A New England Halloween with Harsh Noise, Dark Ambient, and Horror Flicks (Boston Globe, 10/21/11)

Posted on November 6, 2011

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An artful assault on the ears

On the first night of last year’s Xiphoid Dementia tour, Egan Budd found himself billed at a coffee shop inBurlington,Vt., set to perform right after a hippie jam band and a guy doing solo acoustic guitar covers. As a noise artist, the musical chasm he was about to leap could not have been bigger.

But the oppressive electric hum and cavernous squall of circuits he proceeded to rustle into that unsuspecting crowd turned out to have a strange effect that night – people liked it. Curious audience members nodded their heads, watched each slider adjustment and sample tweak, and even bought records afterward. With a genre so often antagonistic toward anything approaching normal music, it’s not often that the uninitiated get a chance to hear noise actually work.

Budd learned a lesson that night. “Sometimes,’’ he says, “the basic idea of seeing these odd sounds coming out of someone performing live is enough for people to think it’s neat. As long as they’re able to get beyond that initial feeling of ‘Oh my God, this is terrible!’ ’’

Budd runs Existence Establishment, a catch-all boutique label and booking and promotions operation. Thursday night it will celebrate a run of increased activity in town this year with what could be the area’s only actually scary Halloween bill of music, “Horror Sounds’’ at the Yes Oui Si gallery. It pairs inarguably spooky sounds from New England artists hand-picked to bridge “noise’’ and “dark ambient’’ styles with a handful of obscure horror flicks – including the 1981 Italian zombie flick “Burial Ground: The Nights of Terror’’ and the 1978 Mexican satanic-nun thriller “Alucarda’’ – in psychotic triple-screen vision, and it could be the perfect time to jump onboard this musical endgame.

While rock music has cathartic bridges and choruses, and jazz offers endless variations on themes, noise offers one blunt question: To endure or not to endure? From the boom and scrape of antisocial pioneers like Throbbing Gristle in the ’70s to the sheets of white noise peddled by Merzbow from the ’90s on, listening to the noise generated from this subculture’s tables of pedals, synths, and tangles of cables can seem like more of a challenge than a pleasure. Its fans, Budd included, often describe it as the kind of music listeners arrive at once they’ve been through everything else.

“I think the common context that everyone has with noise is the way it’s used in films,’’ says Budd. “And I’m actually hoping that it can even be an entry point for people who are sort of newcomers.’’ Think of the industrial sizzles that cut through the “Saw’’ movies, or even the churning synth ambience in “The Social Network’’ as examples of how films have made audiences indirectly at ease with startling squeals and treacherous drones.

Horror Sounds is a celebration of a growing presence that Existence Establishment has had at spaces around town such as O’Brien’s Pub in Allston and Starlab inSomerville. In turn, the night is set up with a just-for-fun approach, with plenty of ways to identify with what can be an extremely tough scene to navigate.

“The main reason harsh noise won’t get really popular is that it can never be party music,’’ says Budd. “Harsh noise’’ is a technical term. Mentioning it to any aficionado will conjure a specific idea of cut-up static and audible chaos. “Dark ambient’’ has its drones and atmospheric arpeggios; “industrial’’ has the piston clang of Einstürzende Neubauten (or the poppier interpretations of Nine Inch Nails), and “power electronics’’ has its mess of feedback, haywire pedals, and confrontational performance.

David Dodson, a longtime noise artist performing as DVJ Deftly-D, will be in charge of music between performances throughout the night as well as the video projection array. “It definitely has the potential to end up being very genuinely chilling,’’ he says. “That’s not something you get at most Halloween nights.’’

Not that horrific imagery is anything new to the scene. Connecticut-based Chris Donofrio, who performs as Reviver, has his own list of visual inspirations: “dental procedures. Tooth extractions, root canals, those are always things I keep in mind.’’ As Reviver, Donofrio is a solo force of powerful drones and tingling pins and needles. He welcomes the chance to place noise in a context that filmgoers might relate to more, but the thought of being accessible doesn’t concern him much.

“I’m not even sure where to begin with accessibility because I don’t really even play music that I want other people to listen to. I play music that I want to listen to.’’

And really, the genre has persisted for decades without needing outside recognition. “I‘m kind of an accommodating guy, so I try not to annoy anyone,’’ says Budd. “Like anything, you kind of have to be in the right mood.’’

With Halloween around the corner, it’s no stretch to imagine that the mood may be just right.

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Originally published in the Boston Globe here.

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