• Sonic Rituals
    Reviews

    梅志勇 – Sonic Rituals 声响仪式

    Sonic Rituals梅志勇
    Sonic Rituals 声响仪式
    DVD, Fuzztape, 2015

    I’ve crossed paths with 梅志勇 (Méi Zhìyǒng) on a few occasions, mostly at shows he was playing in the city I happened to be living – sometimes it was Hong Kong, other times Shanghai. He consistently struck me as an outward, fun-loving guy who was always either drinking a beer, smoking a cigarette or stomping on a chain of distortion pedals while screaming his lungs out, and Sonic Rituals 声响仪式 confirms my impression. This DVD, released by his own Fuzztape label, documents the 2014 “Sonic Rituals” tour that brought Dave Phillips and Mei Zhiyong to more than fifteen Chinese cities (including Shanghai, Beijing, Wuhan, Changsha, Shenzhen, Xi’an and Dalian) with the help of the Nojiji collective, Yan Jun’s Subjam label, the Pro Helvetia foundation and the Zürich city administration. Zhiyong and Dave’s sustained collaboration, which has led them to record music and tour together in both China and Europe over the years, is one of the most evident examples of how international cooperation between noise artists can lead to creative opportunities and degrees of mobility that would be unattainable and unreachable by individual musicians operating in the cozy yet restricted milieus of their local or national scene.

    Sonic Rituals is, at heart, an urgent documentation of events that, for director Mei Zhiyong, could only exist in the form contained in this DVD: as he writes in the epigraph at the beginning of the film,

    For me, what is important are images and sounds, not the text. It’s about feelings, about atmospheres, about traveling, about friendship. It’s about sound, about passion, about rituals.

    Performing noise and touring with friends in China and abroad can’t really be written about – that’s the job of scholars, critics and journalists whom no one really reads – and the most fitting way to chronicle and celebrate these moments is instead capturing them with cameras and audio recorders, ingesting everything from cab rides to backstage laughter and later condensing these memories into a fifty-two-minute, black & white reel. On a backdrop of punctuated distortion, freeze-frames of a blurry Zhiyong squirming on stage give way to digital footage of Dave Phillips grimacing playfully in front of the camera. Train stations whizzing by, crowds shuffling, Dave stating that “Chinese is so difficult”, Zhiyong pointing the camera to his own face while sitting in a cab. The combination of quick cuts, metallic noises and grainy black & white footage seems an obvious nod to Shin’ya Tsukamoto’s Tetsuo, but the existential anguish is here forsaken in favor of the positive, ecstatic excitement of traveling together to perform across the country. Bullet trains speeding through the landscape, Beijing’s urban sprawl, unclear shadows moving in poorly-lit venues, audience members taking photos with their smartphones: the sudden juxtapositions and rapid fade-outs are Zhiyong’s way of replicating the sensory assault and unexpected turns of harsh noise improvisations by manipulating moving images rather than sounds.

    The initial disorientation gives way to longer, fixed shots of performances from the tour. Wearing a Nojiji t-shirt, Mei Zhiyong screams in fits and starts into his microphone, driving the saturated distortion to the brink of feedback before throwing himself onto the floor and rolling back towards the guitar amplifier, the speaker cones feedbacking into trembling sinewaves. Kneeling on the floor, Dave Phillips feeds some field recordings from a MP3 player into the venue’s massive sound system, and the chirping sounds of frogs and insects pierce through the room as he adjusts their frequencies on a mixer. Sitting next to a concrete basin, Zhiyong is recording the sounds of dripping water and of a nearby hand-dryer, as a haunting percussive composition starts playing in the background. The rhythm slows down in the second half of the film, almost entirely dedicated to a recording of a Dave Phillips show that begins with him ominously breathing in a pitch-black room, while a projector occasionally flashes grisly images and cryptic statements on a screen behind him. The performance builds up into a chilling set of power electronics augmented by a montage of disturbing videos of animal mistreatment, including monkeys with sewn eyes, cats being tortured and cows being slaughtered. Despite the gripping nature of the live set, the haphazard camera angle cutting parts of the screen as well as most of Dave’s performative presence out of frame smothers the dynamism of the first half of the film, prompting questions regarding the inclusion of this extended take. Fortunately, the ending of the set, with Dave Phillips leaving the stage while some unhappy audience members vocally protest the graphic nature of the video projections they have been exposed to, explains the decision of including an almost integral recording of the entire performance to contextualize the controversy.

