‘Fight Your Own War – Power Electronics and Noise Culture’
Review by: Cyril Adam.
The book has an attractive fanzine design and is structured in three parts, each one composed by pieces related to the three main themes: the scenes, the performances, and a reading section. Not conceived by a sole point of view, the volume is a collection of writings by artists, fans, and critics. This ‘snapshots’ editorial choice defines the purposeful intention of the tome neither to be an encyclopedia of power electronics nor to provide some grand theory about it. While some texts are more casual, others have a more academic tone, and almost each one is paired up with relevant album reviews, which also echoes the fanzine ethos.
The subtitle of the book could inevitably ring some alarm bells about a potential source of confusion, and I also tend myself to have considered in the first place that the inclusion of the noise culture will work as a softener to the power electronics’ anti-social message. This said, and even though power electronics was initially connected to industrial music, it must be agreed that over thirty years, it has become more related to a genre of noise music. Nevertheless, the extreme sonic attack of both musical styles does not make them automatically become closer – yet Jennifer Wallis clarifies things in her editorial. “[Noise acts] appear here in reflection of the fact that many of us will listen to these other subgenres alongside power electronics, that they may share bills with power electronics artists, and that many artists themselves will cross these boundaries in their work.” Despite everything, this opinion – especially for old-school industrial readers – will not be accepted as such, and Mike Dando accentuates this divergence in his foreword. “This volume lumps together power electronics and noise (and sub-sets as harsh noise walls). There is an argument that while they are kissing (hissing? Such quaint animosities) cousins, they are in fact very different – in sound style, motivations, messages/non-messages, live presentation, audiences etc. (though not without obvious overlaps) and that as such they require distinct treatments and consideration as befits different cultures. But maybe it is nobler to suffer such slings and arrows and just set sail into that particular sea of troubles and maybe end them? But methinks not!” These assertions point out the major underlying challenge of the book: how the power electronics and the noise subcultures will be connected within the volume in order to be completely considered like brother in arms.
PART I: SCENES
. The Genesis of Power Electronics in the UK (Philip Taylor)
By way of introduction, this piece highlights the European avant-garde movements that are considered to be cultural references of the industrial music ethos: Futurism, Dadaism, Fluxus, and Actionism – nothing new to the initiates though necessary to mention and well recapitulated. Then, the author recalls the origin of the ‘power electronics’ term. “[It] was first used on the sleeve notes to Whitehouse release Psychopathia Sexualis (Come Organisation, 1982), although in passing and not as a purposeful definition of a new genre of electronic sound. But it was new, and ‘power electronics’ seemed very appropriate for this brutist, confrontational, ugly, innovative sound.” Therefore, Whitehouse is more widely describe, with sound descriptions and explanations of its transgressive intents. Even this piece has not the aim to be a comprehensive history of the UK power electronics, with the presentation of pioneers’ acts (Sutcliffe Jugend, Ramleh, The New Blockaders, Con-Dom, and The Grey Wolves) it functions as an adequate introduction to the birth of power electronics.
. The Rise of Power Electronics in Finland (Mikko Aspa)
As a main player of the Finnish underground scene (label Freak Animal, magazine Special Interests, and band Grunt plus many others), the author introduces it, from its isolated birth to its increasing growth. He presents all the key outfits, from Unseen Noise Death, Bizarre Uproar or Grunt to Strom.ec, Cloama and then to more recent acts like Snuff or Sick Seed. The text evolves with lots of recollections and develops personal reflections, especially on the live dimension and the specificity of the Finnish extreme aesthetic. “The imagery used by power electronics artists is often judged to be clichéd, yet mutilated corpses, factory ruins, gas masks, industrial waste and such were part of Finnish noise before we became familiar with international acts using similar themes. It leads me to believe that there are some intrinsic qualities within the sound itself that lead towards such imagery, and that there is more than simple imitation going on here.” Otherwise, I was personally appealed by the author’s evocation that “a curiosity of the scene in Finland is that many power electronics units have performed alongside black metal bands.” It is a fact that, especially in the Nordic countries, these two vile underground subcultures – with regards to their concerns in extreme sound and intent – has to be considered like associates. A very solid piece which functions as a smart presentation of the Finnish power electronics scene.
