Friday, October 30, 2009

Dumping the Fucking Rubbish

Whitehouse's "Asceticists 2006" read in conjunction with Paul Hegarty's "Noise/Music: A History."



Philip Best, first from left. William Bennett, third from left.

William Bennett shouts into a mic, he points at the crowd with his free hand – accusatory, cynical, but most of all critical. Behind him, Philip Best gesticulates, arms spread wide and mouth agape. Bennett, as the founder and sole constant of Whitehouse, is a figurehead of the power electronics genre. He irritates and aggravates – a cross between a motivational speaker and a disciplinarian as he paces the stage, backlit by harsh lighting. There’s an exaggerated air of bombastic empowerment to the whole image as captured on the back cover of Whitehouse’s “Asceticists 2006.” Both men wear shades as they grimace and strike extravagant poses of masculine dominance. Are Whitehouse parodying, or unabashedly wallowing in the pomp of “rocking out?” Is Whitehouse actually promising that most hoary of rock clichés – transcendence through an ecstatic immersion in sound? Are the pumped fists and hooked “noise claws” of the audience an ironic mockery of the consumptive illusion of the rock concert, or has the skepticism of noise fallen into the restrictive boundaries of a genre? Is there a culture of noise? If so, what does it look like?



Noise/Music: A History by Paul Hegarty. An excellent study of the historical trajectory of noise music and well worth hunting down.


Culture, that is, a Hegelian history of affairs, is comprised of disruptions. The sound of history is one of noises – an inconsolable dissonance of failures woven into a fabric that must then be apprehended as a success. This cultural noise is the testing of a boundary, that boundary being the order indicated by culture itself. According to Paul Hegarty in his study “Noise/History,” this “noise is negative; it is unwanted, other, not something ordered. It is negatively defined –i.e. by what it is not (not acceptable sound, not music, not valid, not a message or a meaning), but it is also a negativity… it helps structure and define its opposite (the world of meaning, law, regulation, goodness, beauty, and so on…” Noise then, is the failure of Hegelian organization; there are excesses and irreconcilables, yet these must be contended with if history is to retain a shape. Noise as an intention, that is, the pushing of an avant-garde or ‘progressive’ artistic or intellectual endeavor to investigate the hinterlands beyond or more aptly outside sense, is bound to fail. Noise must fail, as it is subsumed into a view of history. Noise stabilizes our society as it is assimilated within it. This is potentially problematic from the perspective of noise itself. For example, Whitehouse’s “Asceticists 2006” is their 18th release – that positions it on a timeline. Whitehouse exist as an entity moving through time – that necessarily puts them within a context, even a community. “Asceticists 2006” becomes a linear point between their previous album, 2003’s “Birdseed,” and 2007’s “Racket.”

Writing about Whitehouse in the closing months of 2009 is not the same as writing about Whitehouse even so late as 1985. This is a historicizing at play which in the past may have seemed reportage – conveying facts. Bennett himself has avowed that the reception of the audience to Whitehouse then becomes just as integral to the art as the albums and live shows themselves. Does writing about Whitehouse simply aid in the canonization of thought around disruptive noise? Is noise neutered as it is written about? We now contend with not just the personal history of William Bennett and Whitehouse, but with that of the power electronics genre, a term Bennett himself coined in reference to the album, “Erector.” “Erector” in many ways stands as the first Whitehouse release of purpose. Whereas “Birthdeath Experience” and “Total Sex” made a strong, albeit sloppy, statement, it was with “Erector” that Bennett & co. began focusing in both intent and execution.



Erector

Ah, which proves my point, as even an entity as disruptive as Whitehouse finds itself locked into a history. But then, it would be misreading Whitehouse to assume their primary concern is to move or exist ‘outside’ a particular stricture. Bennett has described himself as “avowedly hostile to the orthodox academic model,” but he does not position himself outside of intellectual discourse. Instead, William Bennett and Whitehouse inhabit a fracture in declension. Whitehouse can be found in ‘place of,’ instead of ‘outside of’ a model. That is, Whitehouse exists as if it were music or art. Whitehouse takes the place of music – it occupies the same place as art or music. Does this, in fact, make it music? Can a thing occupy the same of a signifier without signifying the same?

