Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The sound of dolphins - Merzbow

After writing over the past several days about so many albums that delve into this or that nook or cranny of the human psyche, I thought it was time for a little bit of a gear change today and so decided to focus on an album about dolphins. Something with the sounds of the sea, the song of those gorgeous marine animals with all their grace and beauty and amazing intellect, and the way that humans interact with it all.

But, of course, that idyllic picture is not what the world is really like for a lot of dolphins, especially on the coasts of Japan, where the water is red with dolphin blood, the song is the screech of excruciating pain and fear and the interaction with humans is brutal, mercenary and deadly.

This is the picture that is portrayed in Merzbow’s 2008 album, Dolphin Sonar, just over an hour of grating, piercing, electronic noise that conjures up horrifying images of slaughter, and of a species and an ocean violated.

Merzbow is Japanese avant-garde music/noise artist Masami Akita. There is absolutely nothing on Dolphin Sonar that sounds even remotely like what you are accustomed to thinking of as music. The sounds are dense, harsh electronic distortions and the most musical things get is when every now and then you can vaguely detect a beat bashing away beneath the violent hissing and foam. But even the beat is not so much the sound of drums but of sea bed rumbling and bubbling in uneasy protest to the horrors that are happening above it.

Here the ocean is an angry, ugly thing. It hurts your ears to listen to it, but its anger and strength is too great for you to be able to turn it off. It sounds in some ways like a radio being tuned, distorted indecipherable noise, sometimes with the sounds of sirens whirring like air raid signals, sometimes with indistinct bashings and clangings that sound like bashings on massive rubbish bins, but always with a vehemence and a violence that only nature, displaced and angry, could muster.

Dolphin Sonar is in three parts, but none of them provide relief or contrast from the unrelenting turmoil and brutality. The last ends with what sounds like forlorn plucking on some electronically distorted string instrument – a stabbed, strangled sound against a sea that slowly, reluctantly, gurgles into silence.

This is not an album that you listen to for enjoyment – it is meant to confront you, disturb you and challenge you. And it does. But it also captivates you, and shakes you, if you allow it to. And while, at the end, you may well want to stick on a recording of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony for a bit of comfort, and a more sanguine view of nature (not to mention the opportunity of a tune to hum along to), Dolphin Sonar is the album you need to listen to if you want to really know what nature, and humanity's interaction with it, is about these days.

And you need to hear it, what’s more, if only to see how music can move in such utterly unconventional directions to get its point across.

Another great discovery by rummaging through the racks at Missing Link in Melbourne.

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