. Order of the Boot. Interdiction by Force: Streicher and the Growth of Power Electronics in Australia (Ulex Xane)
More focused on Streicher history due to the fact the author is the man behind this seminal act, the appealing aspect of this piece is that it narrates more intimately how the pioneers of the industrial movement have inspired the author to become an actor in his own country. As the Extreme label’s initiator on the one hand, and with his musical projects on the other – from his infamous ‘Oi! Noise’ Streicher to his multiple other ones, ranging the vast spectrum of noise. The author takes also the opportunity to explain more precisely some of his shock tactics intents. “In terms of the supposedly ‘controversial’ politics associated with Streicher, what people fail to understand is that my interest derives largely from the perspective of transgression and the abhorrence of any current societal consensus, in moral as well as political terms.” A very personal and frank piece which also, at the end of it, presents the current actors (labels, publications, and outfits) from Australia.
. Chronicling US Noise and Power Electronics (Scott E. Candey)
This piece appears very complete in consideration of the significant number of interviews’ excerpts conducted by the author with power electronics and noise artists like The Haters, Blackhouse, Richard Ramirez, Deathpile, Skin Crime, Control, or Murderous Vision. In addition to document the birth and evolution of the US scene, this text also defines the themes and intents of industrial culture in the American context, and the perverse aspects of the genre are also examined. “While the idea of power electronics as social experiment or moral reflecting glass doesn’t necessarily hold out in every case, it is one that is perhaps more present than it appears at first glance.” This piece also well clarifies the cultural ins and outs of the US power electronics underground, in addition to listing the major acts, from the pioneers like Blackhouse or Intrinsic Action, to Black Leather Jesus, Macronympha, Bloodyminded, Slogun, Taint, Death Squad or Navicon Torture Technologies. On a personal level I was pleased to see that bands like Hunting Lodge and Missing Foundation were mentioned on those pages, even they did not belong to the power electronics genre yet are part of the American industrial heritage. Aside from that, the author mentions the labels and publications that have paved the US scene, and in addition to the numerous quotes included, this piece has a clean rendering of exhaustiveness.
. A Physical Legacy: The Enduring Role of Underground Zines. Some personal musings from the creator of Spectrum Magazine and Noise Receptor Journal (Richard Stevenson)
Introducing his text with the special attention given to packaging and presentation of the industrial music’s outputs, the author explores this ‘physicality’ as one of the vital aspect of the industrial underground culture: the self-produced fanzines tradition. Insisting on the fact that each fanzine was reflecting the individual drive of its creator, these do-it-yourself endeavours always covered various aesthetic choices as well as variable post-industrial music subgenres. The author details the influential zines of the nineties to the more current publications, without forgetting to mention the importance of the pre-internet mail-order catalogues. The overload of information in the internet age is precisely analysed as well as the documentation and curation role of the underground print media. “As book and magazine content lends itself to more in-depth reading, often being revisited multiple times over a number of years, the printed word suits the various thematic preoccupations of industrial music.” Everyone who values the permanence of underground publications will be surely delighted by this insightful piece, which also possesses a pleasurable flavor of nostalgia.
In his foreword, Mike Dando reminds that the primary power electronics scenes were discovered “firstly in Belgium, Holland, France, and particularly Germany – surely a key birthplace of power electronics? – before expanding out to Japan, the US, Australia, and elsewhere.” So, even many acts from continental Europe are mentioned throughout the book, the absence of a more specific history of power electronics from Europe – or, at least, from Germany – is a bit of a pity. Be that as it may, this first section is absolutely enlightening, particularly in setting the definitions, outlines, and thematics of power electronics, as well as presenting the pioneers and most of the key players of the genre.
