You might not ever have guessed it from listening to most of his records, but Masami Akita, a/k/a, Merzbow, harbors a love of jazz and progressive rock that comes out through his own music in the oddest ways. Before he started Merzbow per se, he was drumming with a prog-style group, and his approach to noise reminded me more of the sensibilities of a jazzman than a shock-tactics terrorist. With his album Door Open at 8AM, he used jazz as the raw material and created a kind of meta-jazz. With Merzbeat, he’s taken what sounds like his own prog / jazz playing, run it through his digital shredder, joined the shreds end-to-end and made something that reminds us of prog-rock the way prog-rock itself reminds us of classical music, or jazz, or any of the half-a-hundred other kinds of music it also freely assimilates.
I’ve been listening to Merzbow’s records for over a decade now, but I didn’t really start hearing what he was really doing until I listened to Amlux, and applied what I heard there to everything else of his (Merzbeat included). Amlux sparked a realization that may seem obvious, but wasn’t really at the forefront of my mind before: just because something is loud or soft doesn’t mean it’s meant to be obnoxious or restful, respectively, and if something (e.g., Merzbow’s own electronic splatters) twitters and screeches like a bird that doesn’t mean it’s meant to remind us of a bird, or evoke a bird.
As John Cage was inclined to say:
…sounds were just sounds, and that if they weren’t just sounds that we would (I was of course using the editorial we)—we would do something about it in the next composition. I said that since the sounds were sounds, this gave people hearing them the chance to be people, centered within themselves, where they actually are, not off artificially in the distance as they are accustomed to be, trying to figure out what is being said by some artist by means of sounds.[*]
“These pieces are not objects,” he added, referring to his own music, “but processes, essentially purposeless.” I don’t think Merzbow’s work is as openly “purposeless”—it’s far clearer that he’s trying to evoke something, but I think it’s more that he’s trying to evoke what’s inside the creator than to try and transplant something specific into the mind of the listener. He’s not telling stories.
For many people this is more of a leap than they’re willing to make with their music, but again, we’ve gotten accustomed to paintings that aren’t meant to evoke specific things or even impressions of things; what about music that isn’t meant to be anything other than sound? The usual counter-argument is that such things are not interesting—i.e., they’re not about anything concrete, so there’s no possibility of drama. There’s already plenty of places people can go to get things dramatized or depicted; Merzbow is about something entirely different, and is being done by someone who has an artistic sensibility about the whole thing and isn’t simply trying to bludgeon us with the new and leave it at that. I said something about Yoshinotsune that seems to fit with Merzbeat as well: this isn’t a soundtrack, where you’re meant to listen and then form an image in your mind about what’s being depicted. It’s not about something being depicted, but the urge to depict something.
In terms of the way the tracks progress and evolve, Merzbeat is actually a close cousin to Yoshinotsune too—a completely different kind of Merzbow record in terms of its theme and sound sources, but one which works the same as far as how those things are transformed and evolved. If nothing else it just shows that the two were created at around the same period—in terms of what they start with and what they end up with, though, they’re entirely unalike. That’s really the thing that draws me back to Merzbow: every record is as different and exciting as another year’s Christmas presents from a good friend.
Footnote: Merzbeat has a bonus track all the way out at the end of the disc—a remix of Amlux by Jack Dangers (of Meat Beat Manifesto) which is astonishing in its inventiveness. The corresponding Merzbow remix of MBM’s “Storm the Studio” is equally good; maybe these two can collaborate on something full-length and fulfill the promise hinted at by these two tracks.