    Is Sonic Rituals a tour diary? A travelogue? An experimental film? A cinematic attempt at noise-making? In an off-camera dialogue captured by Zhiyong himself during the soundcheck of the Hong Kong tour date, he tells someone else: “I’m shooting a jilupian [documentary],” to which the other person, acknowledging that he is indeed recording a lot of footage, replies by asking him to take a look. “Mei you yisi”, Zhiyong replies – “It’s not interesting.” The Chinese term jilupian used by Zhiyong to describe his own production might hint at a broader understanding of ‘documentary’ that emphasizes the participatory act of recording as a form of memory-making – capturing footage that is perhaps “not interesting” in the moment (as Dave Phillips notes in one shot, while he tries to finish his soundcheck, “there’s fucking cameras everywhere”), but that can be later on reworked into a cinematic form resonating with the embodied experience of a touring noise artist. Regardless of the genre it belongs to, Sonic Rituals definitely portrays two friends having a good time: riding a sanlunche around Beijing’s hutong, sliding down a slope while sitting on a wheeled suitcase, muttering “fuck!” in various circumstances, and sitting in a backyard while someone strums an acoustic guitar.

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  • Reviews

    Ronez – Sitar-Shaped Cock

    Sitar-Shaped CockRonez
    Sitar-Shaped Cock
    CDr, Doufu Records, 2009

    I got in touch with Ronez on MySpace around 2005 or 2006 – he was using his real name 周沛 (Zhōu Pèi), and his avatar was a weird self-portrait with a red lantern dangling from his face. He was one of the few Chinese experimental musicians using the social networking platform to promote his works internationally, in a time before Soundcloud, Facebook and Bandcamp, when collaborations and live shows were arranged through private messages and comments left on one’s MySpace profile. Then this time passed, MySpace collapsed, I moved to China and happened to buy a few Ronez albums in record stores around the country, and eventually ended up playing a show with him in Shanghai. People came specifically to see Zhou Pei perform, some of them revering him as a pioneering savant of Chinese experimental music. After the show, we added each other on WeChat, where he occasionally posts photos of food or of his holiday travels.

    Sitar-Shaped Cock has been sitting on my shelf for a long time, waiting to be ripped and properly listened to. Like many other Ronez releases, its absurdist title and cover artwork manage to be almost entirely non-referential. The liner notes on the backcover are a slightly better lead into the album: they provide hardware specifications – “mixer, computer, wacom tablet, ndsl, oscillator, theremin mini, gakken sx-150, mics, pedals” – as well as relational coordinates – “Thanks: dad, mom, mini, ziming, ableton live, wmidi(for wacom), taalmala, korg ds-10(for ndsl)”. in Zhou Pei’s artistic practice, music equipment, family, software, friends, protocols and patches are all on the same level, elements of a network of inputs and outputs the results of which are etched with light on the surface of a CDr. The artwork printed on the other side of the disc also summarizes this flat network of musicmaking through a minimalist drawing of a Wacom tablet, a computer mouse and a sitar. Sitar-Shaped Cock reflects this exhilarating flattening in its contents: playful harsh noise explorations and grimy improvised techno bangers are mixed with crystalline experiments in controlling sampled synthesizers through a Wacom drawing tablet.

    After a few introductory looped vocal bleeps, Son of Noise approaches distortion with a calm but assertive expressivity not distant from the more straightforward works of Merzbow, drastically panned squeaking feedbacks soaring over slow cut-up distortions into a full-spectrum wall of rumbling crackle. The contrast of this opening track with the following couplet of Wacom Solo #16 and Wacom Solo #28 (Remix) is destabilizing, as the impossibly quick flurries of piano notes and the plastified Indian raga sound closer to the incongruous sonic juxtapositions of Violent Onsen Geisha or the self-conscious irony of much of contemporary vaporwave’s recuperation of cheesy synthesizers and MIDI-controlled aesthetics. But it would be misleading to talk about Ronez’s aesthetics through the leading names of Japanoise or genres that didn’t even exist in 2009. Zhou Pei’s sound is highly idiosyncratic and courageously playful, carving a comfortable personal space out of digital signal paths and circuitboards.

