I’ve long felt that the big difference between Merzbow and almost every other “noise artist”, whether from Japan or anywhere else, was that Merzbow was at least as interested in the art as he was the noise. Sure, you can point to a good many of his records and say they’re the most earsplitting thing since the last time a squadron of jet planes strafed an aluminum factory, but he hasn’t limited himself to being about mere volume or overkill. With each of his recent releases he’s found another incremental refinement, another element to add, another way to tackle and transform the raw material he uses.
The approach has remained pretty consistent, though. Merzbow layers loops of sound and whorls of piercing noise on top of each other to create sonic states of mind — sometimes abrasive, sometimes placid, sometimes ominous. Sometimes he goes for sheer sonic overload without much in the way of composition or construction (Venereology); sometimes he drops back and creates something so placid and inwardly quiet you’d think it was from a totally different artist (Music for Bondage Performance). With an album title like Merzbuddha and tracks named “Mantra 1” through “Mantra 3” I expected something more like the latter, but this disc is actually closer in spirit to the more recent Yoshinotsune and Amlux, and has the same disciplined audacity of both of those records.
Each of the “mantras” is dominated by a throbbing bass loop that anchors everything and undergoes only the most minimal variations for most of the piece. Eventually the bass fades or dissipates and is wholly subsumed by Merzbow’s trademark “aural splatter” (or as someone else put it, “audio Pollock”): wild, tangled bursts of noise from his EMS synthi or from one of the Max/MSP software modules that he now uses as his main compositional tool. The overall effect is strangely soothing and all-enveloping, much as a real mantra itself is meant to be. Whatever changes take place are made part of the overall progression of the piece, so much so that by the time the bass loop mutates beyond recognition or drops out of the picture entirely even the changes have become part of the picture.
The bass undercurrent serves like the drums or bass in an extended jazz improvisation — an anchor for those of us who can’t quite let go of rhythm completely when diving into one of Merzbow’s pools. In fact the connections to Merzbow and jazz / progressive rock are plentiful and fairly blatant: he’s paid homage to favorite jazz performers on his records (as on Door Open at 8AM), at one point played drums in a prog-rock outfit of his own, and adds drums on Merzbow albums. Merzbeat brought a great many of these elements to the fore, but not in the sense that he was trying to make Merzbow into a jazz outfit — only that jazz and prog drumming and all the rest were simply some of the many diverse elements he was free to choose from and separate from their traditions for the sake of his work.
What’s most curious about Merzbuddha, again, is how despite it being anything but ambient it’s one of the most absorbing Merzbow records I own. I can listen to it while doing most anything and not get distracted at all, which is not something I can say about the sonic junk sculpture / tape-edit collage of Batz-tou-tai or even Merzbeat, really. In its own Merzbow-ish way, and like its namesake, Merzbuddha brings a thoroughly unexpected inner peace.
There’s a great story that John Cage once told that is like an embodiment of everything Merzbow is about. At one point he was substituting as music teacher at the New School for Henry Cowell, and was not given any instructions more detailed than to take out a record, play it, and discuss it with the class. He ended up playing a Buddhist chant, which eventually became a single reiterated percussive beat that went on with no discernible variation for twenty-odd minutes. Finally a woman stood up and screamed, “Take it off, I can’t stand it anymore!” Cage lifted the needle from the record, but just then another man protested, “Why’d you take it off? I was just beginning to get into it!” I wonder if they could have gotten into this one.