From John Cage to Liars via Nurse With Wound - A Brief History of Post-Industrial
May is a great month, one of the best of the twelve on offer. In London this May there will be a rare live performance of the legendary experimental outfit Nurse with Wound, playing as a part of the Netaudio festival. Nurse with Wound (for sake of this article NWW is Steven Stapleton whilst we acknowledge the revolving cast of contributors) is a key figure in underground music of the last 30 years. Stubbornly uncommercial, he has crafted his own take on experimental music and built up a rabid gaggle of followers along the way.
To celebrate this occasion let's take a walk through a small cross section of 20th century leftfield / outsider / industrial music from the early pioneers through to the isolated humans of post 60's liberation leading on to more recent popular outfits inspired by this world such as Stereolab, Liars and Cold Cave. The precursors, the inspiration, the peers and the aftermath. Like any scene, the field of industrial music has many trees with many branches. As a result by no means look at this as a complete list, do not even look at it as a beginners guide, just crawl around and explore some of the mangled marvels created throughout the 20th Century and beyond.
There are many examples of the early use of sound as music, Paul Golyscheff is a name not normally associated with industrial/noise music but one who plays an important role. An early Berlin dada exhibition included performance of his 'Anti symphony' (1919), subtitled 'Musical Circular Guillotine' which included movements emblazoned with 'Prevocational Injections' 'Chaotic Oral Cavity or Submarine Aircraft' and 'Clapping in Hyper F-Sharp Major'. A number of kitchen utensils were used in this performance.
The Russians had a bash:
The young composer Alexander Mossolov loved post revolutionary Russia and wanted to write music which embodied his respect for the new face of this ancient land. In 1926-27 he wrote a ballet suite called 'Steel' to pay homage to the industrial modernisation of Russia. 4 parts were written, all were lost with the exception of the of final part ''Zavod' / The Iron Foundry'. Written for standard orchestral instruments the piece stands out due to the incorporation of metal sheets which enhance the orchestra's reproduction of the sounds of an 'Iron Foundry'. The piece was well received but after Stalin took the big seat experimental avant garde was frowned upon. Mossolov's music was no longer appreciated and he caused a public disturbance by drinking too much at a restaurant causing friction amongst the clientele. Alexander Mossolov was arrested in 1937 and sentenced to 8 years in a Gulag. Here's some young ones playing this monster in the USA, October 2008:
The Italians had a crack:
"At first the art of music sought purity, limpidity and sweetness of sound. Then different sounds were amalgamated, care being taken, however, to caress the ear with gentle harmonies. Today music, as it becomes continually more complicated, strives to amalgamate the most dissonant, strange and harsh sounds. In this way we come ever closer to noise-sound." — Luigi Russolo The Art of Noises (1913)
The Americans chipped in:
When discussing any aspect of experimental music of the 20th century the figure John Cage weighs heavily over proceedings. Whilst opening up the field of music to include all sound, he laid the path in which all that followed would traverse. He never took himself too seriously but there was serious intent to his ideas. Here we can see the good egg play around with sound and whimsical wisdom.
Following the upheaval in the arts that followed the dawn of so-called modernism and the aftermath of WWII, a second generation came to life in the 60's who filtered these ideas into their own practice, encompassing a wide variety of perspectives. Throw in the rise of popular culture and the widespread distribution of psychedelics and you have fertile ground for a heady cocktail of experimentation.
It was in the late 60's whilst in his late teens, Steven Stapleton of NWW and his friend Heeman Pathak took off to Germany, having heard some of the budding Krautrock scene on record they wanted to see what was going on first hand. Stapleton ended up working as a roadie for Guru Guru and Kraan, and also helped design sleeves for other bands. This provided Stapleton with access to countless records that opted for audio exploration over commercial viability. Years of solid collecting and an 'accidental' recording session resulted in the first Nurse with Wound record and the notorious NWW list.
