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Merzbow - MONOAkuma Music Album Reviews

Meant as an introduction to 40 years of a prolific noise icon, this live recording moves between grating analog and prickling digital modes with unmitigated force.

Merzbow occupies a unique place in the world of noise: He is one of the genre’s true icons and one of its real anomalies. As much as his crushing torrents of sound feel like the pure definition of noise, they also seem to exist apart from it, a constant regardless of how the larger scene evolves or shifts. Over hundreds of releases and, as of next year, four full decades, he has laboriously refined his approach. Listen briefly, and it might sound thrown together; listen deeply, and it sounds singular and meticulous. One of his most overlooked skills is his ability to warp time; during tracks that stretch beyond an hour, it becomes malleable, almost mercurial.

Witness Merzbow live, and you’ll feel the power and time-scrambling essence of his sound. There is a brutal euphoria to a Merzbow set, typically powered by a massive sound system and a frenetic light show that suggest both My Bloody Valentine and an EDM party. During performances that can feel like an instant or an eternity, he cracks white noise wide open, smearing its inner spectrum of color across the room. On the new MONOAkuma, the Australian label Room40, helmed by ambient maestro Lawrence English, offers an intended entry point to Merzbow through an especially strong live document—an introductory demonstration, as English puts it, of “the intense and complex audio world Merzbow has created.”

MONOAkuma captures a 2012 show English presented at the Institute of Modern Art Brisbane. It bridges two of Merzbow’s most distinct styles: the gravely analog recordings of his early days and the razor-sharp precision of his subsequent digital work. Those alternate analog and digital extremes juggle your brain. Its single 50-minute track assaults from the start, as sheets of noise work your eardrums like sandpaper. But this is the Merzbow-equivalent of a toe in the pool; the track begins to roil around the 10-minute mark. Over weighty industrial waves, MONOAkuma becomes a showcase for the higher end of Merzbow’s range, where pitches as sharp as needles jab like jackhammers.

Screeching tones spike and scramble, wobbling through filters that gradually trick the ears into finding rhythms and patterns, like a Magic Eye painting without an actual hidden image. That illusion makes the flickers of rhythm that do appear all the more satisfying; after half an hour, the smoke clears to reveal a single beat chugging menacingly beneath the surface. These moments may be just two percent of a Merzbow set, but they make all the difference, leaving you searching the chaos for more surprises.

MONOAkuma makes you wonder what, after 40 years, a proper entry point for Merzbow actually is. He has certainly offered more beat-oriented records. Door Open At 8 AM works wonders with jazz samples, while Merzbeat is practically a rock album. Collaborations with guitarist Richard Pinhas like the double-album Keio Line are nearly unrecognizable in their soft-focus beauty. There are introductions to Merzbow’s world that are easier on the ears than MONOAkuma, then, but this full-throttle blast still feels appropriate for newcomers. It’s an unfiltered, uncompromising dose of what he does best. And for those looking to explore that range even further, you’re in luck—he’s got a lot of records.

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