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Listening to the devil’s sounds

Essay | 10 minute read
What renders some musical tones and genres illicit, immoral, even diabolical? Keith Kahn-Harris investigates 'dangerous' music

Last summer, the family in the house whose garden backs on to mine held a party for their son’s 18th birthday party. In what is normally a quiet neighbourhood, the joyous sounds cut through the sticky July night. Whoops, cheers and amplified music continued till 3am. Some of the songs the DJ played are favourites of mine, but Soft Cell’s ‘Tainted Love’ was never so unwelcome to me as I fumed in exhausted torpor. When the party fizzled out I stormed to the back of the garden and shouted: ‘Is that it? Are you allowing me to sleep now? Do I have your permission?’ There was no reply.

What would I have done if someone shouted back: ‘It was only vibration in air’?

A similar comeback would have been of equally limited consolation to a US prisoner tortured with an endless loop of the Barney The Dinosaur tune. There is no comfort in being reminded that, where sound is concerned, context and experience is all.

In my late teens I devoured Purity and Danger by the anthropologist Mary Douglas. Her contention that ‘dirt is matter out of place’ hit me with the force of a truth I had always known but never acknowledged. The book changed my life and it changed nothing. When my shoes are caked in mud, I do not shrug and murmur an anthropological truism.

Noise is like dirt; it is sound out of place. Knowing that did not help me on a hot July night. But perhaps this knowledge can help in understanding the peculiar power of sound to disturb. Like dirt, sound travels; it intrudes, penetrates and interferes. The only other sense that can do this is smell (which can also be a bone of contention between neighbours). I can close my eyes to unwelcome sights should I wish to. An unpleasant texture does not have to be felt (I cannot stand the feel of velvet, yet I do not shudder if a velvet-clad person comes into my presence). To resist sound, I have to either remove myself out of earshot, or I must resort to measures such as earplugs and sound-proofing.

As someone who writes about and listens to heavy metal, I’m always intrigued when people call it ‘loud’. To state the obvious again, loudness is a matter of volume and, as such, metal is not essentially louder than dinner jazz. Yet the classification of metal as loud speaks eloquently of the danger it potentially poses. To be loud is to burst through boundaries, to invade, to hurt.

Metal has often been treated as dangerous and threatening. In the US in the 1980s and 1990s, it was sometimes cited by police, the courts and social services as an addiction as harmful as narcotics. Today, as Orlando Crowcroft shows in Rock in a Hard Place: Music and Mayhem in the Middle East, metal bands in many Middle Eastern countries have been imprisoned, harassed and exiled; Saudi and Iranian metal bands are usually compelled to play and record in secret (sometimes using pseudonyms on their recordings), throughout most of the region they, at the very least, have to be discreet.

One might attribute much of metal’s perceived danger to extra-sonic factors: occult imagery, transgressive lyrics, the invocation of drink, substance abuse and sexual excess. But those who fear and persecute metal usually don’t do this from a place of knowledge. Rather, it is the struggle to assign a clear meaning to something that seems incomprehensible that motivates a desire to ‘fix’ metal. In Lebanon, Crowcroft reports that media reports tarred metal-heads with the association with the hated Zionist enemy – because head-banging looked like the repeated swaying of orthodox Jews in prayer.

Nonetheless, it is metal as sound that forms the locus and the vehicle for metal’s multiple transgressions; it is music that provides its pole star. Metal’s ultimate power is to invert many of the taken for granted aspects of what ‘good’ or ‘beautiful’ music sounds like. Not all metal sounds the same; some artists and sub-genres inhabit a space closer to more conventional music. The metal that moves me is more distinct, a sub-species of sound that is other to the sorts of music that surround me most of the time.

