For me, a Merzbow performance is all about the iconography. All the pointers from the history of rock performance are there, through to more recent electronic developments. So, filing into the Parramatta Riverside Theatre’s largest auditorium (a beautiful room in which to witness any type of performance – and just 10 minutes from home for me, a staunch suburbanist), the subdued lighting reveals an Ampeg stack stage left rear – bass icon, check – a Marshall stack stage right rear – guitar/rock icon, check – and a desk stage front and centre, covered in a small mixing desk, an infinite tangle of spaghetti-leads patching in and out of fx pedals and a now almost ubiquitous glowing white apple symbol on the laptop – electronica icon, check. And there it was, 50 years of music performance iconography sparsely and imposingly inhabiting the large stage.
Performance, as subtle as it is for Merzbow, is the whole point of seeing this live. There are any number of ways to approximate the sonic onslaught – personally I’ve enjoyed something quite timbrally, structurally and immersively similar (without quite the same volume, of course) by lying in spa baths with my ears underwater (something I do highly recommend) and, at times, there were similarities to intense traffic or aircraft noise. But the sonics aren’t really the point. Everyone knows basically what it’s going to sound like before Merzbow himself even enters the room. But the performance aspects bring him right into line with tradition, make sense of the barrage, whilst at the same time undermining that lineage. So, when he straps on his home-made ‘instrument’, the first impression is of electric guitar. But then you realise the phallic extensions of the traditional guitar are neutered in this concoction, which is just a simple metal disc attached to another piece of metal which sticks out from each end of the disc by 10 or 15cms. One clichÃ© undermined. Of, course, once what looks like a metal dishwashing scrubber is rubbed back and forth over the contact mic-ed metal, the sound, processed in extremis, is everything rock guitar has always dreamed of being – an obnoxious, unrelenting wash of pure electric power. The thinly veiled sexual machismo of rock remains evident in the rapidly masturbatory rubbing of the metal plate with a variety of objects for the next hour.
It’s clear, from the performance, that rock is the basis of this music. But, as things progress, other strains begin to enter. The first sign is some high pitched self-oscillating delays which take on the sparkle of synthesiser arpeggios amidst the cloud. When similar layers of that rhythmic pulse enter the sub-bass sonic regions, it almost becomes a mutant techno, deeply buried, rock mutating into electronica. Its sustained repetition over 15 or 20 minutes as the performance builds to its end adds to this perception. And then, as Merzbow strips back a few layers of noise at one stage, what originally sounded like random electronic bleeps flying around the higher frequency ranges make themselves known as highly processed voices talking. Far from being a clichÃ© of alienating nothingness, the music reveals itself as various layers of humanity. Merzbow’s constant up and down woosh on his wah pedal, physical action immediately manifest in sonic reaction, highlight this.
Merzbow’s music is actually the obvious place that rock’s evolution should take it, if it weren’t for the majority of rock musicians sidetracking themselves into nostalgic cul-de-sacs. Merzbow plays a beautiful game with that – emptying rock’s pomp of all but it’s key signposts, emptying its sound of all but its most cathartic elements, then exaggerating these beyond reason. The sound is enormous, while Merzbow himself remains relatively calm. Time and volume dissolve. I started the performance with my ears protected by the venue supplied earplugs, but soon found myself without anything in them as the noise was not painful. As layers were added, I gradually added cotton wool as required, but it was often difficult to tell just how loud things were. To test it out, at one stage I carefully sang a note out loud, which I slowly built into a full throated yell. I couldn’t hear any of it myself, nor did anyone immediately around me seem to notice my personal addition to the noise. Yet the music never felt painfully overwhelming. And by the end of the set, I had to ask a friend what the time was. I knew I had heard a lot of sound for a long time, but it certainly didn’t feel like a slog through an entire hour, it felt much less than that. And so, with little ceremony, Merzbow pulls the faders down on his mixing desk, then pulls the remaining squall out of his foldbacks, then exits the stage behind his Marshall stack, it’s small glowing red power lights reminding us that none of this would be possible without Jimi Hendrix.