The NWW list, out of all cultural relics in experimental music, sits as a major artefact. Released with the first NWW LP and updated on the Second LP, this was the ultimate guide for those interested in the 'strange' in music up until that point (1980). No records were listed, just the artist name, not many of them were well known and many remain obscure at best, even in this day and age. Given the time to explore this list one's musical outlook could be transformed forever. Covering a wide variety of styles (improvisation, sound art, krautrock, psych, prog etc) the list explores the outer reaches of sonic creativity and embraces those who made their art with little consideration for audience, trend and market. It's a wild adventure this one and even if NWW did not record a single sound they would be revered for many a moon for compiling this influential list.
Here's a few examples of warped gems that may be found within the list:
It must be noted that much of the future 'classic industrial' period was influenced as much by visual artists as it was musicians. Yoko Ono was one of many experimental visual artists who moved into recordings. Her 1971 album 'Fly' stands as one of the peak avant garde records of the period. The album explored proto punk, demented funk and as can be heard on 'Airmale'', a most outlandish sonic feast. The sounds on this track were made by Joe Jones, A fellow member of the art movement 'Fluxus' who built his own musical instruments including musical boats and solar music umbrellas. This has been cited as a key influence on the pioneers of the early 80's industrial sound.
One of the most striking works from the 60's would have to be this stranger from the the highly revered composer Robert Ashley. This work calls for strange vocal utterances, feedback and high volume playback through amplification. The result is a devastating noise blast that sits high amongst all the noise music made in the last 30 years. Keep in mind this was written and recorded back in 1964 - this is The Wolfman
Ashley was not all sound and fury, the work ‘Automatic Writing’ proved to be one of the key influences on the more ‘surreal’ end of sound works that emerged in the wake of punk’s demise and still sounds foreign today:
By now most folks with at least 2 marbles in place know Krautrock. Faust, Amon Duul, Neu, Ash Ra Tempel are names often thrown around today as an 'influence'. The timeless exploration of these groups have opened minds to greater freedoms and possibilities ever since the Krautrock resurgence of the last 2 decades. But this world cannot be simplified. Throw in a post holocaust generation with buckets of high strength acid and you have a pretty mean combination for making music. But not all 'trips' were taken in Deutschland and some other European countries looked to expand consciousness from a different angle. Brainticket's debut record can be seen as a combination of Funkadelic's pulse, Yoko Ono's wail and a pre-industrial delectation for the sounds of smashing glass and abused metal. This is about as far removed from the free love spirit of the kids in America at the time. This is a hallucinogenic nightmare in audio, as the now legendary sleeve notes recommend "Listen to the first recording of this LSD/Hashish/Fixy/Jointy Sound. Take a trip into your inner light. See the hallucinations of reality rise out of the groove. You've got your Brainticket now" !
1973 - 1 German artist (Dieter Roth) and 2 Austrian writers (Gerhard Rühm & Oswald Wiener) drink copious amounts of whiskey and experiment recording with a magnetic tape machine that was picked up the day before. The result is an unhinged, unstructured exploration of man and machine. This is one record that stands alone in all the NWW list. What is this record? A friend of mine said it sounds like a seance. What it certainly is, is raw and ugly and unpretentious. These 3 chaps set out to record something, anything, with no pre-conception of a result, allowing all 'mistakes' and 'flaws' to remain intact. This a weird and wooly trip with our inebriated explorers thoroughly enjoying the ride, as one can hear from the laughter punctuated throughout. The following lp's concocted by this motley crew extended to acoustic instruments and other participants including the notorious Vienna Aktionists 'Hermann Nitsch' and 'Gunter Brus'. The wild stunts by these artists paved the path for Throbbing Gristle to move into music and the music of this 'Seldom Heard Music' resonates today with such 'out' acts as Germany's Kommissar Hjuler & Mama Bar and America's legendary Idea Fire Company to name but two. An excerpt from the '3rd poetry workshop' '3 - Berliner Dichterworkshop'