Metal makes heavy use of the tritone; the augmented fourth interval that has long been coded as ‘evil’ or disturbing in western music (the medieval church dubbed it the ‘diabolus in musica’ and suppressed its use in liturgy). Where musical sounds are ideally ‘clean’ and hearable, metal retorts with distorted murkiness. Where harmony melds multiple tones into one intelligible sound, metal bases itself in the streamlined crudity of the two-note powerchord. Where vocal melody provides the spine of a song, metal retorts with overdriven screams and growls. Binding all together is The Riff; the obsessively repeated powerchord progression; the insistent, pummelling motor of the metal song. The Riff was created by humans, it feels the way it feels because humans assign it meaning; yet it feels like something carved out of the earth itself, something ‘discovered’ rather than made.

Such a deliberate attempt to produce sound that pushes what we might think of as music to the limit, can produce in its detractors a comprehensive forgetting of the contingency of sonic meaning. In 1990, the metal band Judas Priest faced a civil court action in Nevada alleging that they had directly caused the suicide of two 19 and 20-year-old men, through placing subliminal messages on their songs. That the band (a bunch of genial Brummies) did not do this, and that human beings cannot distinguish backwards messages hidden in songs, should go without saying. The case was indeed lost. Yet it stands as a stark example of what can happen when music is attributed with inhuman, unearthly powers.  As the musicologist Robert Walser argues in Running With The Devil: Power, Gender and Madness in Heavy Metal Music, ‘charges of secret messages may persist because we as a society have afforded ourselves no other ways of explaining music’s power to affect us’.

The tendency to treat music as a kind of transcendent force runs through the western tradition, from the notion of ‘music of the spheres’ to the abstraction of much nineteenth century classical music. In this tradition, good music is seen as ideally unanchored in humanity’s messy materiality; it aims to be ‘sublime’, it touches the face of God. When music like metal gives in to human passions it produces the ‘wrong kind’ of transcendence; it overwhelms us with base, bodily urges that we cannot control. This fear of music is not confined to the west though: the prohibition on instrumental music in some Islamic traditions is also predicated on a fear of its ability to excite the body.

One might think that the music that the most dangerous music is that which is most invasive. Yet here we need to distinguish music as sound and music as genre. The sound of my neighbour’s party was maddening not because I disliked the music, but because its sound was out of place. Our capacity to be hurt by sound is genre-blind, taste-indifferent.

Conversely, when a particular genre of music is seen an dangerous, it does not necessarily mean that it has invaded the hearing of its detractors. The danger that metal represents in some Middle Eastern countries does not derive from any kind of sonic ubiquity. Metal is silent in most of these countries (with some striking exceptions such as Abu Dhabi and Dubai); it is underground and has to be unearthed to be exposed.

The tragedy of music that deliberately flirts with danger, like metal in its more extreme forms, is that its aficionados and artists often have to choose between persecution and irrelevance. To play occult black metal in Saudi Arabia, as the band Al-Namrood do, is to be forced into a choice between making the challenge it poses public – and in so doing, risking oppression and silencing – or being discreet and anonymous so you cannot be endangered, even if challenge you represent is somehow blunted.

Different artists deal with this dilemma differently. Al-Namrood maintain their anonymity, circulating their work online and through local and global metal underground networks. Yet they also draw on their location as a musical resource, fusing Arabic musical styles, lyrical themes that look back to the pre-Islamic Arabic past, with global black metal generic conventions. They are Saudi, they are not Saudi; they are here and not here.

Is this enough though? Is dangerous music anything more than a solipsistic thrill?

In his classic work Noise: The Political Economy of Music, Jacques Atalli argues that music has a unique power to annunciate and prefigure new ways of being and organising society and production. We can view the nineteenth century orchestral behemoth as a harbinger of the complex bureaucratic coordination of advanced capitalist societies. We can see the growth of rock and roll in the post-war period as a driver of the social, sexual and racial revolutions that came in its wake.

But what revolution did Schoenberg announce? Or Boulez, or Xenakis? Such titans of the sonic avant-garde may be well-known, well-studied and well-subsidised, but what change did they bring about or announce? They and their ilk have systematically challenged the founding assumptions on which western music is based. They have a following, they fascinate and inspire some, yet they were and are confined to enclaves. 12-tone music never conquered the world.