PART II: EXPERIENCE AND PERFORMANCE
. The Power of Performance (Nathan Clemence)
This text proposes a large view of the multiple facets of performances, like the noise equipment setups, the often anti-social video projections, the use of masks in order to create a profound visual effect, the audience response, the notions of confrontation and hostility, or the entertainment aspect of the show. On the side of the performer it highlights the thrilling experience of being part of a unique event, and from the audience side, the text expresses the need to witness something authentic. “We want to see, hear, and feel that [the artists] have not only put thought, imagination, and technical effort into creating their works, but they must also prove to us the emotional and psychological sincerity of their output. The performer should convince the audience that their artistic endeavours are honest and real expressions of their personality and outlook on life.” A piece of a great interest which is subtly elaborated with many artists’ interviews, plus the insights of the concert promoter Gaya Donadio.
. “The Horror! The Horror!” Leeds Termite Club and British Noise History (d foist)
The author provides a thorough history of this infamous Leeds club, initially only dedicated for free jazz and improvisation concerts. The harsh freeform of some events increased over the years and “sporting Con-Dom’s Mike Dando as a stalwart committee member and with a general interest in the extreme, it was inevitable that the Termite would feature power electronics and classic industrial acts.” Then, from the late nineties and for about ten years, plenty of gigs were organised in this extreme sonic field. A painstaking piece filled with numerous quotes and recollections from multiples Termite players, yet the only one not only focused on the noise spectrum.
. Power [Electronics]: Exploring Liveness in Japanese Noise (Daniel Wilson)
This highly documented chapter with a twisted social angle has the goal to differentiate the Japanoise live aspect in comparison to the more traditional crowd experience at power electronics concerts. The notions of ‘power’ in noise, the importance of the physical live space, the visual corporeality of the performer are considered. Thus, the author, through various live examples, presents some of the key players of Japanoise (Merzbow, Masonna, Incapacitants, and MSBR) but also elaborates a very personal reasoning upon the noise performer as a cyborg. “A hybridisation of the artist as a part organic, part machine, where the performer is little more than a portal through which a machine creates music. This relationship might be understood as being relevant to a computer-music performer whose role is not to generate content live, but rather to curate and control a machine making sound quasi-acousmatically.” A peculiar text which has a more academic tone than others, yet perfectly suits its meandering purpose.
. Listening to the Void: Harsh Noise Walls (Clive Henry)
First of all, with personal thoughts and recollections, the author helps us to understand the themes, obsessions, and directions of this noise subgenre. Afterwards, the piece explores the sonic experience induced by these noise walls and, with the use of multiple artists’ quotes, the author tends to highlight the meditative aspect of this extreme sound immersion. The harsh spatial environment is not seen as a negative state but is more considered as a way to escape linear time. “This notion of a quiet introspective space is something very important in harsh noise walls. Many practitioners describe the experience of listening to (and, indeed, creating) walls using related terms: isolation, stillness, escape, void, concentration, a loosening of the mind.” An unexpected view which seems all the same valid – even it could be at least incongruous for the uninitiated to relate the words ‘noise’ and ‘meditation’. Actually, I did not expect anything from that reading but this subjective yet engaging text makes it very absorbing. It lights up the astonishing venture of the ‘walls of static noise’, and if you know nothing about outfits like The Rita, Vomir or Richard Ramirez, this piece is definitively for you.
. The Creative Process of Uneasy Listening: Noise from the Deathtripping Perspective (Nick Nihilist)
In the first place, I find it a bit odd that it was a so recent act that will describe the creative process in the noise spectrum. Yet the various intentions and paths to create noise works are so well described that the text is actually faithful and accurate. “Noise music offered me a vast creative outlet to channel my ideas, a place to explore my obsessions in audio form. I knew what sounds I wanted to create and what themes I wanted to explore. The prescribed or ‘correct’ way of music recording and audio production was alien to me but the actual creative process – the desire to express myself in an artistic medium – was not.” Indeed, in describing the personal drive that leads to propose extreme music with transgressive content, this piece depicts quite finely how a noise artist should, in the end, be considered like a sonic craftsman.