    Phone Maniac is perhaps my favorite track of the album, a grimy and prophetic impression of the techno-noise that would become popular a few years later, featuring ominous distortion pedal drones carefully steered over a carpet bombing of tight kick drum and an acid and obsessive step-sequenced synth phrase. After it, Zhou Pei moves back into more Wacom improvisations, this time with a synthesized reed (Wacom Solo #22), an approximated organ (Wacom Solo #9), and a nine-minute dreamy meditation for reverberating clavier (Wacom Solo #11). Knob the Don is another immersion into metallic harsh noise textures topped by the wide hissing of monophonic synthesizers, oscillators bubbling and gurgling left and right. Ronez’s noisemaking isn’t hectic, yet it is in constant change, sweeping all over the frequency spectrum and kept in motion by steady manipulation and mastery of the relevant knobs. The conclusive 17 minute-long In Core, previously released on a 3-inch CDr, sounds like a miniature version of the album in which, rather than being presented in a linear fashion, the elemental components of Zhou Pei’s music-making practices are layered one over the other: distorted leads over synthetic tablas, bubbling bass over hypnotic fuzzy loops, oscillator bleeps ricocheting from the left to the right channel and back over sped-up and slowed-down tape simulation. After all, aren’t all cocks sitar-shaped? Or is Ronez reflecting on the fact that perhaps it isn’t the sitar to be cock-shaped, but the other way around – the human being shaped around the instrument, the hand around the mouse, the finger around the knob?

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  • Reviews

    Big Brother & The Holding Cock – Big Brother & The Holding Cock

    Big Brother & The Holding CockBig Brother & The Holding Cock
    Big Brother & The Holding Cock
    C20, Fuzztape, 2011

    Being impressed by 梅志勇 (Méi Zhìyǒng)’s solo performance in Hong Kong – an intoxicated, quite punk microphone-driven fuzzfest just about ten minutes long – I dug in my box of yet-unexplored releases and ended up ripping this 2011 collaboration with Torturing Nurse’s Junky released by the man’s own label, Fuzztape, under the name Big Brother & The Holding Cock. Now, I have absolutely no idea of the relationship that this record has with Big Brother & The Holding Company (maybe some of their LPs were scratched by Junky during the recording session?), but the name sounds fun, if anything because of the semantic associations I make when I think of it – like, who is the Big Brother here? Probably Junky himself, while Mei Zhiyong takes the role of the Holding Cock, or just holding his own cock, or maybe Junky’s. Anyway, it is a cute name for a purportedly industrial/noise act who releases a black cassette wrapped in a sheet of “sulfuric acid waste paper” (as per their description, probably a Google-powered translation of tracing paper which does indeed sound very industrial), itself bundled in a lump of knotted tape, making the whole packaging quite hard to put back together once opened.

    What’s the music like, anyway? Nothing transcendental, but way better than Zhiyong’s solo output reviewed some time ago and, despite its low-key stuttering and muffled tape mastering, the two ten-minute sides are actually capable of gaining the listener’s attention through precarious variations and glitchy passages. Side One begins with a broken sequencer tone undergoing some uneventful modulations – probably a circuit-bended drum machine through some distortion, kept from becoming a steady loop through knob fiddling and sudden halts. The piece seems to follow its own tempo, despite the absence of any regularity, as it slowly melts down into a mangled mess that sounds like downright tape manipulation, popping and sizzling like a broken speaker; halfway through the trip, it splits into two tracks, as the cuts sport a more frantic edge, hovering over the feedback hiss in the background, with the noise loops resembling gated drum blasts or overdriven radio signals. Even when the attack and release of the beats are reduced to almost zero, mired in the uncertainty of a slow cut-up style and punctuated by broken bits of silence and pulsating frequencies, while the high end breaking up in spurts and crackles, the whole thing manages to actually make sense, and stretch the original sounds into interesting variants. Side Two is more compact: similar source sounds but let loose, with swashes of white noise floating over the fizzing contacts and the bass loops, everything transported on a faulty tape reel in front of some clanking industrial machinery. Oscillating squeals pair up with the rest of the manipulations, sometimes precipitating into silence or trying to pull the whole mess in uncertain directions. By playing along the same lines of Side One, the second track sounds a little less convincing but the overall atmosphere is still enjoyable, especially when it wanders around more industrially-sounding loops or when in the second half the sound palette is opened up by straightforward turntable slowdowns and bitcrushed breakbeats throbbing under the weight of an oppressive distortion.

