Beneath New England’s long-established hardcore, metal, and indie scenes lies the increasingly vital subculture of noise and power electronics. Once or twice a month, an unsightly, intimidating crowd packs into a dingy basement in Allston or Somerville, where they stand shoulder-to-shoulder and exchange barbed, sidelong glances as they jostle for space at the front.
As the artists set up, the crowd hungrily scrutinizes each performer’s gear and appearance, attempting to guess the caliber of the forthcoming set. Everyone is waiting for something to happen. Sometimes, the amps and PA issue sedate, experimental sounds or atmospheric drones and everyone stays civil, even though there’s a lingering, difficult-to-identify sense of disappointment. Other nights, fans witness a power electronics, or PE set; somebody cues up a barrage of harsh noise with his grimy, corroded mixer and array of pedals and bellows a hateful diatribe into a mic while throwing onlookers onto the cement floor or slashing his chest with a broken bottle, carving deep gashes that are tricky to explain to the staff of Lawrence Memorial.
Massachusetts power electronics isn’t all fistfights, blackouts, and visits to the ER, but there’s a seething belligerence that runs below the surface of the scene and bubbles up without much provocation. It’s like Boston itself, an ostensibly cosmopolitan college town with a mean streak; the bitter, sarcastic disposition shared by many locals informs Massachusetts PE’s discontentment. It’s a futile, closed scene whose artistic achievements go unnoticed, creating an endless feedback loop of frustration and release; only the most hardened crazies keep at it year after year given a seemingly unchanging level of interest or recognition. Though noise and power electronics have always existed on the fringe of music, things are picking up.
Too crude and disorganized for metal fans, too aggressive and narrow-minded for artsy experimentalists, the scene has slipped between the cracks since its inception at the end of the '70s, when militants like SPK and Whitehouse mutated industrial music, renaming and redefining sonic extremity. However, noise has always been an undercurrent that’s influenced popular music. Godflesh’s Justin Broadrick has a documented obsession with the early Whitehouse LPs, whose bleak, barren musical landscapes inform his use of texture on his own classic recordings. Meanwhile, former SPK members Graeme Revell and Brian “Lustmord” Williams write soundtracks for Hollywood films.
In the '90s, metalheads received Merzbow favorably when he began releasing records on the death metal label Relapse. A second wave of interest and appreciation began when Sub Pop signed Wolf Eyes for their Burned Mind LP in 2004 and a new national network of venues and labels developed. Paradoxically, many groups introduced to noise by Wolf Eyes sound closer to the moody, emotionally-charged classics than to the weird, surreal DIY aesthetic promoted by Wolf Eyes and their members’ labels, American Tapes and Hanson.
Simultaneously, metal fans with their ears to the ground have gotten excited about power electronics again, prompting musical hybrids like Wold and split releases between Prurient and Akitsa or The Rita and Bone Awl, each pairing black metal aggressors with harsh noise luminaries.
Amidst this flurry of activity, Boston has emerged as a hotspot for power electronics; up-and-comers have joined local stalwarts like Fire in the Head and Karlheinz, and the Boston scene rivals Chicago’s and is second only to New York’s. EGAN BUDD, head of locally-based label Existence Establishment, whose musical project, XIPHOID DEMENTIA, works within a power electronics subgenre known as deathindustrial, has been recording for a decade (running his label since 2005) and watching the local scene slowly take root and emerge. His boutique label has released a number of internationally-respected projects and he enjoys unusual and creative packaging. In an important development, Egan recently realized his first vinyl release, a split 12” between Fire in the Head and Bereft titled MA/PE/FU.
I had a chat with Egan about this landmark release and roped in Fire in the Head main-man MICHAEL PAGE, as well as CHRIS LATINA, the photographer who captured the LP’s cover art. Here's out discussion:
Egan, this is Existence Establishment’s 13th release and your first vinyl offering. I heard rumblings about this LP almost a year ago and I imagine that you faced several delays. What were the most frustrating and gratifying aspects of seeing this project to completion?
