Noise Rock

The term “noise rock” is almost deliberately vague; in one sense, it ties rock music all the way back to the beginning of the 20th century, linking it to Luigi Russolo’s 1913 manifesto The Art of Noises. Russolo argues that urban life and machines in particular had effectively retuned the human ear, requiring new approaches to composition and new timbres that would stimulate ears pummeled into submission by factory work, streetcars, etc. On the other hand, anytime we hear a song we don’t like, we say “That’s not music, that’s just noise!” What the pioneering noise-rockers seemed to argue was, What if it’s both? And also, fuck you. Always fuck you.

The crucial factor in noise-rock is the guitar that doesn’t sound like a guitar; instead, it sounds like a sheet of steel being torn apart by robot claws, or an electrical storm, or someone scraping a paper clip across your fillings. So you can trace the roots back to the second Velvet Underground album, 1968’s White Light/White Heat, and follow a line of jagged tin-snips riffage that includes King Crimson circa Larks’ Tongues in Aspic and Starless and Bible Black, Gang of Four’s Entertainment!, Public Image Ltd.’s Metal Box, and Siouxsie and the Banshees’ The Scream. (Of course, one could also argue that John Lee Hooker pioneered noise-rock guitar on the 1963 album Don’t Turn Me From Your Door — the disjointed, almost detuned instrumental “I Ain’t Got Nobody” is stunning.) 

Another crucial jumping-off point was the 1978 compilation No New York, which featured four Downtown groups — Teenage Jesus & the Jerks, the Contortions, Mars, and DNA — whose music was like having one’s face scraped along the sidewalk. Late ’70s/early ’80s New York was a natural incubator for noisy music. Groups like Swans and Sonic Youth were reflections of their environment — their music clanged and rattled and throbbed like subways and garbage trucks and sirens, like your neighbor ranting and raving from down the hall, and it had a kind of innate psychic pressure that matched the stress of living a financially precarious life in a broken-down, dangerous city. Thurston Moore, Kim Gordon and Lee Ranaldo trafficked in a kind of near-hallucinatory alienation, as though trying to dream themselves out of their surroundings, while Michael Gira chose to wallow (the first Swans album was called Filth) and deliver anguished slogans about fear, power, and subjugation.

A few years later, a second generation of noise-rock bands began to emerge from New York’s Lower East Side. Among the most prominent were Pussy Galore, fronted by Jon Spencer and propelled by Bob Bert’s junkyard percussion (instead of a snare drum, he struck a car’s gas tank), and White Zombie, led by Rob Zombie. These bands and their peers (Rat At Rat R, Live Skull, the Reverb Motherfuckers and more) were the audio equivalent of a dirt-encrusted porn magazine found in the woods, embracing a clanging, head-bashing rock ’n’ roll primitivism and filling their lyrics with references to trash culture, while giving off a hostile vibe that was much more nihilistic and socially disengaged than the hardcore punk bands they shared performance spaces with. Still, Spencer and Zombie had star quality. Unsane frontman Chris Spencer, meanwhile, was more of a working-class blues shouter, armed with a Fender Telecaster that could slice your face open.

The blues was a surprisingly strong element of second-generation noise-rock; bands like the Chrome Cranks, the Honeymoon Killers, and others seemed as descended from the early Rolling Stones, the Pretty Things, and even the Cramps as Swans or Sonic Youth. And when Midwestern acts like Killdozer, Cows, and the Jesus Lizard joined the party via Chicago and Minneapolis, not to mention Texas’s Butthole Surfers, things got even more macho and swaggering, as they yowled and roared surreal portraits of rural and white-trash life atop thudding drums and bone-scraping guitars. That’s not to suggest that noise-rock was a boys’ club, though, as Lydia Lunch, Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon, White Zombie’s Sean Yseult, Pussy Galore’s Julie Cafritz (and Cristina Martinez, who’d form Boss Hog with her husband, Jon Spencer) were just a few of the female voices who helped define the genre.

If the twenty recommendations below aren’t quite enough, check out Phil’s expanded list here.