As mentioned the NWW list remains obscure at best. Gathering information on some of the featured artists remains elusive, even in this age of information overload. Philippe Doray remains a mystery and his records are expensive if seen at all. Regardless, in this obscurity lies a part of the pleasure, a part of the mystery of exploring music made by the unknown. There is no context to pigeonhole the artist and from this a fundamental scenario may flower, a unique perspective for the listener who must make up their own minds. Although featured on the NWW list, the record this track was taken from was released in 1980 so it remains doubtful this was the recording Stapleton + co were considering when the list came together. Regardless I have included this as it's a killer track, simple:
CLASSIC PERIOD INDUSTRIAL
Not a lot more can be said on Throbbing Gristle, they single handedly coined the phrase 'industrial' as a particular form of music. They collated their interests in visual arts with a DIY approach and subversive explorations of the darkest recesses of the modern human psychology. With a gritty electronic backdrop and enough negative press they were always assured a place on the top shelf. TG took ideas which were once considered academic and handed them on a shit covered platter to the masses via the cultural breakdown of mid 70's Britian. The world was never the same again. Hamburger Lady:
Whitehouse were one to take the flailing TG baton and run with it, claiming TG had become impotent by the end of the 70's they posited the question, what if there was a band that lived up to all of TG's empty rhetoric? Whitehouse - Live Action 39 :
Whitehouse are the big one in this field. Coming out of the early post punk generation they managed to combine early avant garde influences with an extremely nihilistic sound which until that point had never been conceived. Influenced by the extreme recordings of Alvin Lucier, Robert Ashley, Yoko Ono and the obscure short lived primal American band Cro Magnon they branded their approach 'power electronics' and went on to inspire countless outfits with their clandestine approach to uncompromising sonic art. Back in the day they ran the influential 'Come Org' label which, more than an outlet for releasing records, became a hub for likeminded people who adhered to their subversive outlook on existence. This mainstay of extreme music developed upon the initial minimal/brutal approach, eventually coming up with complex, toe tapping ditties like this creative peak:
In a way the spirit of industrial music was truly epitomised by Maurico Bianchi, an Italian producer who approached by William Bennet for release on his Come Org label. The lo fi and dire sounds that emanated from his machines truly spoke a certain truth that had previously been ignored. Most people with access to electronic instruments went down the path of investing fantasy into this brave new world. MB did nothing of the sort, creating a mystique within a grim sound world, fascist aesthetics (courtesy of William Bennet's name change to Leibstandarte SS M on the Come Org MB releases) and a dystopian disorder.
Needless to say, in the period following the early 80's creative nihilism there flourished an entire scene of angry men in their bedrooms with shitty synths, microphones and a cassette deck. There is a dense complex network of artists following the initial domination of NWW / Whitehouse but let's skip amongst some of the more unlikely candidates that sprung out of this fertile scene.
Stereolab are a quasi household name but their history has come curious links to the original British power electronics scene and beyond. Guitarist / main man Tim Gane started out under the moniker Un-Kommuniti - a bedroom noise project which released a handful of cassettes on the legendary Broken Flag label. Highly respected in this community he went on to form Stereolab, a pop outfit with more smarts than your average humans of this ilk. In 1993 a collaboration with the godhead of underground surrealist experimental sound Nurse with Wound was released to a half surprised public. One of the conditions of this recording was that Steven Stapleton would be able to do what he wanted and Stereolab were not allowed to hear the results until the record had been pressed. In 1997 they would collaborate again on the chestnut 'Simple Headphone Mind':
The Shadow Ring was an unusual outfit from Folkestone in Kent who, in the late period of their recorded output tackled the strange/nihilistic aspects of industrial culture in a completely different manner to the countless 'power electronics' puppies that followed the glory days of Whitehouse / Coil / NWW. Deadpan humour, odd sonic experiments, a warped obsession with bureaucracy and domesticity all captured a sardonic take on the everyday, the lofty ideas and grand gestures associated with most of the scene are turned on their head providing an introverted and slightly paranoid vision of the mundane. 'Mindart':
Another outfit not to take things too seriously whilst creating an impressive sonic mess was the Australian band Thug. A short run affair with only 3 releases theirs was a jovial crass colonial take on industrial music. The live shows of Thug are the stuff of legends, often with the 3 members getting into fist fights with each other until 1 man remained standing.