Budd: This was the first EE release on vinyl, so there were some unforeseen difficulties and delays, the first being a long wait between submitting the audio tracks and finally receiving the test presses for approval –- it took roughly five months! The next was that the plant didn't print on the record jackets, so I had to get the printing done separately and apply all the prints to the jackets myself. It didn’t seem tough, but it was more challenging than one would think.
For the first installment in the series, you chose to work with Fire in the Head, Mike Page’s power electronics project, as well as Bereft, a collaboration between Andy Grant and Peter Lee, both of whom run their own noise labels. Why is each artist an ideal ambassador of Massachusetts power electronics?
Budd: The entire series was an idea of Michael Page's and he asked if I would like to be the person to realize it. At that point, the idea was just the F/I/T/H and Bereft split LP, but I took his initial concept and ran with it. F/I/T/H is probably the main "MA ambassador of PE" due to the fact that he's resided in MA for a long time yet he’s released F/I/T/H material on labels all over the world. Peter of Bereft is more of a newcomer to MA. Before that, he lived in Providence, RI, but he certainly embodies a New England spirit and East Coast attitude, as well as a background in hardcore music that’s so essential to the Massachusetts scene and obviously influential on MA PE.
Page: I came up with MA/PE/FU while playing the second Northeast Noise & Power Electronics Fest, where I approached Peter and Karl (Karlheinz) about the three of us applying the term to what we collectively do as artists. It was intended as homage to the old hardcore "crew" ideal.
PE acts have always provoked controversy with their social and political views, and some listeners will misinterpret or misunderstand the content on this LP. How do you reconcile your own views with those represented on this release, and where would you draw the line? Is there a line?
Budd: I have no need to reconcile my views with the tracks that the artists have created because it is not my work. MA/PE/FU is a document, nothing more and nothing less. I don't need to agree with the content of releases on Existence Establishment, and MA/PE/FU is no exception. There have already been a few misinterpretations of the release from some people claiming it is "MA pride," which is definitely not the intent. It is a document of a time and place and shows how the broader local culture surrounding this smaller subculture has influenced the nature of power electronics and industrial coming out of Massachusetts. I am idealistic to a fault –- perhaps my flaw is assuming that people are intelligent enough not to take the collected images, words, and sounds at face value. But, of course, there are knee-jerk reactionaries who will misinterpret the release without taking into consideration the history, ambiguity and context that accompany the subculture of noise and PE.
Mike, could you chime in? As an avid gun enthusiast, you’re not the average Massachusetts liberal. What do you make of politics within PE?
Page: I don't view my politics, Bereft's politics or politics in general in the simplified terms "liberal and "conservative." There is nothing black and white about my socio-political viewpoint. It leans so far right that it swings back left. It leans so far left that it swings back right. The same could be said of the diversity of themes represented within industrial music. Politics and subject matter often become a gray area, not because of a conscious attempt to create controversy or mystery, but because the thematic influences upon the artists are wide and varied. This dichotomy precludes easily pigeonholing any of these acts.
Mike, you’ve been focusing on several ambient and experimental projects and recently announced that F/I/T/H is coming to an end. Did you accomplish your original goals as a PE artist? What is the significance of this particular release compared to the rest of your output?
Page: "PE" was a term I reluctantly accepted after seeing it in several reviews of my releases. Power electronics artists had little impact on what I did with F/I/T/H. Punk and hardcore influenced the delivery while available equipment dictated the sound. I had no specific goals with the project. It was a self-indulgent ride and when it no longer satisfied me, it was time to euthanize Fire in the Head in order to focus on Sky Burial, a project more akin to the genres I actually enjoy. My side is an amalgamation of everything I did sound and subject-wise through the course of F/I/T/H's existence and I feel it serves as a fitting epitaph. My tracks mix local lore with politics and a sense of humor that is often lost on fans of this genre. "In His Garden" references infamous Cape Cod resident Tony "Chop Chop" Costa, who buried the mutilated bodies of women in his marijuana garden in the late-'60s. "My Right, You're Wrong" is a blunt statement about Second Amendment rights, while "Sodom Eyes” is a tongue-in-cheek (tongue-in-ass?) track about...you guessed it.
