Noise rock is to pop as free verse is to sonnets. As a genre, its difficult to define. It exists on the nebulous borders of rock, eschewing conventions like melody, hooks, and chorus in favor of sheets of dissonance. When noise rock bands fall flat they sound, as a friend put it, like “pots and pans music”. But at its best, noise music is almost architectural, layering loops of sound upon one another to reach a shattering, dazzing crescendo.
Thurston Moore, to many, is the patron saint of noise rock. As frontman for the band Sonic Youth, Moore introduced noise rock to a wider audience, helping albums like Daydream Nation and Sister become staples of the college radio set. Despite Sonic Youth’s relative commercial success, Moore never strayed too far from his roots in New York’s underground scene. In addition to maintaining a prolific solo career and running the record label Ecstatic Peace (home of artists such as Be Your Own Pet and Awesome Color), Moore regularly collaborates—often with less well-known artists—in various side projects.
One of Moore’s latest side projects is Northampton Wools, a collaboration with guitarist Bill Nace. Nace, a staple of the western Massachusetts underground music scene, also plays with free jazz drummer Chris Corsano in the group Vampire Belt, as well as in drone trio X.O.4. Northampton Wools’ particular brand of noise is close to the avant-garde improvisation of free jazz. Indeed, both members of the Wools regularly feature on the roster of The Stone, the East Village venue of prolific jazz legend John Zorn.
Last Sunday night, Moore and Nace headlined a night of noise rock at Williamsburg’s Glasslands Gallery, following opening sets by synthesizer wizard Carlos Giffoni and the avant-garde cellist duo Okkyung Lee and M.V. Carbon. Both Nace and Moore began the set holding their guitars like lapharps, plucking and strumming the strings with straight, metal bows that resembled—and I suspect, were—screwdrivers.
As the set went on, Moore and Nace coaxed their guitars into sounding like everything from mandolins to ethereal bird chirps to ominous gongs. Their music was at once organic and completely alien, transforming the familiar chords of an electric guitar into a swelling cacophony of barely-discernible notes. With their heads bent over their instruments in concentration and hands almost blurring while they worked the frets, Nace and Moore looked like mad scientists. Above their heads, two screens showed undulating green and black swirls, as if capturing the sound waves in the atmosphere.
At one point, Moore produced a drumstick to manipulate the guitar strings as Nace pressed his entire forearm against the frets, resulting in a sound akin to a tornado siren playing over a recording of whale mating calls. (One concert-goer beside me wondered aloud, in a quieter moment, “What else can they do with their guitars?”) When the last echoes of lo-fi guitar dissolved into the sweaty air of Glasslands, the audience waited a dazed few seconds before breaking into appreciative applause.