If the original 70's industrial music was a representative of the age in which it formulated then the 90's saw a rise in artists that harnessed the digital zeitgeist with similar zeal. The Austrian label Mego was the epicentre of this movement with artists such as Farmers Manual, General Magic and the ubiquitous Florian Hecker all pushing the limits of their software in a manner previously only tackled by bearded men donning white coats in the dust halls of academia Hecker has gone on to build an impressive catalogue of unusual recordings (the latest ‘Speculative Solution’, his 13th release comes in an embossed, deluxe box with a 160 page book and 5 metal balls (ø 3,969mm) ! In recent years he has worked with Aphex Twin and is the sound human of choice for the more radical end of the visual art world.
On the flip of such digital mayhem is the Finish duo Pan Sonic. Utilising custom built analogue machines, this dynamic duo embraced the coldness of machinery, the sonic power of their arsenal and the restraint of minimal techno to become a band synonymous with an extreme physical sound experience and end of the world atmospherics. In tandem with such sonic intensity they also curated a more subdued withdrawn side to their music, one which is as beautiful as it is intensely introverted, the ghost in the machine if you will.
On another tip we have the dance world and in particular a nasty strain of post drum and bass music which rose from the ashes of industrial hardcore, breakcore and all such manner of playful sonic extremity. Again, the digital age opened the gamut on bedroom experimentation and hybrid after hybrid musical form has branched out endlessly - pummelling snares ride amongst impossibly galloping beats. Sounds are stretched beyond all reason and after the show is over sweat remains for days in small dark rooms with very little room. Current Value is one individual who likes to push things (rhythms in particular) to the limit:
Oneohtrix Point Never and Emeralds both came out of the late 90's noise scene in the USA, a weird scene that rose when America started to realise that interesting music had been made in this place they call Europe, subsequently arose an abundance of artists which embraced various European movements be it Noise, Power Electronics, Cold Wave or Minimal Synth. As time went on Oneohtrix moved into a modernised version of what one could refer to as 'New Age' music. Emeralds went down the heavenly path once trodden by Popul Vuh and both acts have concocted a unique voice in their chosen fields. As one can hear here Oneohtrix still has a penchant for the Merzbow-esque side of things whilst retaining the melancholic high of all of his works:
Within rock Liars are a contemporary band who combine elements of noise/industrial music and playful 'weirdness' within a dance/rock context. It's a frivolity filled brew that makes you dance as the boat sinks. A flaming ship mid ocean can't last long above the sea. Liars dismantle the song book with retarded gusto.
Cold Cave are a funny one. They started out as a noise/industrial band and over a series of releases have morphed into a stadium (sounding) post new wave outfit. Featuring Dominick Fernow, of the extreme noise outfit 'Prurient' and operator of the uncompromising NY based record store/label Hospital Productions, Cold Cave continue to explore the darker realms of early 80's electronic pop. Witness here a live performance from 2009 which incorporates their industrial leanings within a cold electro context.
The world of music is one that is always in a state of flux, a restless energy resides around all sonic art, one which embraces evolution and change. There can be no single line to contact all the angles explored in this realm but one can see an image repeating, distorted as in a carnival mirror as subsequent generations embrace, morph and contort those ideas that came before. We are in an age where the ideas within the works of Nurse with Wound are no longer as alien as they were once perceived and where they can pop up in a variety of forms and contexts. Even the pioneers have their precedents.
Nurse With Wound play at the Net Audio Festival, which is a series of events and seminars talking place 13th-15th May in London. Full details at http://www.netaudiolondon.org.