Some followers and composers of dangerous music are content to be marginal, others are not. To sonically penetrate the world, radical actions, as well as radical compositions, are necessary.

The industrial music pioneers Throbbing Gristle called their third album, released in 1979, 20 Jazz Funk Greats. It features the band, looking clean-cut and wholesome, standing benignly in a field. The field is actually the suicide hotspot, Beachy Head, the music is anything but jazz funk – it is an unsettling mix of glitchy noise and twisted beats. The aim, apparently, was to produce an album whose outward appearance would cause it to be picked up in Woolworths by those who knew no better. Whether this ever happened I don’t know, but the strategy demonstrates the contorted subterfuge necessary if the avant garde wishes to penetrate comfortable sonic worlds.

A similar belligerence enthused the Norwegian black metal scene in the early 1990s. Artists like Emperor, Burzum and Mayhem were not content to produce their murky occult sounds within the safe confines of the metal underground: They went out and lived their transgression, committing murders and burning churches.

I have never burned a church or conspired to get an industrial album into the bargain bins. I rarely even wear metal t-shirts; when I listen to metal in the car I keep the windows up and the volume down.

I only challenge myself. I want to reach the limits of sound, to burst musical boundaries. My journey has wended its way from mainstream heavy metal, through extreme metal and on to noise.

As a genre name, ‘noise’ is both literal description and rampant irony. For decades now, noise artists have released a torrent of feedback-drenched sonic chaos. Japan is a particular hotspot, with acts such as Masonna, Pain Jerk, Incapacitants and – above all – Merzbow, drawing from a seemingly bottomless well of harsh sound.  When you first encounter it, noise can seem intolerably…well, noisy. Yet for those drawn to it, the irony soon kicks in: noise is never really noise, there are appreciable differences between performers’ styles, between the tracks on albums and within the tracks themselves. In fact, the looseness of noise’s aesthetic parameters is such that it has a limitlessness complexity. There is more to discover here than in most conventionally-structured musics.

The paradoxical limitations and potentials of noise were evident to me when I saw Merzbow perform at London’s Cafe Oto in 2015. He is the Beatles of the genre; unquestionably its biggest ‘star’. And he sold out the space – twice! In a city of 9 million (more if you include the commutable home counties) he could attract less than a thousand aficionados. I and the rest of the audience listened intently, no one moved. The boundaries of the body were not exceeded. Occasionally passers-by looked curiously through the windows (unusually for a music venue, Cafe Oto has shop-style windows that give on to the performance space), shrugged their shoulders, and moved on. Merzbow’s hour-long set was both a transgressive sonic assault and as comfy as an old pair of slippers.

The attraction of noise, for me anyway, was that it seemed to be a form of sound whose meaning is universal to those who are not fans. Whereas metal or jazz betrays its human origins in the fact that a Latvian plumber or a Peruvian subsistence farmer would hear it differently and meaningfully, an Amazonian hunter-gatherer and a Polish accountant would surely only find intolerable cacophony in Merzbow. Maybe most of the world is united in finding noise repellent, but might they not find it repellent in culturally or personally-specific ways? My kids find Merzbow hilariously stupid; others to whom I’ve exposed his work find it shocking, bewildering or just boring.

When some or all kinds of music are treated as dangerous, the fundamental diversity of human meaning-making is elided. Those who make dangerous music and those who seek to suppress it are tied together in a kind of mutual conspiracy to deny this. And I am part of this conspiracy too. For all my essayistic truth-speaking I will still thrill to Merzbow; I will still seek out sounds that feel like a total, inhuman assault, even though they are nothing of the kind.

There is no escape. There is no pure noise, no sublime sonic transcendence. There is no place for us outside the arbitrariness of human meaning-making, the fundamental humanness of human experience. For us, there is only us.

Keith Kahn-Harris’s Unbound book choice is ‘The Music’

Main picture: Slayer, performing in Las Vegas in 2016 (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)