Egan, the release features photos shot by our mutual friend, Chris Latina. You’ve mentioned that you chose them because they capture, in your words, “the old school hardcore aesthetic that permeates Boston.” In light of this description, the release harks to the seminal compilation This is Boston, Not L.A. Is your release a conscious nod to that comp, and, if so, could you speak more about the connection? Is MA/PE/FU for Massholes only?
Budd: Haha, it’s definitely not for Massholes only! As stated earlier, we didn’t want to revel in or brag about Massachusetts culture, but rather expose exactly what it is. Yes, I feel like hardcore, especially its influence on Michael and Peter, plays a big role in MA PE, so that is why I went for a subtle nod to hardcore culture – not specifically the Boston Not L.A. compilation, but that isn’t far off. From the start, I only wanted to include photos from MA, and it just happened that I discovered and was immediately impressed by Chris’ work. The "MA pride" aspect is something that I enjoyed playing with aesthetically, and I could tell Chris had already picked up on the same concepts in his photo series. A photograph of a typical Masshole next to the painted street lines in an empty parking lot or the dilapidated cars rotting in someone's backyard perfectly illustrates the futility of such pride. It also displays the power electronics scene’s bastardization of the ordered hardcore and punk ideals and traditions that are deep-seated in Boston. The concept is found in Chris's work but comes through subtly – I'm not at all surprised that it is lost on most.
Chris, could you say a word about the shots you took?
Chris Latina: Regarding the photographs, the concept behind the release aligned perfectly with my original intent. I aimed to forge a sort of documentary narrative using only the scenes pictured and an assumed historical context. The majority of the images were shot in the Winter Hill neighborhood of Somerville and along Massachusetts' main-ways, Route 93 and Route 28. Through association with location, I attempted to unearth the era when Whitey Bulger and the Winter Hill Gang ran the streets. The series was stylistically influenced by classic street photographers like Bruce Gilden and Roswell Angier, except I wanted to shoot everything in color. The hardcore parallel definitely exists. Not only am I a Masshole involved in both the MA PE and punk scenes, but, after seeing the final product for MA/PE/FU Vol. 1, I can't ignore the similarities with the art on the sleeve of Double Nickels on the Dime.
Egan, a while back you announced that MA/PE/FU Vol. 2 will feature Massachusetts PE artists Karlheinz and Sharpwaist. When do you expect this release to go into production, and do you have any inkling as to who will feature on Vol. 3?
Budd: I have artists for all three volumes lined up. I have no idea when these will start production as I can't stand deadlines, but it will be some time, as I haven't received material from anyone yet. Corephallism (Medford) and Bitchneck (Jamaica Plain) are slated to appear on Vol. 3.
What do you think about the interplay between running a label, booking shows, and performing live as Xiphoid Dementia, your own deathindustrial project? Does operating a label make you more appreciative of other artists’ work, or do you sometimes feel jaded from years of overexposure to others' mediocre noise?
Budd: I definitely feel jaded, overloaded, run down, stepped on, fucked with, used up, abused, and uninspired. There are so many labels, projects, releases, tours, zines and writers that it feels like one huge clusterfuck to me, and I feel the same about the relationship between my artistic projects. I feel like I am punching waves in the ocean -– what I'm doing makes no sense and is completely pointless in the greater scheme of things. That said, there is always a very specific goal and concept behind each and every artistic movement I’m involved in, otherwise they wouldn't be worth pursuing. The only point of all this is self-therapy. After all, this is noise and everyone hates it.
The last words are yours. What can we look forward to this year from Existence Establishment and Xiphoid Dementia? Are there any shows coming up?
Budd: There will hopefully be a few limited CDRs and tapes on EE this year from Lavas Magmas, Napalmed, Crest, Theologian, Xiphoid Dementia and more. I've been furiously recording new Xiphoid Dementia material for a split with the now-defunct Boston black metal blasphemers Unholy Goatfucker and another split with Page's Sky Burial. There may also be a Xiphoid Dementia U.S. tour this year, but details are still in the works.