Unsane cover

Listening to Unsane’s 1990 debut album, it’s hard to believe the three members met at Sarah Lawrence College. Their music has the headlong barrage energy of hardcore punk, with drummer Charlie Ondras’s tumbling, pounding rhythms bolstered by Pete Shore’s bass, which rumbles like the subway, but the razor-wire blues riffs from guitarist/vocalist Chris Spencer’s cranked-up Telecaster — and his distorted shrieks— are what set the band apart. Unsane put the rock in noise-rock; there’s no jaded alienation in their music. Of the 12 songs here, only three pass the three-minute mark. On one of those, the nearly six-minute “Exterminator,” they explore a Mudhoney-esque psychedelia, but they’re always more at home with short, pummeling post-punk (not postpunk) eruptions. (Yes, the album cover is a real photo of a real dead person; they got it from a friend who was working with the NYPD.)

The 12 Swinging Signs of the Zodiac cover

The Reverb Motherfuckers were a sludgy, psychedelic noise-rock act from New York who embraced debauchery in basically any form — some songs bore titles like “Threeway On The Freeway” and “Love Juice In All Three Holes,” but they also had a nihilistic dark side expressed on tracks like “Nowhere Nothing Fuckup” and “No Not Me,” which begins “I wanna get drunk/I wanna take drugs/My head’s like a jar full of lightning bugs.” Sonically, they were somewhere in the neighborhood of the Butthole Surfers, with more sampled tape collages, more extended, metallic guitar solos, and slower, more bludgeoning tempos; in fact, they were making the transition between noise-rock and tribal post-metal two years before White Zombie, and vocalist Roy Edroso (now an astute political blogger) had a compellingly desperate wail.

Intellectuals Are the Shoeshine Boys of the Ruling Elite cover

Noise-rock was far from just a New York thing. There was a powerful Midwestern contingent, too, and Wisconsin’s Killdozer were early pioneers of the form. The songs on their 1984 debut album are slow and grinding, with primitive, thudding drums from Dan Hobson and screeching, feedback-soaked sheet metal guitar from his brother Bill, while Michael Gerald’s low-slung bass and aggressive vocals glue it all together. Lyrically, they paint a misanthropic and black-humored portrait of rural life, with songs about their home state’s legendary serial killer Ed Gein, perverse sexual aggression (“Pile Driver”), hyperbolic masculinity (“A Man’s Gotta Be A Man”), and a surprisingly solid cover of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Run Through The Jungle” to bring it all home.

Gub cover

Pigface was an “industrial” “supergroup” formed by drummers Martin Atkins and William Rieflin, who met while playing together on Ministry’s 1989 tour. They decided to continue collaborating, inviting whoever was interested to join for an album, a show, a tour, or whatever. Their debut album, released in 1991, features guest appearances from David Yow of the Jesus Lizard, Steve Albini on guitar and bass (he also engineered the record), Chris Connelly and Paul Barker of Ministry and Revolting Cocks, Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails, Nivek Ogre of Skinny Puppy, and En Esch of KMFDM. These are “songs” in only the broadest sense; they sound improvised, and are recorded in a noise-rock style full of crude, clubbing drums, sheet-metal guitar, found sounds, squiggling analog electronics, and a general anything-goes attitude. Enter with no expectations and you’ll be rewarded; anyone coming in expecting Wax Trax-style industrial dance-metal should abandon all hope.

EVOL cover

The second of the three albums that made Sonic Youth underground stars in the ’80s, EVOL isn’t as harrowing as Bad Moon Rising, nor is it as amped-up and melodic as Sister. It’s a moody middle ground, with a stronger backbeat than they’d ever delivered before thanks to new drummer Steve Shelley. The first three songs — “Tom Violence,” “Shadow Of A Doubt,” and “Starpower” — are some of their most beautiful, with Kim Gordon’s half-distracted murmuring on “Shadow” maybe her best vocal performance in the band’s entire catalog, while “In The Kingdom #19” allows Lee Ranaldo to indulge his beatnik tendencies over noisy riffs and tape collages. The big finale, “Madonna, Sean, And Me” (aka “Expressway To Yr. Skull”), begins as a surprisingly anthemic proto-shoegaze song that builds to a noisy climax about halfway through, then descends slowly to earth, sounding almost dubbed-out at times.

