As Fräulein Maria may have said to the von Trapp family kids, had she wanted to introduce them to Merzbow instead of to music more generally, “Let’s start at the very beginning – a very good place to start: when you read you begin with ABC, when you listen to Merzbow you begin with OM Electrique”.
Not that OM Electrique is by any means the best or even the easiest piece of Merzbow to listen to, but it is the first thing Merzbow recorded, back in 1979, and you can always learn a lot from the beginnings of anything.
OM Electrique is Merzbow stripped bare: an austere, minimalist piece of music that nevertheless tells us a lot about his art and his greatness. It consists mostly of a long droning electronic bass note: vaguely, disturbingly, pulsating. After a while it is joined with short, urgent, but feeble spurts of electrical, metallic sound. These tap and beat away throughout – at first sporadically, and then more insistently, always seeking to find a rhythm and a life but never quite mustering enough energy of their own to rise above the dead, dry drone. At best, they are dragged along by it but, really, the rhythm is never entirely settled – beats are missed here and there, and its pace never stays in the one place. And it seems somehow smothered by the relentless drive of the drone.
About a third of the way into Part One, the bass drone is suddenly interrupted by a high, piercing siren, as if the music is trying to awaken you from itself. It shrieks at you, not enough to deafen you, but enough to make you uncomfortable. It seems to be trying to ward off the menace of the drone, or at least to warn you to steer clear of it – but its attempt is half-hearted, as if it has done this a million times before and always, as now, after only a few minutes, the drone returns, reasserts itself as master, and the metallic beat that takes you nowhere strikes up again.
The sounds build in momentum and yet, at the same time, remain static. It’s an incredibly disorienting feeling that is somehow brilliantly intensified when Part One fades out only to give way to the fuller onslaught of the same sounds, the same drone, the same dead dance of electronic beats, in Part Two.
The whole thing is a marvellous study in minimalist noise. There is no more than a handful of sounds in the almost 40 minutes of OM Electrique. But listen to the way Merzbow mixes and blends those sounds, changes their rhythms and their pulse, gets them to converse with one another, build on one another and then collapse again. The incessant drone that threads through everything, even when it’s not there: it’s all a magnificent demonstration of what noise can do, of what noise can be.
Merzbow gives the noise a kind of austere, severe life – a life with the blood drained out of it, an electric, robotic life the seems to be going everywhere and nowhere at once. It is like a meditation that has been feeding you disturbed subliminal messages throughout. It leaves you feeling strangely unsettled when it’s over, as if you have spent those 40 minutes hovering, teetering on the edge of stillness and motion.
Accepting the harsh austerity of OM Electrique is central to appreciating it as music. And, ultimately, this is central to understanding noise as music more generally too. Western music has trained us to listen for quick grabs of themes – melodies, and phrases of melodies, that can be captured and held and sung. But noise is much more about being immersed in the sound itself – like learning to admire a colour because of its colour, not because of the things it colours.
OM Electrique, if it was a piece of pictorial art, would be a mostly barren canvas of blacks and greys, with little speckles of cold, smudged silver throughout and, here and there, cracks of savage white. And, when you look at it, you would see a richness, an unsettling richness, in its stark, monochrome world. And blacks and greys and silvers and whites would never be quite the same again.
OM Electrique shows Merzbow’s genius in taking a word and turning it into a paragraph; his genius in shaping and moulding and crafting noise from its rawest elements into a picture: not one that tells you a story, but rather one that captures you, grabs you, in its own infinitely brief, infinitely long, moment.