Is This Noise Or Music? (It’s Noise)

There’s a lot of music out there I just don’t really “get.” Everybody has genres of music that they don’t like or avoid, and that’s fine. To each his own.

I always try to be open and receptive to different types of music, but one genre continues to confound and fascinate me. Let me introduce you to Noise music.

What Is Noise?

Noise music is pretty much exactly what the name sounds like. It’s a cacophony of sound that’s meant to sound awful. If not awful, then at least as far away from traditional music as humanly possible

Some people say that Noise pushes the boundaries of music. Some say that it’s anti-music. In a lot of ways, Noise is an arms race about who can make their music the most unlistenable.

Noise uses sounds like speaker feedback, static, yelling, and any other tool you can think of to create some of the most grating sounds you’ll ever hear. You know that sound you hear when a microphone gets too close to a speaker? It’s like that times a hundred.

What does Noise have to do with Japan? Believe it or not, Japan is considered the Mecca of Noise. For some reason, the Noise scene in Japan during the 80s and 90s was unparalleled, and most of the major Noise artists are Japanese.

I’m not going to lie: Noise is really, really weird. It’s not something I can really stand to listen to for very long. And it’s pretty much the ultimate hipster music. (“Oh, you don’t get Noise? Of course you wouldn’t, you plebe.”)

But it’s so, so interesting to me that there’s such a big group of people who devote to much time and effort to creating music that’s basically designed to be terrible.

So what does Noise actually sound like? Turn your volume down, and take a listen:

Did you make it all the way through? It’s okay, neither did I.

And live shows? It’s like if a punk show was louder, more destructive, and made less sense. Noise shows can include basically anything as an instrument, including laptops, synthesizers, power tools, and any other object you can think of. If you can make sound with it, it belongs at a Noise show.

The Craziest Live Band You’ll Ever See

One of the most notorious noise bands in all of Japan was Hanatarash, short for hanatarashi (洟垂らし) or “snot-nosed.” To give you an idea of what their music sounds like, check out this video of a live performance (again, you’ll want to turn your volume down for this video):

The applause at the end is a nice touch.

But Hanatarash is best known for is their absolutely insane live performances. One show in particular has gone down in history as their craziest. The band brought a backhoe into the venue and just annihilated everything in their path. After they were done with the venue, they started to destroy the backhoe itself.

Nothing was sacred.

Not your typical concert.

See, there are drums! It’s music!

Another show was stopped when the band nearly threw a lit Molotov Cocktail. Venues understandably started banning Hanatarash because of the orgy of destruction the band wrought during its shows. Can you blame them?

The God Of Noise

I can’t write a post on noise without talking about the god of Noise himself, Merzbow. Merzbow AKA Masami Akita has been making Noise music for nearly thirty years and, by most accounts, has been the most consistently influential and innovative Noise musician in the world.

If nothing else, Merzbow is one of the most prolific noise musicians out there. He’s released over 250 studio albums, and has dozens of EPs, collaborations, live albums, and other records.


What’s really weird to me about Merzbow is his flexibility. He can make some of the Noisiest, harshest music in the world, but he can also really tone it down, too. Merzbow has come out with more soothing, ambient music, and has made his music more listenable when asked to during live shows.

I think it just goes to show that Merzbow does what he does not because that’s all he can do, but because that’s what he chooses to do. Merzbow could make more traditional music if he wanted to. But he makes Noise because he feels that there’s more value in it.

Is Noise the kind of toe-tapping music you’ll listen to with your friends, or put on in the background while you’re working? Probably not. I’ll probably never even buy a Noise album or song, and really, it’s even a struggle for me to get through an entire song.

But it doesn’t take away from the fact that Noise musicians manage to find a lot of value in it, and continue to hone their loud, raucous craft.

[Header image source.]

  • Xavier B

    Anybody know any good forums for like noise gig listings in tokyo, or just alternative-type stuff going on in the city? This from someone who’s moving to Takasaki next month.