    My rip might have aggravated the overall sound quality, but this tape does have a nice punch and, without being an exceptional release, it still manages to provide a fun, twenty-minute fix of subdued industrial noise with a definite electronic edge, a sort of messy power electronics played with no regard for post-production. Big Brother & The Holding Cock contains a lot of cables misfiring, faulty contacts and crackling pots, and it is one of the best Fuzztape cassettes released up to today. The only reservation I have with the record is that it lacks in headroom, panning and sense of space: the gnarly and overdriven cut-up drives the point home, but everything remains all too often strictly bi-dimensional and blunted. After twenty minutes of listening one feels trapped in a narrow space, struggling to focus on the development of a sound in a very small portion of the audible range, while much of what had been going on during the recording session remains to be imagined following some muddled hints buried here and there in the mix.

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  • Reviews

    梅志勇 – 條 條 條

    條 條 條梅志勇
    條 條 條
    Tape, Fuzztape, 2011

    I’ve already mused about Fuzztape here and there. I would be glad to recapitulate, repeating myself and saying: Fuzztape is the only tape label active in China at the moment, it keeps releasing filthy über-limited records by the best Chinese noise musicians and so on. Sadly, Fuzztape’s homepage has been down for several months and the last release (a four-way split between Soviet Pop, Deady Cradle Death 致命摇篮死, Fat City and 张守望 Zhāng Shǒuwàng) came out more than half a year ago. Yet 梅志勇 (Méi Zhìyǒng), who runs Fuzztape as a branch of the almighty NOJIJI, is definitely not missing in action. He recently toured Japan with Torturing Nurse, and a live recording from the tour is supposed to come out as a lathe cut soon, so it’s likely that Fuzztape’s operations will resume in the near future. If not, another dead label in the ephemeral Chinese underground scene would not be a surprise…

    I got a batch of Fuzztape releases earlier this year. Among them, there was a tape by Mei Zhiyong himself called 條 條 條 (or just , according to the cover) packed in a standard transparent box with a color artwork featuring mud-covered corpses somewhere in war-torn Libya. The words Buddha Liberation on the front cover looked eerily ironic. Having never listened to anything by Zhiyong and having heard about his passion about DIY electronics and pedals, I was quite curious to check out one of his releases. Through a generous release trade I was finally able to satisfy my curiosity, and I hereby announce my findings: this tape is shit. Plain, unpretentious, self-contented, sincere, understated, desiccated, odorless, almost loveable shit. Be warned: throughout this review I will use the idea of shit as a pure signifier, so feel free to understand it as you please. The overall sound of 條 條 條 is extremely murky and lo-fi, potentially similar to a forgotten 4-track guitar recording for a Slovenian black metal album from the early nineties, basinskially decomposed for twenty years and processed through a faulty fuzz pedal. I admit that my tape rip might have aggravated the already atrocious lack of any detail (as the only tape head available was my sister’s crappy stereo player) but I assure all the readers that the original tape sounds pretty much like this: motionless, extremely poor in frequencies, fuddled by oversaturated mids and thin high squeaks. The A side consists of a spurting electronic signal driven through an array of simple distortions for twenty-so minutes. The poor frequency response and the absence of any rhythmic element give to the result a sort of cheap industrial/drone feeling – think of distant factory sounds muffled by a snowstorm and echoing in a subterranean shit-stained public toilet. Cyclically, the droning and monotonous rumble breaks up in careless decimations and granularities that make it stagger and crackle for no apparent reason. Take out the tape, flip it, and enjoy its B side – once in a while, a true B side: a crappy live take of a lonely drum machine slowly covered by distant washes of white FM noise, piling up without any structure until the gain is cranked up, the drum machine goes reverse and everything melts into shit, boredom, the horror. The already poor palette of sounds collapses back into the same unforgiving, anonymous, mid-boosted lo-fi distortion of the previous track, while the brazen drum machine lazily surfaces back once in a while, as if joking or pretending to be trapped in the same rarefied frequencies of the whole record. The last track is the paradigm of the tape: two minutes of spitting interference and filtered high frequency signals oscillating inside a cheap flanger, one hundred eighty-six seconds of meaningless, submissive and dejected whirrs and distant bleeps. Pure shit.

