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Musica Extremis: Introduction

Thursday, 26th June, 2003

In 1987 Groove Records in Halifax stocked the widest range of heavy metal to be found anywhere in the north of England. I could buy the latest Iron Maiden here, to be sure, but I could also buy lesser known artists and highly obscure imports. And I did.

I'd been a thrash fan ever since Metallica's Ride the Lightning came out and I'd delved below the surface to find obscure import albums and demos from all over the world. Given that heavy metal was still shunned by English society, thrash metal was even further beyond the pale. I was happy listening to music I loved, and as a bonus what I loved was considered too extreme for anyone else I knew.

But sometime in 1987, Geoff at Groove Records handed me the new debut LP by an unknown British band called Napalm Death. It was simply called Scum and contained 28 tracks of the most violently intense noise I'd ever heard, a mixture of the accuracy of speed metal and the attitude of hardcore punk. I can't remember my feelings exactly but I do remember a sense of disbelief. What was this? Was it music? Was it noise? Were those really vocals? Whatever it was, as that record spun, Slayer seemed to slow down and Metallica became almost mainstream. I'd found a new extreme on top of the extreme I already knew.

I can't and won't swear on the bible that Napalm Death were the first grindcore band in existence, but they were certainly the springboard for a whole new genre in England. John Peel played the stuff on his ever-eclectic Radio 1 show, other similar bands materialised in no time flat and venues wondered just who or what these crusties were that descended on them in droves. The scene was strong in the UK and in Japan and across Europe.

I never did get to see Napalm Death live in that era, but that was only due to circumstance. I did attend a festival in 1988 at Bradford's Queens Hall that they were due to headline, but Napalm Death bassist Bill Steer's other band Carcass took the headline slot instead when it became apparent that drummer Mick Harris was stuck in France with his other band, Extreme Noise Terror. There was a lot of that going on in the grindcore scene back then.

I remember Bill Steer's strings snapping twice during that Carcass set and I remember watching amazed at the blurring speed of the drummer from Intense Degree - I wasn't expecting to see his sticks but I couldn't even see his arms. I remember a fan climbing onto the stage to eat his lunch during the Lawnmower Deth set and I remember Paradise Lost being so green that vocalist Nick Holmes spent his entire set with his back to the audience while his mates threw bottles at him.

I have lots of memories from the days when I was happily into the acknowledged most extreme music on the planet.

Fifteen years or so later, I downloaded Napalm Death's Scum in mp3 format from EMusic and was stunned at how much slower it was compared with my memories. Rather than a sheer wall of noise, I could happily sit listening to the melodies and the interplay between different elements of the musical structure. It just wasn't extreme any more.

I may not have thought at that moment what had replaced Napalm Death as the most extreme music in existence, but it certainly wasn't long after that I downloaded Atrax Morgue. For the first time since that moment in 1987 with Scum did I sit back and wonder just what the heck I was listening to.

Suddenly I had a slew of questions.

In 1987 Napalm Death had proudly created a completely new extreme genre. People who enjoyed what they thought was the fastest, heaviest music available listened to Scum and couldn't even accept it as music. But now, over the passage of time, it had become intricate melodic interplay. People just couldn't hear it then.

Is Atrax Morgue the same thing, just modernised fifteen years? Is it and the rest of the powerelectronics genre that it belongs to just meaningless expressionistic noise art or is it really a musical structure that I merely can't understand at the moment? In another fifteen years time will I be looking back and wondering how I ever thought it extreme?

More importantly, how much more extreme can things get? In all our arrogance we assume that what we see as limits are absolutes, but then time incessantly proves us wrong. The descendants of those who laughed at the idea of heavier than air flying machines now jet here and there in mere hours as a matter of course. Are our descendants going to laugh at our notions of how heavy music can be and what are they going to recognise as extreme in fifteen years time? And fifteen more after that?

There is already a well-known absolute in the other direction. There is a piece composed by the unconventional classical composer John Cage entitled 4'33". It consists of three movements, each marked 'tacet' or 'do not play'.

When David Tudor first 'performed' this piece at the aptly titled Maverick Concert Hall in New York in 1952 there was an uproar. Tudor sat at the piano, lowered the keyboard lid and played absolutely nothing for the thirty seconds of the first movement. As the score took up several pages he duly turned them but continued to play absolutely nothing. The second and final movements were no different and finally Tudor left the stage.

Even though the performance was part of a benefit attended by many avant-garde modern artists, 4'33" was considered beyond the pale, but John Cage was making a highly important musical point.

Why should music have to be about rhythm or melody or harmony? As the Wikipedia points out in its article on the definition of music, plain chant has no harmony, most percussion has no harmony or melody and much modern electronic music has no rhythm, yet all are recognised as music. 4'33" explores the sounds that are heard in a concert venue when the piano is not being played and considers them as much music as anything the pianist could produce. Cage associated with Eastern thinking and once pointed out that "In India, they say that music is continuous; it only stops when we turn away and stop paying attention."

Cage believed that silence, in the definition of a complete absence of sound, did not exist. Indeed the year before 4'33" he visited an anechoic chamber at Harvard University where he would listen to silence. In fact, and against his expectation, he heard two sounds, one high and one low. He was told that the first was his nervous system and the second the circulation of his blood. It is easy to see how his reevaluation of silence affected his later compositions, from 4'33" onwards. He often pointed out that it was his favourite piece, that he listened to daily merely by turning his attention towards it.

It is easy to roughly imagine silence, though given Cage's experience in the anechoic chamber claiming it as an absolute is folly, but what of the other extreme? In 1987 I thought that Napalm Death were producing something close to total noise. In 2002 I realised how wrong I had been and was very wary of making the same assumption about Atrax Morgue. Musicians are still exploring this extreme and I'm not going to make any predictions about when, if ever, it is reached.

There are plenty more pieces that can be written at the noise extreme just as there are plenty more that can be written at the silent extreme. Just as the powerelectronics genre has sprouted up at one end of the spectrum, lower case music has sprouted up at the other.

It isn't silence but it's as close to it as 4'33". It's amazing how someone can re-record silence in different innovative ways. Using contact microphones, composers record the tiniest sounds and amplify them using software. The results are then dissected, looped, repeated or otherwise tinkered with to create almost silent music.

For instance, Otaku Yakuza took a thousand individual samples, all a millisecond long, and attached them together to create a complete piece of a second in length. Steve Roden, who originally coined the term 'lower case music', recorded an album comprised entirely of paper being handled in different ways.

Are we at the limits? Are powerelectronics and lower case music absolute extremes or just what we think are absolutes given our 2003 mentalities? What else could challenge them for the titles?

Let's find out!

Next Chapter: Time Experiments

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