We are a long ways from 1877, but an audacious claim made in that year - Walter Pater's insistence that "all art constantly aspires to the condition of music" - is still very much with us. Or, at the very least, we live in a time when artists are seen as "constantly aspiring" to be musicans, no matter how otherwise busy they may be with non-musical projects. Take the cases of artists like John Duncan and Masami Akita: both have curriculae vitae that are bursting with genre-defying cultural activities, and both can capably argue that their experience as multi-media artists or inter-media researchers either precedes their interest in sound recording, or should simply not be disassociated from their status as sound artists. Yet the romantic cultural bias towards 'music' as the queen of the arts - itself made more intoxicating in a networked computer age where visuo-centrism impoverishes the senses - has not passed these two by.
If either Masami or John are hoping to reverse this state of affairs, then it's a bit of a paradox that they are incredibly good at what they do sonically, guaranteeing some kind of heightened curiosity about their audio work for the foreseeable future. They've both taken their respective experiences with the modern world, and successfully distilled the eroticism and terror of these experiences into audio elixirs that are wholly their own. John Duncan is among the more notable artists to take the audio concept of the 'drone' beyond its associations with passivity and limited, pre-programmed functionality: in his hands it has become a versatile tool for self-reflection and, perhaps, correction. Meanwhile, Masami's appopriation of Kurt Schwitters' Merzbau for his similarly-named sound project [Merzbow] just becomes more apt as we progress further into an age where technological progress brings with it "monuments" of toxic waste with each successive smart-phone upgrade. Since the 1980s, Merzbow's psychotronic barrage of tape loops, later morphing into a metallized maelstrom and an interminable set of digital paroxysms, has been a tragi-comic distortion and a violent rebuke of the utilitarian Japanese society in which he has spent his lifetime.
The first thing that greets the listener upon receiving Akita and Duncan's collaborative Black Album is the fragility of its packaging: gutted by a shotgun blast, the wounds in the plain black cover reveal a lurid, high-gloss pink inner sleeve which provides the last line of defense for the record itself. A preliminary visual statement of this kind braces the listener for the kind of Zen epiphany that occurs when being whacked with the stick of the rōshi. But, with that in mind, I should offer up a disclaimer: this record should not be listened to as an explosive kind of "supergroup" meeting of the minds; as one of those watershed artefacts in which an unanticipated fusion of different approaches births a whole new attitude towards personal expression. It is a "conversational" collaboration seemingly guided by no single principle, which John's own introductory text seems to make clear:
Masami's and my conversations look like heroin addicts talking:
A five minute silence.
A five minute silence.
A five minute silence.
A five minute silence.
The BLACK ALBUM shows what's going on in our heads.
A disc of actual verbal conversations along the lines mentioned above would itself be a worthy exchange for money - both these individuals are highly fluid communicators; Masami Akita in particular has a keen understanding of linguistics, and the cold grimness that music critics like to project onto him belies his genuine sense of humor. However, the sonic content of The Black Album consists instead of non-verbal soundmarks that will initially be identified with each of the artists, and which will eventually merge into a single current.
A frantic, percolating kind of audio synthesis dominates the A-side, seemingly bent on preventing the listener from discovering secrets contained in the layers of atmospheric sound just beneath. Of course, the longer this agitated, electrified dance is allowed to continue, the more this yawning backrop becomes an object of consuming curiosity. The one clue as to "source material" that Duncan provides us - that recordings were made in the Gran Sasso nuclear laboratory - is enough to make us want to know what this subdued mechanical roar is all about, and what implications (catastrophic or otherwise) it might have for us if we get closer to it. Just when it seems we are getting closer to finding on what goes on behind the curtain, though, a series of massive waves come crashing down to close out the first side, leaving any questions unresolved. The untitled B-side of the record leaves listeners with even fewer easy reference points, throwing them into an inner space where metal ribbons rain and, again, vie for attention with the plaintive song of undefined power sources. This time around, the journey ends with an abrupt silence rather than a wash-out.
