How to learn to stop worrying and love the 2012 Milwaukee Noise Fest
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Exploring any unfamiliar genre of music can be a daunting task, but few genres are as ostensibly impenetrable as noise. Discarding or perverting nearly all conventional song structures and instrumentation, surrounded by lots of theoretical and technical jargon, and at times insanely loud, noise won’t be converting many Top 40 devotees any time soon. Still, open-minded newcomers have a good chance of finding something that speaks to them.
Besides, all that’s really needed to get to know noise is a willingness to jump in with both feet, and there are few better opportunities than at the annual Milwaukee Noise Fest, now in its seventh year. Taking place Aug. 23-25 at the Borg Ward, the festival packs in 30 acts from Milwaukee and beyond. Of course, a little context never hurts, so for those who aren’t already noise aficionados, there are a few things to keep in mind.
To begin with, noise is by no means a homogenous genre. It comprises a multitude of approaches and schools of thought, and the festival does an exceptional job of representing as many of them as possible. “A lot of people, when they think about noise, they think of the really loud stuff, the really aggressive stuff, and there’s a lot more to it than that,” say festival curator Peter Woods. “For me, it’s about trying to get as many different voices as possible. This year, you have some things that are straight up harsh and dark, like Death Jenk, and then you have things that are more intricate and quiet, like Office Park. It really covers the whole spectrum.”
That level of diversity provides the uninitiated a chance to figure out what they like and what they don’t. It also offers the ideal listening circumstances, since this sort of music is best experienced in person and in the moment. “Listening to recordings is still a good experience, but it’s a completely different one,” says Woods. “If you see it live, at full volume, see how people are performing it and have that visual aspect that goes along with it, I think that it’s a lot easier to wrap your head around.”
That visual aspect sometimes translates to multimedia elements that, with some of the more electronically oriented noise acts, can compensate for the fact that they sometimes don’t seem to be doing very much at all. But while it may not look like they’re exerting themselves, there’s a lot going on under the surface. “Some people think it’s just people twiddling knobs, and sometimes that’s what it is,” explains Woods. “But at the same time, you could say that about any kind of music, that it’s just a dude hitting a can with a piece of plastic around it, or it’s just a guy hitting a bunch of strings of metal over and over again. It’s a matter of understanding what’s going into it, seeing that there’s a level of expertise that goes along with playing this type of music.”
It can admittedly be difficult to see that expertise when a particular band sounds like the opening salvos of World War III, but the limitless textural and compositional possibilities of noise make it particularly suited to darker emotional and psychological terrain. “Music is so often thought of as something that exists to make people happy, but I think that’s only one response people can have to any artistic medium,” says Woods. “If you see a horror movie, you’re not supposed to walk out smiling and loving life, you’re supposed to be scared out of your wits, and a lot of noise music does the same thing. Approaching it in that way makes all the difference for a lot of people.”
Yet even “harsh” noise shares some DNA with more structured sounds like industrial or speed metal, and as experimental as it all seems, listeners may find it more familiar than they’d think. “You look at a band like Sonic Youth, or even at Pink Floyd, and there are noise aspects,” observes Woods. “And it works both ways: There are also bands out that there that use more rock elements but still qualify as noise.” Though there are certainly parallels to be drawn, it’s best to try and understand noise on its own avant-garde terms rather than through the lens of pop. As Woods puts it, “There are stepping stones there, but too often people get to those stepping stones and then stop, so it’s sometimes better to just show up and get your ears blasted off.”