While many subgenres have clear origins, the roots of noise-rock are tangled and confusing. Despite sharing unifying features – awkwardness; jagged edges; mulish obstinacy; vocals that suggest their owner is gritting their teeth through a fearsome UTI – many of its originators seem to share little in common beyond a quest for discomfiting hostility. There is no definitive ur-text, no Black Sabbath or Discharge to light the way.
Foreshadowings can, however, be found across multiple genres, from hardcore, post-punk, psychedelia and no-wave to early industrial and power electronics: anyplace crumpled basslines, tetanus-inducing angularity and an innate desire to goad and challenge were given heat enough to ferment. Swans, The Birthday Party, MX-80 Sound, Chrome, Public Image Ltd, Pere Ubu and Einstürzende Neubauten all serve as source material: acts that were crazed or monomaniacal, punishing but not without artfulness and capable of hypnotic properties as well as jarring discombobulation.
The genre gathered pace in the early to middle 90s, with labels like Amphetamine Reptile, Touch & Go and Skin Graft at its core and the likes of Bovine, Skin Graft and Trance Syndicate throwing up delectable chunks from the sidelines. Noise-rock bled into grunge - Kurt Cobain rhapsodised over acts like Scratch Acid and Fang, and Nirvana shared a single with The Jesus Lizard - and there was significant cross-pollination with both post-hardcore and the dissonant metallic hardcore of Botch, Starkweather and Converge.
But this wasn't purely an ugly American phenomenon. The UK vomited forth acts like Ramleh and Skullflower, Sweden offered us the perennially off-colour Brainbombs and Japan Zeni Geva, while Australia proffered the likes of Feedtime and Venom P. Stinger. Regardless of regional flavours and variations, however, one thing was always guaranteed: this was fraught, difficult, painful music, rock‘n’roll at its coarsest, and possessed of a power to portray humanity at its very, very worst.
Flipper - Album Generic Flipper (1982)
For the most part, US hardcore kept itself short, fast and loud. Where there’s an established rule, however, there will always be ornery sorts keen to twist and subvert it, and amid the blistering speed of hardcore’s first wave emerged a clutch of mucky fuckers – No Trend and Kilslug among them – keen to mess with the heads of those expecting a high-octane slamfest. San Francisco’s Flipper are perhaps the grandaddy of them all, burping into life back in ‘79 and dropping this full-length deuce after two similarly antisocial EPs. Everything seems to wobble, buzz and slur: a stumbling, hectoring, out-of-tune mess that won’t stop bashing you over the head while reminding you that life is little more than a ridiculous, poorly-delivered joke.
The Jesus Lizard - Goat (1991)
Singer David Yow and bass player David Wm Sims helped define noise-rock with the brilliantly splenetic Scratch Acid. But if Scratch Acid remain a connoisseur’s choice, The Jesus Lizard are a bona fide noise-rock godhead, and Goat remains their defining statement. Slobbering, deranged and loaded with an unpredictable sense of threat, the record also demonstrates the players’ locked-in sense of shared purpose. Tracks like Mouth Breather – possessed of a riff that buzzes and seethes as though you’ve put your foot through the tight, papery hull of a wasp nest – exemplify just why this is an archetypal release, and one that set the bar impossibly high for legions of lesser bands who’ve since tried (and failed) to capture the band’s stuttering panic-stank.
Unsane - Total Destruction (1993)
In simple, blunt terms, Unsane can be summed up by the ‘hit’ video for 1995’s Scrape, which portrays a sausage-string of soft human meat being broken and ruptured across a series of skateboarding wipeouts. Those wanting a longer-form listen should start with 1993’s Total Destruction, the New York band’s second (third if you count the recently-unearthed Improvised Munitions) full-length which showcased them on dangerous, muscular form. Thick, powerful riffs grind like busted cogs while Chris Spencer megaphones his vocals in from hell, the album’s 12 songs dripping with a furious sense of urban paranoia. While acts like Cows and Laughing Hyenas had warped the blues, Unsane borderline broke it, putting it through an industrial wringer and using it as a lens through which to examine the terror, violence and isolation of city living.
Oxbow - An Evil Heat (2002)
Calling Oxbow a noise-rock band is perhaps reductive, since they’ve been responsible for some of heavy music’s most cerebral, artful explorations over the past 35 years. While no strangers to sweaty displays of strength, the band’s experience and expertise extends far beyond the traditionally heavy and into realms that include jazz, blues and contemporary classical, thus placing them alongside other outliers like Dazzling Killmen, U.S. Maple and Craw. An Evil Heat, the band’s fifth album, saw them temper some of their more frantic urges and let the ideas breathe: frontman Eugene Robinson howls and croons like a wounded gladiator standing atop a pile of vanquished foes, while the music bucks, snaps, lunges and occasionally turns to vapour around him. Closing track Shine spreads itself across 32 minutes – a beautiful and unnerving finale to an album that demands you to think, goddammit while at the same time doing its best to dash your brains across the floor.
KEN mode - Null (2022)
While noise-rock might occasionally graze commercial viability it is, by nature, a contrary twat of a genre - one that will laughingly dump upon any chance at greatness that might come its way. This means that while Pissed Jeans or Chat Pile might seem a shoe-in for this final coveted spot, it should really go to an act who might be critically admired and might actually enjoy selling out reasonably-sized rock venues, but continually sabotage themselves by refusing to make a single piffling concession. KEN mode are that band. The long-running Canadian act have become increasingly obtuse over the years, graduating from spiky-edged metallic hardcore act to one that weighs frenetic heaviness against a glowering atmosphere. 2022’s Null takes their sound to a frightening if logical point: an album steeped in frustration and loss, rife with difficult lunges and with saxophonist Kathryn Kerr now officially integrated into the band as a permanent member.