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A brief and incomplete history of sonic terrorism

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Image "Pendrecki notation" via WFMU

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1981, Indeterminate Activity of Resultant Masses, Glenn Branca:

John Cage (no stranger to challenging listeners himself) infamously declared of Branca’s Indeterminate Activity of Resultant Masses, “I found in myself a willingness to connect the music with evil and with power…If it were something political, it would resemble fascism.” Consider that a ringing endorsement, then—any piece of music with the strength to alienate one of modern music’s great innovators surely belongs on this list. Apologies to Mr. Cage, but the piece is less oppressive than transcendent. There is certainly a lot of dissonance, and the work begins with chiming guitar tones that instill a sort of creeping dread in the listener, but overall it recalls another rabble-rousing modern work, Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring (which famously caused a riot when it debuted). Branca’s Resultant Masses has the same plodding, relentless, spiraling feel, the music building and building to a tension that feels unsustainable. The guitars—played on the original recording by, among others, Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo (who would go on to form a band called Sonic Youth)—cascade in walls of sound, first clashing with each other, then all playing in a heavy, marching unison. The piece ends in a clamorous, clattering slowdown, drum fills coming in to add further chaos.

1997, Ladies and gentlemen we are floating in space…, Spiritualized:

As one half of drone purveyors Spacemen 3, Jason Pierce is well aware of the beauty inherent in sheer volume. With Spiritualized, Pierce blended the worshipful noise of Spacemen 3 with a more delicate pop sensibility, and Ladies and gentlemen… is perhaps the nadir of that aesthetic. The tracks bounce between driving rock, chamber pop (with the support of the London Community Gospel Choir), and squealing free jazz. This unique blend is perhaps best illustrated in the album’s final track, “Cop Shoot Cop.” What begins as an ambling, bluesy ode to (literally) narcotizing the pain of heartache slowly morphs into a mind-bending, 17+ minutes of roaring, transcendent guitar, brass, and feedback. The song ebbs and flows, its central theme weaving in and out of a chaotic wave of swirling noise. The end result is reflective of the album as a whole: it is beautiful and sad, divine and dirty, elated and numb.

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