. Noise, Rhythm, and Excess from Whitehouse to Cut Hands (Jack Sargeant)
By contextualising Cut Hands through William Bennett’s work with Whitehouse the author has the aim to link both projects. The text highlights the fact that the power electronics of Whitehouse has mutated into the rhythmic force of Cut Hands. “If Whitehouse created a vortex of chaos with the group at its centre, Cut Hands put forward an entirely different proposition, replacing brute Sadean power with an ecstatic celebration that becomes realised through the multiple potentialities to be found in tonality, rhythm, and dance. Combining percussion with layers of electronic noise, and removing the over-powering vocal component.” A piece almost conceptual yet, from my perspective, which has pretty much nothing to do with the theme of the book.
When the first part of the volume was mostly focused on the power electronics side, this second one is more oriented towards the noise genre. The various recollections and feelings developed in this section bring a versatile rendering to it, and these perceptions highlight the specific dimension of the power electronics and noise performances in comparison to more standard concerts.
PART III: READINGS
. Questionable Intent: The Meaning and Message of Power Electronics (Richard Stevenson)
This piece is an in-depth endeavour embracing the issues induced by the potentially controversial power electronics’ material. “One of the most typical accusations levelled at the power electronics and industrial genres is that shock tactics are used as a simplistic way to make an impact and provoke a response from the audience. But digging beneath this surface-level interpretation, is there perhaps something deeper at play in the employment of such ‘shock tactics’?” Indeed, in the power electronics culture, the intent has always been part of the process and the exact meaning of the fierce words, the purpose of the various deviant visuals or the sense given through the samples are here questioned in order to clarify the power electronics’ meanings. The analysis of Genocide Organ ambiguous intentions is raised to bring a broader comprehension of the power electronics’ thematics. Of course, this text is not offering simple answers to all the difficult questions that arise with shock tactics because “[power electronics] demands thought and intellectual effort on the part of the listener, representing a sort of musical Rorschach test: the ‘truth’ is based on your own personal interpretation.” This piece is nothing less than illuminating by its way to confront the polemical themes of the genre.
. Object Histories. The Black (Visual) Economy of Power Electronics (Jennifer Wallis)
The author questions the historical use of the offensive power electronics’ visual material. “The usual reasoning for power electronics’ violent or horrific visuals is that ‘extreme sound requires extreme content’ – it’s an argument I’ve made myself in the past – but this now seems somewhat simplistic. For many artists artwork is an important part of a project’s evolution rather than an afterthought.” The text details also the relation between the listener and the product, with several examples of covers and booklets. Noting the references to more academic sources as well as a very fluid argumentation, this piece is very interesting in its way to put into perspective the ‘death and deviance’ imagery in extreme experimental music. The author concludes that, independently to an inevitable weak impact on the accustomed power electronics connoisseurs, the visual shock tactics still have a genuine purpose, behind its anti-social or misleading material. “So if you’re not able to shock us anymore, then at least make us think (like the artists and releases here have made me think), make us ask questions, otherwise we may as well still be browsing rotten.com.”
. The Servitudes of Slapstick: A Comedy of Violence (Spencer Grady)
As you have probably noticed, I am not inclined to easy criticism yet it is impossible not to be ashamed by the contemptuous tone of this piece. Of course, a certain solemnity has always surrounded the scene yet, in no case, the ‘hooligans of noise’ need the ludicrous ramblings of a jazz and avant-garde music specialist to caricature their culture. It is pretty hard to endure the opinion of someone pompously analyzing the power electronics’ intents for the sole purpose of criticizing its lack of humor, with lame and out of context examples in addition to an endless name dropping. “So, what better way to counter the rigid solemnity of authority, artistic or otherwise, than a good old-tickler? Send-ups such Aristophanes’ Lysistrata and Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator (1940) have lampooned the irrationality of blind obedience, while satires such as Tony Hancock vehicle The Rebel (1961) and Family Guy episode A Picture is worth a 1,000 Bucks have tugged the rug from under the modern art world, puncturing pretension with sourpuss sarcasm, making more of an impression than any Broken Flag release.” I certainly do understand that a book covering controversial subjects needs counterweights, yet such a sustained mocking diatribe is only diminishing the seriousness of the best pieces of the tome.