Remember:



Cruise

What we see here is an invested interest in community and response. Again, I’ll return to Hegarty, who writes that “Noise is a phenomenology of noise, insofar as it exists in relation to individuals, who define themselves as being subject to noise (a community forms around the hearing of a house or car alarm). Certain types of noise are to do with the sounds of ‘other people’, and these are the ones that are most complicit with power…” Now, Hegarty in this instance is talking about the literal sounds of other people – your roommate always slamming their bedroom door late at night, the zydeco blasting from the upstairs apartment, the ice cream truck which circles endlessly around the block, but there is also another noise, it’s one of ‘other people.’ Community, and discourse itself, can be seen as a noise. Whitehouse may employ the shrill feedback of analog synthesizers, but the ‘noise’ component in their work is one of response. A sound in itself is not necessarily noise, this categorization hinges on its deployment.

Whitehouse ‘provokes,’ but they do so in a manner removed from punk potty-mouths like GG Allin or the Meatmen, or latter-day power electronics practitioners such as Macronympha or Grey Wolves. Which is not a creative judgment, I personally enjoy listening to Grey Wolves; it is only a distinction of placement. The accusations and discomfort, both sonic and lyric-derived, of Whitehouse involve response in order to position the band’s output in the place of art while being something else. The response is meant to confound expectations, not to ‘raise questions,’ but to inhibit the very ability to ask them. There is a deliberateness in William Bennett labeling himself an ‘Animal Response Technician’ within the booklet to “Racket,” the latest Whitehouse release.



Consumer Electronics at No Fun Fest 2008. Philip Best (right) w. Dominick Fernow (Prurient)


But we must here return to the rock bombast hinted at on the back cover of “Asceticists 2006.” Now, we will listen closer to that album’s mix of pummeling digital beats and didactic screed. In an era where noise has been normalized as a genre and can now be curated, or is that corralled, into events such as No Fun Fest, what prevents Whitehouse from simply becoming noisy music? Look at the youtube clips of Philip Best performing as Consumer Electronics at the 2008 No Fun Fest, replete with bombastic noise claws and sweaty-machismo glorification. What’s going on here? Is Philip Best simply giving the audience what they want? Not just what they want, but what they expect? One could almost confuse Best for a rock star. . On the early track, ‘Rock n Roll,’ Bennett taunts the listener, asking, “do you believe in rock n roll?” It does not seem likely that he has had a turn about in the intervening years; it is much more likely that the context that surrounds him and Whitehouse has changed.

Before we continue, lets go back and look at the accompanying booklet to the Susan Lawly reissue of the 1985 album, “Great White Death.” Bennett & co. include excerpted reviews and a Q & A concerning a 1984 live show. One person writes that he “…thinks Non blows Whitehouse completely out of the room, down the street and up the hall. I mean those guys were so pretentious about their stance and their attitude and about what they were doing that to me it was meaningless, it wasn’t what they wanted, which was to scare people, or disturb people in the audience, they just bored people,…They didn’t walk out of the room because it blew them away or it made their ears bleed or anything else, it just bored them…” What is being misunderstood about Whitehouse, here, is that the intent is to ‘make the listener’s ears bleed,’ as would be the goal of noisy acts from Blue Cheer on down to Prurient. Instead, Whitehouse aim to exist in a state of contention, whether it is through moral disgust, or when that becomes acclimated, boredom or irritation. It is also important to note how Whitehouse presents this information without any explicit commentary. Negative reviews of a Whitehouse performance are printed alongside lyrics like “this one’s dedicated to Chuck Traynor/ I’m comin’ up your ass/ I’m so bored with your cunt/ you won’t like it, sugar/ I’m comin’ up your ass/ try and be grateful…” No attempt is made to delineate between divergent information.

