here are circles of noise elitists (or anti-elitists, as they would have you believe) who really can’t stand the thought of anything even remotely intelligent or sophisticated “ruining” their precious world of daisy-chained delay pedals and sexual frustration. If your idea of a concept is a woman in bondage, you’re okay. Anything else? Forget about it. Use a computer? You better just pack it up and go home. While I could do without the misogyny, I do feel that their contributions to experimental music are pretty much equal to those of their conceptual and academic peers. All that can be argued later, but my point is this: these guys have some issues, and the biggest one is betrayal. What’s to be done when one of their own crosses over? When someone who once held the puritan-like view of noise suddenly (gulp) experiments with some new ideas? I think it’s fairly obvious that you start making snide remarks and ridiculous comments on the internet. Yes, indeed. And when news spread that Merzbow’s next album would once again be a laptop work focused on processed animal sounds? Well, you know the deal.
Though the first few digital works by Mr. Akita most definitely deserved their criticism, they could have been a lot worse given the complete 180 and the change of medium. Those days are little more than memories now (they also represent a barely mentionable fraction of Merzbow’s output) and I have no doubt that he is currently pretty close to approaching his full potential. He is definitely still working out a thing or two - and those analog purists will definitely remind you he has made much better albums - but Animal Magnetism is so full of excellent noise it’s about to burst. More importantly, it has a much more mysterious air than his previous digital output and that makes for a really good listen.
It is quite literally as though Frog, Merzbeat, and Merzzow (and the countless other discs that flew a little lower under the radar this past year or so) were all building up to this album. This could be backed up by the fact that all three previous albums came out on relatively small, though very respectable, labels, while AM is hitting shelves on Alien8, easily one of the hottest labels in experimental music today. The real difference here is that everything blends together so much better and doesn’t seem as contrived. The works mentioned dealt with animal sounds, heavy metal, 20th century composition, and animal sounds again. Pretty much in that order. Animal Magnetism, however, says theories be damned and goes for the gold by throwing all of those concepts together. Admittedly, I didn’t have very high expectations. It seemed like too much for even Merzbow to handle. But Akita takes the mess he’s given and does what he’s done best for twenty-plus years: makes it even fucking messier.
And that’s why it works. When in doubt, make it louder. When in doubt, convolute. That there are places on the record where it is impossible to tell whether you’re hearing a pitch-shifted chicken or a squealing guitar is what makes it so excellent. You know both are there, but you really can’t tell one from the other. There are several instances on the first two tracks where I was sure I had figured everything in the chaotic mix out, only to be proven completely wrong when things died down and the samples were more clear. This obviously isn’t the case throughout the entire album, but a vast majority is pretty hard to decipher and even the moments when you clearly hear a chicken in the foreground are no less exciting.
Here’s the skinny. The first two tracks, “Animal Magnetism” and “Quiet Men,” have the most going on and, by far, the highest confusion factor. “Super Sheep,” while less noisy overall, is overflowing with insane beats - some of Merzbow’s finest, if you’re into the gabber-like work he’s done in the past. Despite its title, there are either no animal sounds here or they are processed and masked very, very well. The same goes for “A Ptarmigan” which is named after a grouse-like bird, only revealing anything remotely bird-like after eight minutes of drone and squelch. Perhaps it was there all along? Maybe I just want that sound to be a bird? That’s the beauty of it. The final track is a little calmer. Like “A Ptarmigan” but heavy (heavy) on the psychedelia and never really getting very chaotic. A good way to end the album, but nothing exceptional. Might be a couple vocal samples in there - even in its relative calm the track is more than a little sample-happy.
The one issue I have with the album (the previously mentioned “thing or two”) is that it does occasionally slip into the same digital cliches as some of his previous laptop material. Again I’ll state that I’m no analog purist, but vintage Merzbow never really sounded like any of his contemporaries. A track like “Super Sheep” on the other hand could almost pass as something off Digital Hardcore or just about any random Tigerbeatter. Even the less beat-centric tracks have bits of Max/MSP garbage even my sister wouldn’t leave in the final mix. Listening to just the first 30 seconds of the record, you’d think I was probably way too kind in giving it a good review. It’s just boring. A sad intro that really hides the great album behind it.
The cure for all this seems simple. Akita should really just take things a step further and break out the old oscillator and some analog effects. He’s already throwing guitar in with his laptop, so why not go all out? I know he’s trying to break some new ground in the digital world (and he is, to a certain extent) but he’d really be moving into new turf by mixing his new and old styles together. Maybe he’ll go that route. Most likely not. I have no real problem with the new Merzbow, but it’s hard to argue he’s still the “King of Noise.” More truthfully, he’s a guy who’s pretty damn good at laptop noise. There are more than a few who are better though.
To end on a positive note, all the chickens recorded for this album are Akita’s own pets, which I think is probably the coolest thing about the record. It’s good to know he has farm experience should this laptop stuff not work out for him.
Reviewed by: Mike Shiflet
Reviewed on: 2003-09-01