I got into music backwards. I started with the excesses of Merzbow and the murderous overkill of the Swans, and then reversed gears into more conventional territory. And even then I was still going backwards: I didn’t start my Coltrane collection with A Love Supreme, but rather Ascension. By the time I’d fallen back into something like normal territory, my ears had already been prepared for most anything they might encounter.
And yet I keep being surprised—especially by Merzbow himself, whose encyclopedic catalog of releases grows by at least thirty or forty discs a year. There are many releases that repeat each other—I’m not sure the lay listener will sense much difference between Noisembryo and Green Wheels (I do, but that’s another story)—but at this stage in his career he’s found ways to challenge himself and explore new territory all the time, even if only incrementally. To that end, 13 Birds is fast shaping up to be the open-ended successor to all the ideas Merzbow only touched on or hinted at with Door Open At 8AM.
If the first disc of Merzbow’s 13 Japanese Birds was all about the noise, this one’s all about the beat. Rhythm’s always been part of the Merzbow approach; the early releases (Fuckexercise, etc.) sound more like sloppy prog-rock jams, with Masami Akita himself on drums. With Birds, Akita’s climbed back onto the drum stool but simply used that as one element in his mix. I mentioned last time out how you could barely fit a page of Down Beat Magazine between 13 Birds Pt. 1 and the Elvin Jones drum solos in Coltrane’s Ascension. The results this time are even closer to that sustained, furious discipline.
Cue up the first track (“Gorosukehoukou”) and you might think you’ve put in the wrong CD at first. It’s all drum workout and some synth in the peripheries of the mix, but wait long enough and it’ll eventually turn into the face-shearing overload most Merzbow fans have come to expect. “Variation #1” is all hissing and bubbling with the drums popping in and out, and “Variation #2” sport much louder electronic work, but with a lot of space and some really, really stretched-out drums, each stroke falling like a hammer driving a railroad spike. Then it takes off and turns into what sounds like a rolling wall of drums hemmed in by electrical wiring. The finale, “Noritsukehousei”, cranks up all the effects at once for a prolonged workout.
Back when I first encountered Borbetomagus through their Live At InRoads CD, I kept coming back to the idea that any instrument ultimately works on an emotional level because it reminds us in some manner of the human voice. The shrilling screams that Akita generates with his EMS synth have the same desperate timbre; they cry out (literally and figuratively) to be heard as substitutes for rising and falling voices. That may not be what’s intended—after all, the whole point of music like this isn’t just to make ham-handed one-to-one correspondences (“Hey, this sounds like birdcalls!”), but to expand our powers of imagination through listening.
I also couldn’t help but think of Coltrane’s own words when he described Ascension: “I want time to be more plastic.” This he achieved through giant blocks of sound that weren’t bound by conventional compositional rules (verse / chorus / verse / bridge / chorus / solo / etc.). Jones’s drumming used rhythm without itself imposing conventional rhythm on anything else going on around it—this was music for listening, not dancing. 13 Birds, so far, seems fueled by the same ambitions and obsessive drive.