Dope, Guns & Fucking In The Streets: 1988-1998 Volume 1-11 cover

Over the course of a decade, Amphetamine Reptile Records — a Minneapolis label that released albums by Cows, Helios Creed, Boss Hog, and many more, including Helmet’s debut — put out a series of 7” EPs that featured a wide range of grunge and noise-rock acts. This double CD, which collects the original 11 volumes (several more were released 20 years later, to diminishing aesthetic returns), offers close to 50 slabs of warped, throbbing, screeching underground rawk by Cows, Boredoms, Mudhoney, Halo Of Flies, Tad, God Bullies, Lubricated Goat, the Jesus Lizard, and many more. The louder you play this album, the dirtier you’ll feel — in the best way.

Bad Moon Rising cover

The first in a loose trilogy of works that brought Sonic Youth gradually out of the noise-rock underground and onto the “alternative” scene, Bad Moon Rising is a dark and hypnotic dream of an album. The songs flow together in a continuous suite, bridged by collages that feature samples of songs like the Stooges’ “Not Right” emerging from waves of noise. Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon deliver the lyrics in long, wavering moans like funereal incantations, as their detuned guitars clang and crunch and explode in post-Hendrixian clouds of pure sound. Bob Bert’s minimal, tribal drumming anchors songs like “I Love Her All The Time” and “Brave Men Run (In My Family),” while later tracks like “I’m Insane” and “Justice Is Might” echo the work of onetime tourmates Swans. The big finale, “Death Valley ’69,” is a throbbing, howling “tribute” to the Manson Family, with guest sneers from Lydia Lunch.

Love American Style cover

New York’s Honeymoon Killers (not to be confused with the Belgian group that had the name first) were a constantly mutating project led by guitarist/vocalist Jerry Teel. Their sound was a mix of blues, punk, and noise-rock, with elements of the Gun Club, the Butthole Surfers and the Cramps, the songs slathered in feedback, mixed with recordings of New York street noise (“Night After Night”) and often played at crawling tempos (“Pain Is Easy”). On this 1985 album, they were a trio — Lisa Wells on bass and vocals, Sally Edroso on drums and vocals — and the music had a psychedelic rockabilly throb somehow improved by the players’ rudimentary skills. The women’s caterwauling vocals, balanced against Teel’s wolfman howl, bring to mind the B-52s back when they were a freakazoid art-punk project.

Daddy Has A Tail! cover

Cows, from Minneapolis, Minnesota, were one of the Midwest’s most pummeling noise-rock outfits. Bassist Kevin Rutmanis (who’d later join the Melvins) and drummer Tony Oliveri pounded out blues-punk grooves as guitarist Thor Eisentrager unleashed searing waves of guitar noise and surprisingly skilled blues playing, and vocalist/bugler (yes, really) Shannon Selberg sneered and yowled. This album opens with a genuinely vulgar reworking of Shakin’ Stevens’ “Shakin’ All Over,” but it peaks with the metronomic, excoriating “Chow.” The music is mixed into a thick, sticky tar; every member sounds like they’re struggling to break free and be heard, and that frantic energy, even at relatively slow tempos, makes this album stand out both in the Cows catalog and in Midwestern noise-rock as a whole.

Sister cover

Sonic Youth completed a phase of their artistic journey with this 1987 album, which is so conventionally melodic at times they can even be heard playing acoustic guitars(!). The opening one-two punch of “Schizophrenia” and “(I Got A) Catholic Block” are some of the most exciting, pathbreaking music of the alternative rock era, the guitars spiraling off in wavering arcs like underpowered rockets. The impact of Steve Shelley’s drumming can’t be overstated; his driving beat on “Pipeline/Kill Time” and the band’s cover of Crime’s “Hot Wire My Heart” gives the band a flood of power while anchoring them to the earth. Even the noisiest tracks (“Pacific Coast Highway,” “Kotton Krown,” “White Kross”) make their connections to psychedelic rock explicit. As a result, they sound like they’re straining against leashes throughout, and the music has a thrilling coiled energy.

