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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.]

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=607790802 Alex Napoli

    I love noise music. I never listened to Japanese artists before I started hearing noise (I listened to American no-wave, noise, hardcore-punk stuff before, all in the same family). Some more accessible Japanese noise or noise-type bands are Ruins, Ground Zero, Melt-Banana, or The Boredoms, but they’re not as insane as Merzbow or Hanatarash (the latter being Yamantaka EYE’s band, who is also in The Boredoms and plays with John Zorn, a jazz saxophonist).

    I don’t know why, but I love this stuff.

  • SushiMANster

    Oh hashi, what did you just make me listen to?

  • Argos

    I love noise music!  I was a band geek in high school, playing classical and marching music and studying music theory, so as a result noise is really fascinating to me.  Same goes for free jazz and 20th century music; the way in which people break the traditional rules of music is just really cool for me.  My partner is a musician and he works with noise a lot in one of his projects.  Most of the time his goal isn’t to make something that easy to listen, but rather to experiment with different sounds and how he can combine them.  I think the fact that it’s difficult to listen to is what appeals to a lot of people, like how abstract art appeals to a lot of people in a visual way.  Granted, it’s different for anyone, but that’s kind of how I see it.  Thanks for posting some Japanese  noise musicians for us!

  • narcolepticltd

    I CAN’T HEAR YOU OVER THE SOUND OF HOW AWESOME I AM

  • http://twitter.com/Misch3000 Misch

    I’m a huge Noise fan. Loving this article, but here’s one little thing: Noise actually gets better the louder you listen to it. No, really. Get your biggest speakers and put them as loud as you possibly can, and it’ll all make sense. Or not. Maybe it’s just me.
    Anyway, Eli Eli Lema Sabachtani by Aoyama is a great movie on how Noise will one day save the world. It’s got Asano too.

  • http://twitter.com/NyappyTiramisu Jessica Reimann

    Listen to it one day at max volume and your neighbours will never complain about other loud music again ;D

  • D.I.R

    Hmmm… get about 50 people, like a flash mob.  Everyone is spaced around each other as close as a normal conversation would allow.  Everyone starts talking about anything a little louder than normal to get that room full of talking noise.  Then everyone starts to randomly make various noises – in increasing numbers until total chaos then everyone for 5 minutes tries to be as random but yet feed off each other creativity.  Then at a set time, suddenly go back to talking again then be done.  Do it in a mall or something. :D

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

     Yeah, I thought about mentioning Melt-Banana and other noise-rock bands, but I honestly don’t know enough about them. Plus, I think I just wanted to talk about Metl-Banana because they have such an awesome name.

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

     FRGHHHGFFFFSHHHHHHHHHHHTKRRRRR­RRRRRRRKTKTKTKKTKTKTKTKTKTKGGG­GGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGFRJBRHBRBRHV­VVVVVVVMMMMMMM

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

    I usually like to clear out rooms with this gem: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_fMCl-3N38k

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

     Never herad of Eli Eli Lema Sabachtani before. I checked out the trailer and IMDB and it looks wacky.

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

    A computer having an aneurysm.

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

    Sounds fun! You should do it and throw it up on YouTube

  • ギーグ

    I tried to watch the first video, but then I think I was attacked by the final boss from Earthbound?

  • ianclarksmith

    Merz is the man! I guess it’ll only be a matter of time before Boris shows up… and Eye… Ikue Mori… and the spoils of all of John Zorn’s future and former cohorts… :)

  • ZXNova

    I thought Hanatarashi was posessed. It was creepy. And I thought Heavy Metal was nuts, but this is just plain nuts. Well I can’t really say Noise is bad, I listened through the whole thing, it’s like listening to a washing machine while someone was blowing into a microphone while people were playing synthesizers. I actually prefer this over Rap and Country. Really!

  • jonniez

    I just got out from a night out and am still pretty damn tipsy…so that’s probably why it’s sounding really goood right now…

  • jonniez

    Well, okay, maybe not “good,” but kind of “cool.”

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

    I definitely agree with you that it’s cool how these musicians kind of break all the rules. My problem is that while this kind of music is interesting on an intellectual level, it doesn’t really resonate for me much emotionally.

    If I could have tied in free jazz somehow to this post, I definitely would have. Hearing interviews with Albert Ayler really blew my mind.

  • MilkyChocoxD

    The first video must’ve inspired the LSD Dream Emulator soundtrack.

