I'm standing in the Luminaire, one of London's nicer fleapit gig venues, as an American band called Yellow Swans takes to the stage. Two men from Portland, Oregon, dressed in standard indie-rock gear--trucker caps and checked shirts--stand facing each other on either side of a towering mass of wires and electronic gadgets. One has a guitar strapped to his chest while the other cradles a microphone. The chattering crowd falls silent as the speakers begin to emit a gentle hum, which rapidly builds into a distorted wall of feedback and electronic scree. It is a little like having a helicopter take off about three inches away from my face, but strangely compelling. There are snatches of recognisable sounds--the odd guitar chord; rasping croaks that could be vocals; some hints at rhythm, but few hooks for the uninitiated listener to hang on to. It presents you with a stark choice: take refuge at the bar until the band has finished, or immerse yourself in the abstract, largely improvised sounds and let them carry you where they will.
Yellow Swans are part of a growing global scene of "noise" artists who draw inspiration from the more extreme ends of various rock and electronic genres to create some of the most innovative and exhilarating new music around. Between this month and May, some of them will be touring the UK under the banner of "Free Noise", a collaborative live project in which a range of leading noise musicians, including Yellow Swans and the synthesizer duo Metalux, team up with free-jazz performers such as the British saxophonist Evan Parker.
As in free jazz, the avant-garde musical movement that developed in the 1950s and 1960s, practitioners of noise music are driven by a desire to push boundaries. Pete Swanson of Yellow Swans explains that "part of the excitement of playing improvised music is that it's uncharted territory; it's pure discovery. You're communicating with other musicians in a way that is almost accidental but is extremely invigorating."
Whereas jazz players do this with virtuoso displays of technique, noise musicians explore the limits of sound itself, using feedback and electronic manipulation to coax unique, often ear-splittingly loud sounds out of their instruments. In one sense, this is nothing new; artists and musicians have been exploring the properties of atonal music for generations. The futurist painter Luigi Russolo's 1913 manifesto The Art of Noises called for musical forms inspired by the harsh new sounds of the industrial age. Later, the French musique concrete movement drew on sounds from the "real world" for inspiration.
But while its ancestors belonged more in the refined settings of a gallery or concert hall, the noise subculture, which has existed in one form or another for the past few decades, is also a growing youth movement, with a unique tape-trading culture and a network of grass-roots concert promoters and record labels that spans Europe, the US and Japan. …