    I normally enjoy bashing records and being mean, but I have to admit that with this tape Zhiyong made me transcend my original attitude and reach a new plateau of understanding. It is basically impossible to review this tape. I will probably never listen to it again, but at the same time I feel that the unsettling sincerity and simplicity of these tracks has something to say, conceptually, to everyone having time and interest to actually talk about noise in the year 2012. After all, we all understand the sheer pleasure and fun of distorting the simplest signal that one can get of his equipment and fiddle with it just for the sake of it. Mei Zhiyong just recorded some shit and made tapes out of it. Why the fuck not.

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  • Reviews

    Dissociative Disorder – Mother-to-Child

    Mother-to-ChildDissociative Disorder
    Mother-to-Child
    CDr, Notrouble Records, 2012

    My admiration for the work of 余益裔 (Yú Yìyì) is not a secret. This guy from Kaiping, Guangdong province belongs to the new generation of post-80s noisicians and, while managing his own label Notrouble Records, moves effortlessly between field recordings, minimal electronics and full-blown harsh noise. Dissociative Disorder is the name under which Yu Yiyi releases his noisiest output and, with his extremely concrete approach and compositional experience garnished by a savory penchant for HNW, he is emerging as one of the most promising voices of China’s contemporary harsh noise scene. Churning contact microphone feedbacks, ravaged shakerboxes and degraded samples are compressed by radiant distortions and crafted in slabs of noise crawling along the entire spectrum of audible frequencies. Yu Yiyi’s harsh noise compositions often conjure a world of bleak and humid dejection – a Southern China blues without much room for spacey synthetizers, rhythmic elements or cut-up anxiety: more than cases of psychic dissociation, they often sound like nightmares of a paranoiac trapped in loops of endless permutations of a discrete number of shapeshifting and ultimately unknowledgeable objects.

    As of today, Mother-to-Child is one of Dissociative Disorder’s best records in terms of coherency and works as a comprehensive introduction to his already substantial discography, mostly composed of super-limited handmade releases. The handpainted CDr is housed in a opaque slim case wrapped in a folded sleeve of lucid paper printed with medical sketches and captions that illustrate a six-step abortion procedure; all in all, the artwork exudes a crisp goregrind flavor, as the title Mother-to-Child seems quite ironic when paired with titles about infections and partial birth abortion. Pregnant, opening the record, sets the mood perfectly with a kind of disquieting harsh minimalism: a squeaking rubbery sound, tinted by a slight reverb, creaks nervously under the pressure of craving fingers – pregnancy represented sonically as the squirmy rattling of an alien-like substance trapped in an empty chamber, a dreary and disheartened rendition of budding life itself or just the impregnation of noise, so to say, by the simplest manipulation of sound. Overstretched, the elastic sound swells, blisters and eventually gives way, collapsing in the twenty-three minute long title track, a controlled and slowly morphing wall of physical distortion, oscillating between a solid body of middle frequencies and the crumbled ruins of its own high pitches cascading loosely onto the rounded bass basement. The assault is not flattened in the frantic research of pounding volumes and opts to keep the layers well defined, with the sound sources (a rattling shakerbox and some looped fragments of melodic samples) surfacing occasionally in the second half of the song; overall, the track strides forth with a hypnotic and entrancing pace. Unfortunately the following suite, Unknow Infection, does not keep the record flowing and gets mired in a half-hour long bog of lo-fi wall noise, slight variations on a dull theme happening behind a muffled screen and some pleasurable spurts of distorted hiss that arrive too late to save the whole effort from mediocrity. It is a pity that almost half of Mother-to-Child is botched by a not-so-brilliant slop of harsh noise since Partial Birth Abortion, the ten-minute closing track, brings the level back to the promising intuitions of the first half: a Kevin Drummesque droning synth soars slowly from the uneasy background of crackling silence and explodes in a sudden burst of pulsating distortion, followed by trails of wavering delays, while the siren-like sinewave continues its glassy trajectory, unruffled, at the borders of the recursive mayhem.

    Far from perfect, yet impressive in its coherence and low-key mastery of the tools of the trade, Mother-to-Child is a recommended listening for devotees of slow and murky harsh noise, and one of the first steps of a promising career in filthy sound worship.

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