. Farce the First Time Round? Encountering Noise as Comedy (Paul Margree)
The author puts the focus on the idea that the sonically harsh medium added to the subversive content has, within itself, something akin to comedy. He describes a recollection of a noise output listening and the feeling induced, between discomfort and euphoria. He also relates Torturing Nurses shows and his subsequent impressions, when watching back the performance on YouTube. “As the clip progresses, the unease seems to transform into pure enjoyment. The observers seem to ride out their mix of fear and joy, surfing the rush that comes from those two emotional zones in conflict. It’s not always easy to tell, of course, but the looks in their eyes seem to morph subtly into almost comfortable warmth, as if they were witnessing some wholesome family entertainment instead of some guy in a gimp mask banging hell out of an old-fashioned domestic appliance.” I feel rather doubtful about the interest of this text, yet it is sober in its conclusion than the preceding one and is particularly funny to read.
. BRUT – The Killjoy of ‘White’ Noise (Sonia Dietrich)
The digressive escalation of the two previous texts makes me going dubious in regard to the penultimate piece of the book. The author is a provocative animal and wants confrontation: the white male combat-boot crowd did not frighten her, and she wants to fight back the gender issues related to power electronics. This piece is a total barrage of angry feminist shouts – which is finally far more in agreement with the power electronics’ stance, than the theoretical emptiness of some previous arguments. This said, in raising questions about gender politics, the merciless prose of the author takes obviously a more meaningful aim in her musical manifesto, yet here it looks like an overreaction reducing the scene to generalised themes. “This whole serial killer, rapist, uber-man, power-trip movement is a sad representation of powerlessness, desperation, and escapism.” Even I reckon the pertinence of this scathing text – finger-pointing the over-sexualised women’s pain content in some power electronics material – this furious piece appears, after all, too much out of scope the concerns of the tome.
. Talking about Noise: The Limits of Language (Kevin Matthew Jones)
With personal recollections, the author shares with us the difficulty to describe honestly a noise show in comparison to a more conventional rock band concert. “The highly subjective nature of the experience often prevents discussion going much further than visual description and a bit of trivia about the act. Perhaps, ultimately, language can’t represent the experience of listening to noise.” Everybody has certainly felt that impasse to verbalise his intimate feeling after an experimental performance. Discussions always end in futility when we try to express a personal gut sensation, and this casual text acts as a perfect conclusion of the book.
By editorial description, this third part puts emphasis on “the more contentious points surrounding power electronics, the difficulty of decoding its conflicting messages, its thematic and visual preoccupations, and its comedic potential.” And, as a matter of fact, some pieces are undoubtedly relevant to the book’s theme yet others seem too much out of place, in excessively focusing on some negative aspects of power electronics.
I have found the vast majority of the book very engaging when not totally absorbing, and some pieces are nothing less than purely interesting, yet some other texts appear superfluous if not definitely counterproductive. Besides, the fact that key players are conspicuous by their absence is a bit of a shame, especially for artists from continental Europe, with respect to its fundamental birthplace in the power electronics history. Nevertheless, this lack should be relativised, because the rationale of the book was very clear from the beginning: its aim was not to be a sort of encyclopedia, and by editorial admission there are gaps.
Regarding the underlying point of the book – linking up the power electronics and the noise subgenres – and even obvious musical overlaps and some audience intersection, I do not feel the volume has achieved this goal. I still consider that both genres maintain a definitive antagonism due to their different cultural heritage as well as their definite conceptual intent. In short: power electronics is certainly not just ‘harsh-noise-with-vocals’. This said, I must reckon that the reading of the book – by means of bright interventions and multiple reflections elaborated along the volume – has made my opinion evolve on the shared sonic assaults’ intentions of these two subcultures and, from now on, I consider much more power electronics and noise like partners in crime.
In conclusion, this work proposes a large palette of opinions that encourage the reader to think far beyond the territory of the sole power electronics culture. Besides, the varied profiles of the contributors and the resulting wide range of authorial styles, tones, and angles make the reading less academic it could appear initially. Being more a kind of oral history, this tome is a consistent endeavour and a success in confronting subjective views, in order to achieve the aim of any musical book: make the reader become a listener – of power electronics and/or noise.
Images courtesy of the editor Jennifer Wallis & the publisher Headpress.