafting one of his most definitive pieces amongst his recent output. Being in the post-laptop era of Merzbow we find ourselves in currently, it’s appropriate that Aodron should open with a vivid, squelching synth that fluctuates between rhythmic stabs, whilst a softer and brighter humming drone cushions the soundscape. Particularly thanks to the warm and crisp production value, the result is a strangely serene setting for the introduction to one of Masami Akita’s modern HNW works. Of course, this tranquility is fleeting, as some murmurs of bubbling bass crescendo, in order to warn the listener to brace themselves before the screeching of Merzbow’s signature feedback slices through the initial composure of the composition. The searing distortion teeters between staticky buzzing and piercing shrieks, sounding like the cracking of someone’s screaming voice as they endure some sadomasochistic roleplay. Set against the disciplined drones, the spiralling helicopter effects and the rumbling dissonance of distorted synths, Ao, Pt. 1 is textured in a vigorous and dramatic fashion that makes its six-minute duration breeze by, along with the swirling soundscapes of ever-changing sonic clutter, like an auditory representation of what is displayed on the Aodron album cover. Ao, Pt. 2 continues the coiling oscillation of the opening track, this time with loops of contradicting wavelengths competing against one another, as some sporadic clangours establish the piece’s rhythm, which seesaws between erratic bursts and a more consistent and conventional phrasing. Sans the oddly calming backdrop of the previous cut, the shrieking distortion throughout this track is notably more discordant when contending with the industrial rumbles and splutters of spacey synths. Nonetheless, whilst the colliding sounds may be dissonant, they certainly are not as abrasive as much of Merzbow’s other work, with these first two pieces representing somewhat more of an organic approach for the artist.
The three remaining tracks on Aodron exhibit a more familiar attitude from Merzbow, evoking the soundscapes of bustling factories through jarring jumbles of blaring bangs and oppressive peals. In this sense, these pieces are not quite as remarkable as the opening two tracks, but they nevertheless convey some refreshing ideas for the artist, which are all rounded out effectively by this record’s exceptional mastering. Ao, Pt. 3 resumes the luscious textures of the first two tracks in this trio. The sonic scenery on display throughout this cut is impressively diverse, ranging from the sweeps of howling wind towards the front of the track to the squeaky robotic malfunctioning towards its backend. What’s more, the ending section is particularly striking, as the humming backdrop cuts out, leaving room for the scratchy squarks of synth sounds and the industrial gurgling to battle it out with no background noise to interfere. Tetsu To is most definitely a significant cut in the tracklisting, courtesy of its orientation around the lower frequencies of Merzbow’s sonic explorations, which is especially conspicuous given the heavy emphasis on electronic shrieks and screeches found across much of the rest of the record. Similarly, the album’s closing track, Melo, has its own quirk, that being the prominent placement of melody, and specifically harmonies, in its musical soundscapes. Whereas much of Aodron is centred around the impact of pulsating rhythms and jerky bursts of noise, Melo sees the hisses and hums gradually intertwine, at which point faint seeps of harmony bleed into earshot, before falling out of sync and fading into dissonance once again. This being said, the texturing and progression of these tracks are not quite as interesting as that featured on Ao, Pt. 1 and Ao, Pt. 2, but they nonetheless shine as being pivotal to the development of Aodron and the ideas it seeks to convey to the listener, by honing in on specific approaches to harsh noise and expanding on them in further detail than on the album’s other cuts.
In a discography as extensive as Merzbow’s, it’s difficult to release records that stand out amongst the endless streams of material being put out by the artist, but Aodron is most definitely remarkable in its own way, thus establishing a definitive place for itself amongst the musician’s recent output. Courtesy of the extraordinary production value, the many layers of these intricate compositions are realised to an exceptional extent, with Akita delving into many previously unexplored sonic settings on certain cuts, making for an impressively diverse album. This being said, much of the material on Aodron is a far cry from Merzbow at his most inventive, with the musician revisiting some of his most defining stylings. Of course, Akita approaches these familiar ideas with as keen a knowledge as ever regarding how to maintain the listener’s full attention as he takes them on a journey through an industrial wasteland. Ultimately, therefore, despite not being amongst Merzbow’s most innovative work, with the artist evoking many of noise music’s typical tropes, Aodron stands as one of the better examples of Akita’s dexterity when crafting gripping walls of auditory intensity, further illustrating why he is considered by many to be the king of noise.
The Vinyl Verdict: 7.5/10