Fontanelle cover

The noise-rock scene had a somewhat macho reputation, not without justification, but Minneapolis’s Babes In Toyland — guitarist/vocalist Kat Bjelland, bassist Maureen Herman, and drummer Lori Barbero — provided a powerful counterweight. Bjelland shifted between a girlish coo and a range of demonic shrieks and bellows, embodying rage and despair with terrifying immediacy, and the music was every bit as fierce as her voice. Their sound was somewhere between grunge and metal, but Sonic Youth guitarist Lee Ranaldo’s production allowed the dissonance in Bjelland’s guitar style to come to the fore in between the crushing riffs, while keeping Herman and Barbero nice and loud in the mix, too. The songs had a punk-rock concision, mostly coming in well under the three-minute mark and getting to the point quickly and emphatically.

Discography cover

In addition to one of the greatest band names ever, Lydia Lunch’s first group, formed when she was still a teenager herself, had a bracing and unique sound, impossible to ignore even when she wasn’t hectoring the listener with atonal, rage-soaked howls and piercing shrieks. Many of their compositions (“songs” would be a stretch) are short instrumentals with titles like “Red Alert” and “Race Mixing,” but “Orphans,” probably the band’s most compelling composition, features vivid lyrical imagery (“little orphans running through the bloody snow”) and a fierce sense of dynamics, with Gordon Stevenson’s one-note bass line and Bradley Field’s metronomic snare drum — prefiguring the Jesus & Mary Chain’s Psychocandy — supporting Lunch’s surprisingly powerful, untutored guitar, which almost echoes the Clash’s “London Calling.” The “Orphans” B-side “Less Of Me” is just as frenetic, but the group had more than one mood, as displayed on “The Closet,” a desperate pre-Goth ballad on which James Chance blows sax.

Filth cover

On their full-length debut, Michael Gira’s Swans project was a pounding, low-end-fixated (two basses, two drummers) purgative ritual. Drummers Jonathan Kane and Roli Mosimann beat out repetitive interlocking patterns as Gira and Harry Crosby clanged out single bass chords in unison. Norman Westberg’s guitar was a slashing sheet metal sound floating amid the din. The focus, of course, was on Gira’s hostile, slogan-like lyrics, which explored violence, domination, and power, mostly from the perspective of the abject (but willing) victim (“Big Strong Boss,” “Weakling,” “Power For Power”). A few simple production tricks like squiggling tape effects and the fact that “Big Strong Boss” cuts off suddenly, mid-syllable, give the music even greater impact, making Filth an occasionally disorienting and generally unpleasant listening experience, but one you can’t help coming back to.

Goat cover

It’s impossible to imagine the Jesus Lizard’s music without Steve Albini’s engineering; he was the band’s de facto fifth member, and on this, their second album, he takes their already powerful songs and turns them into paradigmatic Midwestern noise-rock. Duane Denison’s twangy, bent guitar riffs are supported by David Wm. Sims’ loud, rumbling bass and Mac McNeilly’s subtle but whomping drums, and honestly, that would be plenty satisfying enough, but add David Yow’s howling, fever-dream vocals to the mix and you’ve really got something. Albini’s contribution is to mix all four elements more or less equally; Yow is never shoved into the spotlight, indeed he’s often drowned out by Denison, making him sound even more like a crazy guy ranting from the corner.

Liar cover

A harder and heavier album than its predecessor, 1991’s Goat, Liar is the Jesus Lizard at their most aggressive. The band is slightly more locked-in, with guitarist Duane Denison seeming to play with bassist David Wm. Sims and drummer Mac McNeilly rather than alongside them, but Sims in particular seems to be battling for dominance — his playing on “The Art Of Self-Defense” is superficially simple, but about 80% of the song’s energy is concentrated therein. Vocalist David Yow is higher up in the mix than before, but that doesn’t make his lyrics any more comprehensible or his delivery any more conventional; he still sounds like a drunk having a nightmare next to you on a bus at midnight. What becomes clear on this album is that the Jesus Lizard were astonishing composers — strip away the superficial heaviosity, and the songs are as complex and dynamic as early ’70s King Crimson.