  • Argos

    And that’s a totally legitimate reason to not like something.  I love the music from a “breaking the rules” point of view, but also in a “I just plain like it” point of view, as well – I personally find it enjoyable to listen to.  Why? I have no idea, I just do.  But I totally dig that other people won’t get that same feeling that I do.  It’s like favorite colors, people don’t usually have a preferred color for any specific reason (though some do), you just like it :because:.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100001079326564 Michael Baltazar

    Well I don’t listen to noise, but pretty interesting article I must say. Seems alot of things come from Japan. The hipster article a few months back actually took me by surprise.

    Lots of people at my school think Screamo, Thrash, Metalcore, Post-Hardcore, and also just anything with screaming vocals and deep guitar riffs are noise music. Well it is noisy, but it’s not noise. I used to be into that stuff, but I still can’t believe how closed-minded some people are and just say it’s all noise when they’ve only listened to it once or never. Take Metallica for example – none of their songs sound like this, theirs is actually slow and have rhythm, at least. Maybe if I show this article to people they’ll start to think differently.

  • https://www.facebook.com/philipphilipphiliphilipphilip Philip Warren

    That’s music? Even tribal African people know that is not music. You guys can all attack me with “everyone has their own opinion” and “music can be anything you want it to be”… just, no.

  • kabukikitty

    I actually love this stuff! Go figure. Now I have a new soundscape to listen to while working. Lyrics distract me; classical music bores me. This noise music is soothing. 

  • ギーグ

    Wait, WTF? Did you really just use Africans as a measure of something being uncultured? ‘Cause I think I’ll attack you with that instead.

  • JatinChittoor

    I never knew Noise was a real genre. Actually I more into the Japanese EDM scene and of course J-Pop, Visual Kei, & J-Rock. You guys should check out Shingo Nakamura, Tin5ha, Hiroshi Watanabe, & Hiroyuki ODA. These guys are actually well known in the U.S. and European dance music scene. There actually considered geniuses!!

  • JatinChittoor

    “Sapporo” by Shingo Nakamura: http://youtu.be/ArTkufslpPI
    “Clear Blue Sky” by Tin5ha: http://youtu.be/dKPU4dV1-Ao

  • https://www.facebook.com/philipphilipphiliphilipphilip Philip Warren

    I’m saying primitive music is better than noise. No I’m not saying modern Africa is primitive.

  • http://profiles.google.com/statueofmike Michael S

    I like it. The radio in my car basically sounds like this already. It changes as I drive around, but is usually 80-90 percent static while two stations bleed into each other. I didn’t realize there was an entire music genre!

  • Aterisk

    I tried to listen to the one ones on the page and they sent chills up my spine, not the good kind either, more like the creepy something is coming out of my computer to murder me in my sleep sorta chills. T_T

  • TokyoBen

    It seems like there’s no possible way to “mess up” when making a noise track. Or maybe messing up would be to accidentally add rhythm or melody. Also, this reminds me of South Park’s episode “You’re Getting Old”. So yes, noise music sounds like crap.

  • Croc

    Reminds me of this track from Rez, which unlike this, was audible, and actually cool:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iB2j2TtGLxM

  • http://www.electricbloomwebzine.com/ Charles

    Funny you should mention noise music. In November I went to the Zipangu Film Festival in London, where they play titles from Japanese indie film makers, to see “We Don’t Care About Music Anyway” which is about the noice music scene in Japan and what it means to the artists. I definatly suggest checking it out if you can. It may be quite hard to find on DVD, but it is certainly worth the watch! Here is the trailer http://youtu.be/hHYYWhhFpzA

  • mixa

     Is japanese free jazz something that you get or resonates emotionally for you?

  • Kiriain

    Oh my gosh. Noise sounds like what audio equipment makes when Slenderman approaches.
    If you guys ever make a Tofugu Noise Album, I am going to lol.

  • http://twitter.com/treeghosts Leon

     nope

  • http://twitter.com/treeghosts Leon

    “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.”)” Would be interesting to see some hipsters actually listening too noise. Pretty shallow argument don’t you think so? You really could have made a more proper research on themes around the noise scene in japan like the kansai underground scene which actually started the japanoise genre and which actually refers to mostly all influential japanoise artist such as  The Gerogerigegege or Masonna.

  • Sahweed

    This is a neat article. Noise music is so often something that doesn’t get spoken about by those who aren’t deep in.

    I have a few thoughts. I used to travel for work a lot and my co-workers would be stuck together for weeks, sometimes doing a lot of driving. Eventually it was like… okay you really wanna hear something?