It should come as little surprise that this is a noisy work - often reaching that threshold point in which the recording instruments seem to be gasping for air - but it's a noise that is satisfyingly removed from the kind of material that would actually take pride in being called "noise." Namely, this record steers well clear of the bells-and-whistles approach that brings this supposed anti-genre a little closer to the showbiz culture it supposedly abhors. It wisely cleaves to an artistic vision of saturated sound as a force that is already undergoing a number of permutations in the listener's mind, well before a multitude of effects boxes and custom patches are brought to bear on it. Akita and Duncan continue their work here as emissaries of the elemental, in all its perplexing majesty.
-- Thomas Bey William Bailey
One of the most sought-after collector's items in the domain of noise-based composition is Mirror Pulse, a cassette released on the Australian Extreme imprint in 1990 by the same couple that engendered the subject of this review, a limited edition LP that will plausibly travel a similar path towards a condition of rarity. Not even yours truly, conversant with both artists' output well before they reached a merited cult status, has ever managed to locate a copy of that tape. Thus I am not risking a poor figure by comparing works separated by a 24-year span.
What this writer is assimilating at this moment -- it's been days now, no "distractions" provided by disjunctive choices -- is a hefty 39-minute piece subdivided in three distinct sections. Superficially speaking, the bulk of the sounds might be filed in the "computerized racket" category in virtue of their quick morphological mutation and impulsive shifts. Still, all of them incorporate factors of sympathetic resonance and reiteration that force us to firmly refuse the mere sticking of the worn-out "N" label on something that digs much deeper. To better understand what we mean, headphones are strongly recommended to get inebriated by the myriads of seductively pernicious events pillaging the cochlea.
Duncan is not interested in revealing the sources (though we have learned from a writeup by Thomas Bey William Bailey that some of the recordings were made in an Italian nuclear laboratory). He just hints at the behavioral unusualness of the files once they had been exchanged, modified and put on the hard disk. Add this to the sentence on the press blurb ("The Black Album shows what's going on in our heads") and think for a while about what humans do which seems "normal" and instead is bizarre, to say the least.
Let me deepen this concept. One afternoon I was attempting to remain watchful while subjecting myself to the hyperactive qualities of these radiating outpours, but kept falling asleep. The reason is simple, and it's called "connectedness". The self-generated intrinsic compatibility proposing to the brain as we were involved in the process of examining the acoustic matter seemed to set in motion peculiar mechanisms leading to unconsciousness. The intimacy with certain types of listening experience is evidently an advantage; the shocking components became somewhat familiar occurrences, to which we relinquished our quivering kernel.
When that transfixing session ended, the fortifying silence of a countryside's summer was being offended by the blurred echo of a distant karaoke coming from a mid-August social occasion somewhere in the nearby town. Dreadfully out-of-tune voices destroying popular tunes were conveying a single word: despair. Duncan's above quote suddenly came to mind. Many of those who define themselves as "natural" or "unsophisticated" persons can, in given conditions, do things that in the view of a bona fide psycho-sonic analyst appear as random acts dictated by abnormal mental patterns (usually deriving from a hopeless search for attention). There you go: cheaply "regular" music runs parallel to the exasperation caused by a flat existential structure. On the other side of the coin, the hypothetical termination of conventional audible platforms translates as a sort of access to a blessed sphere.
Unspeakable (pun intended) suggestions, perhaps originating from a particle accelerator, abstractive echoes of industrial activities and, possibly, shortwave processes get violently disintegrated. But from that digitally induced disorder, internal tranquility is inexplicably born. As we learn the regulations of interference, we gain in forbearance when the real perturbation -- namely, ordinary people's enervating conduct -- tries to untune us. Akita and Duncan's work amplifies the perception of a legitimate need to deliver ourselves from the worst kind of authoritarian regime: that of verbalized commonplace and dark-age rational shallowness masked as ultimate truths, and deplorably accepted as such by growingly impotent aggregations.
--Massimo Ricci, Touching Extremes