Crypt-Style! cover

Pussy Galore called it quits in 1990, but Jon Spencer kept busy. He was in Boss Hog with his wife, Cristina Martinez, and also played in Gibson Bros. and the Honeymoon Killers. It was in the latter group that he connected with drummer Russell Simins; the two, along with second guitarist Judah Bauer, formed the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion in 1991. In contrast to Pussy Galore’s junkyard rampages and self-immolating noise collages, the JSBX (as they came to be known) threw improvised-sounding collages of blues and rockabilly riffs at the listener, Spencer’s and Bauer’s guitars intertwining and doing battle, with Simins’ powerful backbeat driving it all as the frontman extemporized in showmanlike fashion, making every lyric an impassioned exhortation to get on down. In a pair of recording sessions — with Kramer in July, and Steve Albini in November/December — they bashed out close to 40 songs which were split among three albums, with many overlaps. Of these, Crypt Style, released on the German Crypt label, has the most visceral impact; opening with their man-on-fire version of Jerry Lee Lewis’s “Lovin’ Up A Storm” definitely helps.

Cold Hands cover

Cristina Martinez left Pussy Galore after their first few EPs, but she married Jon Spencer, and in 1989 the two worked together again, forming Boss Hog with a noise all-star crew that included members of PG, Unsane, and the Honeymoon Killers. Their first full-length included guest appearances from saxophonist Kurt Hoffman of the Ordinaires and guitarist Santiago Durango, formerly of Big Black, but the core band had a strong voice already. Heavier and bluesier than Pussy Galore, the songs had a stomping backbeat courtesy of Unsane drummer Charlie Ondras and layers of bent guitar from Jerry Teel, Kurt Wolf, and Spencer. The back-and-forth lead vocals of the front couple were the main attraction, and Martinez quickly revealed herself as a compelling counterpart to her husband’s already germinating rockabilly-loverman persona; her shouts, murmurs and coos were seductive and sardonic at once, sticking pins in every balloon at the party.

No New York cover

Before there was noise-rock, there was no wave. This compilation, recorded by Brian Eno in 1978, features four tracks each by four bands: the Contortions, Teenage Jesus & the Jerks, Mars, and DNA. Each one does something different, but they all fit together as a shrieking ball of live-wire intensity. The Contortions deliver a jagged punk funk (their cover of James Brown’s “I Can’t Stand Myself (When You Touch Me)” is breathtaking); Teenage Jesus & the Jerks are the sound of the world’s angriest teenage girl and her friends stabbing you with broken bottles; Mars created improvised-sounding chaos with wordless vocals and deliberately untrained instrumental approaches, making it seem like they were forever on the brink of coming up with a song but never quite getting there; and DNA’s best qualities were Ikue Mori’s primitive drumming and Arto Lindsay’s barbed-wire, detuned guitar.

Fat Axl cover

A UK quartet fronted by fire- and venom-spitting vocalist Lesley Rankine, Silverfish made a grinding racket that fit neatly alongside the work of bands like Unsane and their countrymen in Fudge Tunnel, but they eschewed fashionable nihilism in favor of feminist fury. After a pair of EPs, they released this, their debut album, in 1991. Guitarist Andrew “Fuzz” Duprey has a compelling style that’s more about raw noise than conventional riffs, but he can still bust out a solo full of fascinatingly bent and warped notes, occasionally paying tribute to funk and even hip-hop. Bassist Chris Mowforth and drummer Stuart Watson are a tight rhythm team, the bass a gloriously distorted rumble recalling David Michael Riley’s work with Big Black and the drums a massive thwack. The eight original songs range from hardcore punk blasts (“Two Marines”) to funk-metal (“Harry Butcher”), with a revelatory and utterly unironic cover of Grandmaster Melle Mel’s “White Lines (Don’t Do It)” bringing the first side to an explosive close.

The Chrome Cranks cover

The Chrome Cranks were an NYC-via-Cincinnati punk-blues act led by guitarist/howler Peter Aaron and guitarist William Weber, with Jerry Teel of the Honeymoon Killers on bass and Bob Bert, formerly of Sonic Youth and Pussy Galore, on drums. Though it features Charles Hanson on drums, their 1994 self-titled album establishes their sound quite authoritatively. Their guitars have an impressive clang and scrape, and the songs are less anarchic in structure than the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion’s; they tend to pick one blues or rockabilly or garage-rock riff and pound on it for a few minutes, until it’s yielded all the juice it’s going to. Aaron’s vocals are full of desperation and mania; you can almost hear his sweat hitting the microphone.