    I had a few moments like this and I got a little better at explaining it.

    Firstly, nothing about spending your whole life listening to Popular music prepares you to instantly receive any noise, or drone. I think that’s one of the best reasons to give it a listen. At first, when it is completely without reference, that’s great.
    But don’t have those expectations from it. Like you are waiting for something to happen, waiting to skip the track.
    Another word for noise could be sound, so please listen in the intended format. Flac if you have to. But be fair.

    Try listening to it in the background. Try putting it on in one room when you have chores all over the house. If you smoke and drink coffee that brew up a pot after a big hangover and blast some Merzbow until you feel alive again. Ha.

    95% of noise music is terrible, you will develop your own taste to shift the margin.

    There are two real camps of noise, old school and new school. IMO, new school lacks a critical thinking element and what one user said about can do no wrong. Seems sadly to be the case sometimes.
    So what’s good and what’s not.

    Sometimes I say to a friend who doesn’t listen to any of that. Oh man that person’s amazing… and then oh no that guy sucks!
    “what are you talking about, they sound exactly the same”

    It’s a really engaging form for the listener.

    For me, listening, sometimes it’s about the art over entertainment (well in principle, almost always) but sometime I just think Merzbow is beautiful. I couldn’t not think it was beautiful.

    Two things to try that aren’t noise. But are extremely thoughtful and complex and start opening up that long-form-music nervous system.

    Fennezs – Endless Summer

    Brian Eno – Discreet Music (read the liner notes too)

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MewBK4dHx6U

  • Sahweed

    ” 95% of noise music is terrible” I should add – just like any other music.
    And there is some very good new-noise, but a lot of people work under the guise “noise” the it’s hard to find a concrete definition. There are varying philosophies in that world.

    As for the noise rock. I think of it a lot more as rock than as noise. I think Meltbanana, Sonic Youth etc..
    But still, I don’t think it’s an entirely natural progression from understanding what those folks are up to, to understanding what “violent onsen geisha” is doing.
    It might help to saturate your ears a little bit though, I’m glad it get’s people interested.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZQ6Sk8Aj-SQ

  • Sahweed

     A very warm description of music by Mr John cage

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-EZ2vUBU8Qo

  • Simonpink

    Boris and Merzbow, Japan’s finest.

  • http://profiles.google.com/jonadab.theunsightlyone Jonadab the Unsightly One

    Actually, when I was in college I did some experiments with fractal sound that were MUCH more unpleasant to listen to than anything in that first video (and yes, I did listen to the whole thing, although it’s not the sort of music I’m likely to put in my regular everyday playlist).

  • Dr. Kwyatt

    Ha, cool. I love noise music, nhot everyday I see it mentioned in a place so “mainstream”, so this was a nice surprise.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1112199119 Jake Hansen

    there’s a few musicians who incorporate noise into more normal music i personally think that Dntel is the master of this crossover he uses noise glitch distortion and everything else he can find to make wonderful sounds he also uses a lot of acoustic instruments. 

  • Chiisana_Hato

    When I played the videos, my dog kept cocking her head from side to side and had a concerned look on her face…

    I think we have some frustrated sound effects artists here. =P

  • j3ss4ndr4

     None of the links in the blog will work for me (“Secure Connection Failed” ???), but I was able to listen to this one.  I actually liked it!  Reminded me of early Depeche Mode, lol!  (Though of course theirs was mostly music with a small amount of “noise,” rather than the other way round!)

  • kokokok
  • a guy who listens to noise

    all of those examples were harsh noise, noise music is not always harsh noise, noise can have melodies, it can have a rhythm and a beat, it can even be soothing and calm. generalizing all noise as unpleasant noises meant to be irritating is just stupid. en believe it or not, there are actually people who generally enjoy noise

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dnkDe3_rXz8
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vuw-r_70Kwg
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DQ5LKy6b2BQ
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GLSVIT9sPQo

  • http://www.facebook.com/seth.bardakas Dimitris Bardakas

    I got into noise today, and I got hooked. Fucking awesome and original. It’s always good to get the anger out.

  • Kyou-kun

    I think this article quite honestly sucks. The noise genre is not intended to sound as “awful” as possible; the artists are intentionally attempting to appeal to an audience which likes the specific sounds that are played at a specific rate. Among noise fans, there is clearly preference, so claims such as that and claims such as that it’s impossible to make a “bad” noise track by noise standards is absurd.

  • 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.