Stabbed in the ear

A box set’s noisy history lesson

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In 1981 Lester Bangs wrote a piece called "A Reasonable Guide to Horrible Noise" that explained his attraction to abrasive scree thusly: "There are many here among us for whom the life force is best represented by the livid twitching of one tortured nerve, or even a full-scale anxiety attack." It’s a good one-sentence explanation for why some are drawn to music that sounds like something OSHA guidelines would suggest heavy-duty ear protection for.

Bangs also knew that noisy music is something that Michigan happens to be very good at. There’s a tradition here, stretching back at least to the MC5 and the Stooges, of artists who like to tap-dance on the precipice of tonality. In the last dozen years, the persistence of tiny underground labels like Bulb (which helped shepherd darlings of the indie underground Wolf Eyes) and Chondritic has kept Michigan on the global noise map. Running in parallel is the perennial space rock scene, nurtured by Windy & Carl and their Dearborn shop Stormy Records, where the drones of Eno and Pink Floyd meet the endless machine rhythms of krautrock.

Despite the large number of artists working in these spheres, it’s still pretty esoteric stuff, with records often issued on handmade CD-Rs limited to 100 copies or less. However, a survey for the curious with appeal to the faithful has arrived in the form of Mitten [State] Transmissions. This 4-CD, DVD box pulls together a huge range of exclusive and rare material from Michigan’s underground, and it can be had for cheap, with all proceeds benefiting Henry Ford Community College’s student-run station, 89.3 WHFR-FM.

What’s immediately striking about M[S]T is the variety of sound heard across its 46 tracks. Though well over half can fairly be described as either noise or dark ambient, this selection puts the lie to the common complaint that "It all sounds the same." Dearborn power electronics project Mammal opens the set with the sinus-clearing blast of "Acid Bath," but the mood shifts down immediately to the ethereal "Anti-Lock Breaks" by Delta Waves — which sounds like a Popol Vuh score to a lost Werner Herzog film — and then to the playful 8-bit electro of W-Vibe’s "Candy Coated Laughter." This 1-2-3 punch sets the tone for the box, but doesn’t lay out the genre proportions; noise still predominates, and you need an ear for abstract texture to appreciate the set as a whole.

Cherry-picking a few of the highlights, Kalkaska’s extremely lo-fi guitar and sample collage "One Mike Redux" transmits on the same crackly frequency as Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti, with a similarly poignant inversion of AM radio gold. "City Light Reflects Down from a Cloud Canopy" from East Lansing’s Matt Borghi channels the icy deep-space darkness of Robert Rich. And Windy & Carl team up with Andrew Coltrane for the metallic drone of "Myths Of the Near Future," which recalls their earlier, more psychedelic material. Meanwhile, the two tracks from Warn Defever’s Little Princess project range from a short snippet of horribly overdriven drum machine ("Elektronaut") to a brooding free-form electronics exploration in the vein of Throbbing Gristle recorded live at the WHFR studios.

Unless you’re the kind of person who looks forward to microphone feedback at live gigs, you might want to keep a finger near the skip button when browsing these discs. The impressive breadth of the set has the inevitable downside — depending on your taste, at least a third of Mitten [State] Transmissions will range from dull to possibly offensive. Noise music, even for its devotees, tends to be a small-dose thing, a palette cleanser in world of carefully manicured sound. But as a sonic menu of mania and exploratory sound, M[S]T contains some truly impressive work in the noise field, with no sacrifice in quality accompanying its geographic restriction.

The oldest cut on Mitten [State] Transmissions is from Allan Bryant of the early electronic music legends Musica Elettronica Viva. His "RYZ ’n Fall," a piece for prepared guitar from 1967, sounds like a swarm of radioactive bees dancing out a map to a pollen-saturated meadow. Bryant was raised in Detroit, but this track (and his work as part of MEV) was recorded in Italy. The inclusion of a hometown boy of the avant-garde nicely illustrates the long reach of Michigan’s experimental music scene. Adventurous ears the world over are seeking out fringe artists from our own back yard, and this rich collection does its best and noisiest to explain why.

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