Peals of thunder and billowing storm clouds over Somerville anticipated the suffocating ruckus emanating from the Starlab’s PA all of last Thursday night. A motley crew of Southerners with a Swede in tow arrived at the venue a couple hours late, and we watched in amusement as a van with Texas plates backed apprehensively into a cramped, Bostonian parking space. It was to be a night of HNW, or harsh noise wall, a divisive subgenre maligned for its supposed lack of variation – most HNW tracks are rumbling, crackling, unchanging blocks of sonic agitation. (Above video shot by RAT CHASINIL.)
Yet the aesthetics assigned to HNW vary wildly – a project might focus on the theme of Italian giallos and horror films, '50s film stars, gay S&M fetish sex, or provocative, fetishized fascist imagery – Thursday’s merch table was littered with tapes displaying anal fisting right alongside others with prominently emblazoned swastikas and totenkopfs. The night’s featured artists – BLACK LEATHER JESUS, RU-486, HIERCHISS, ASCITES, and SKONHET – jumped out of the van, lugged their gear into the basement, and took a breather to check out the local flavor.
VEHEMENT CARESS opened things up with a thick, pulsing wall of sound. His subdued, deathly vocals gave a vibe of despair and resignation without sounding weak. Some technical problems robbed the set of its climax, and he stared balefully at his gear, frustrated but determined to wring harsher sounds out of his malfunctioning mixer. I complimented him later on keeping his cool and salvaging the set – “play it through,” he responded curtly.
Andy Grant, THE VOMIT ARSONIST, was another ideal local opener – his label, Danvers State Recordings, has released material by RU-486, Hierchiss, and Black Leather Jesus member Richard Ramirez (under the name The Blackmoor Strangler), and Grant has performed alongside the touring artists at several recent noise festivals. He turned in one of his best sets to date – powerful bass-heavy rumbling and shrill bursts of feedback coupled with authoritative, barked vocals. Unlike many PE artists, Grant doesn’t simply build a wall and then scream over it – he constantly tweaks his sounds and has a great ear for live improvisation. I wondered whether the out-of-towners would be capable of topping his set.
Ascites from Dallas, Texas brought an utterly unique texture to wall-noise – a contact-mic’d cymbal placed on the floor and pummeled with a pair of drumsticks as the other two members cued up a crackling onslaught of harsh frequency with their more traditional synths and mixers. Percussion is difficult to incorporate into a noise set and often grounds the material in an unwanted way, evoking bad free-improv instead of wall noise. Ascites’ percussive intensity, however, conjured seething, amelodic war metal replete with a cymbal-riding drummer.
Sweden’s Skönhet was a slight disappointment – though his mask, hoodie, and immobile stage presence evoked genre-leader Vomir’s live approach, he failed to produce a truly compelling wall; I wasn’t sure whether to blame his thin, crackling sonics on an uninteresting live setup or a malfunctioning PA, though I suspect the latter given its erratic fidelity through the night. My frustration stemmed, perhaps, from my enthusiasm for Skönhet’s recorded material, which, like the rest of the HNW scene, is fixated on something, though his choice is unusual; an obsession with Audrey Hepburn.
Hierchiss’ name is perhaps more associated with her brand of boutique contact mics than her project itself, but Leeann Rogers performed one of the most astonishing sets of the night, interspersing churning, shuddering harsh walls with venomous vocals and some percussive interludes reminiscent of Ascites’ set; the out-of-state performers displayed an obvious sonic kinship, bolstered by the fact that most of Thursday night’s performers have joined Black Leather Jesus’ rotating lineup at one point or another.
RU-486’s set was clearly the best of the night – local PE bruisers Bereft, a duo of Andy Grant and Peter Lee, joined RU-486 mainman Thomas Mortigan, the owner of the label Destructive Industries and a frequent contributor to the black metal and noise scenes. Grant and Lee produced the requisite throbbing, bass-heavy soundscapes, leaving Mortigan free to stir the crowd into a frenzy; his howling caterwauls and gruff commands incited bloodlust in the Boston crowd, and pretty soon the room and its occupants were spinning. Rubbing our bruises, we geared up for Black Leather Jesus’ set.
BLJ is an old-school Texas noise collective formed in 1989 and led by Richard Ramirez, an openly gay avant-garde fashion designer who moonlights as one of the biggest draws in noise. Although we weren’t graced with any wild S/M antics, the motionless and emotionless members of Black Leather Jesus cued up a buzzing, overdriven, and truly nightmarish noise wall as they stared impassively at the crowd. Although I can’t award them an A+ for stage presence, Ramirez and company proved themselves the true primogenitors of HNW with their punishing aural concoction. After 21 years and innumerable releases, these guys are still noise messiahs.