William Bennett took a substantial hiatus from Whitehouse following the release of ‘Great White Death,’ sincerely believing that with that release he had done as much as he could with the project. In a sense, he was correct, as with “Great White Death” Bennett solidified the mixture of declamatory recitation and harsh, pulsing electronics that would dominate his subsequent output. The austerity of “New Britain” and “Buchenwald” was to give way to a more complicated, though no less controversial tableau. Philip Best assisted Bennett on the next release, 1990’s “Thank Your Lucky Stars,” adding his barked rants to the analog synth pulses of Bennett and Peter Sotos. Through the final, Steve Albini-recorded analog releases and into the initial Trevor Brown-illustrated forays in digital sound, Whitehouse moved further and further away from the straightforward serial killer soundscapes of “Dedicated to Peter Kurten” and to a new place where, as Hegarty writes, “…the shocking elements are not necessarily where we expect them, so neither is the ‘noise.” What exactly does one expect out of a Whitehouse release?

The packaging of each Whitehouse release is impeccably designed. But what’s the point? The nature of Whitehouse is that each subsequent release is the ‘quintessential’ Whitehouse product, rendering past endeavors obsolete. Whitehouse does not only question the utility of conventional rock protest, but that of Whitehouse itself. Throbbing Gristle may have attempted to release substandard product to mock the spectacle of commodification, but it is actually Whitehouse’s finely designed releases that truly mock the concept of consumption. These are impeccable products, and they’re destined to become obsolete.



Quality Time

Latter-day Whitehouse expertly navigates such notions. An argument could be made that the environment in which Whitehouse produced work had become more interesting, thus allowing Whitehouse to create more interesting work. The terrain of Industrial and noise music had shifted in the interim between “Great White Death” and “Thank Your Lucky Stars.” As Graeme Revell of Industrial pioneers SPK recently noted, noise has transformed from a music of refusal to one of acceptance. It has been codified into a specific product – a boutique market. Whitehouse in 1990 found themselves the progenitors of a genre they didn’t want anything to do with. From “Thank Your Lucky Stars” to “Cruise” we see a distinct arc as lyrical purpose and digital acumen is investigated and perfected. A strong case could be made for the two early 2000s albums, “Cruise” and “Birdseed,” as the group’s artistic zenith.

These are invigorating, caustic releases. Tracks like “Cruise (Force the Truth)” and “Wriggle Like a Fucking Eel” marry punishing digital beats with expertly barked diatribes attacking psychoanalysis and post-New Age self worth with vitriolic aplomb. These albums also find William Bennett embracing the African tribal influences first seen on the “Extreme Music from Africa” release (which while not attributed to Whitehouse, is rumored to have been produced entirely by Bennett). Band member Peter Sotos takes the child molestation and rape fantasies common to power electronics and positions them beyond any concern for genre or craft, as he splices sensational excerpts from local news and Geraldo into bleak ten-plus minute tracks such as “Public” and “Bird Seed.” A track like “Public” does not aspire towards any semblance of art, sharing much more of an affinity with the functionality of pornography. Like pornography, “Public” or the earlier “Private” from “Mummy and Daddy” can be entered and exited at arbitrary points. The entire track becomes an erogenous zone. These late period albums push the Whitehouse template, and with it the bedrock of power electronics itself, to another phenomenological end point. We find ourselves not just at some facile horizon of ‘good taste,’ but at a paradoxical conceptual dead end. But rather than render Whitehouse inert, this seems to propel Bennett, Best and Sotos onward.

“Cruise” is a ‘good’ power electronics album, so is “Bird Seed” a ‘better’ one, because it follows “Cruise?” The almost interchangeable nature of these two releases, compounded by their short running times, questions the autonomy of each record. Perversely, these albums were also released during the brief surfacing in the early noughties music press of noise, propelled by the visibility of acts such as Black Dice, Lightning Bolt and the Load Records roster. So are we to view “Cruise” and “Bird Seed” as a creative peak for the project? Wouldn’t such a critical judgment attribute similar artistic intentions to Whitehouse as that of a more conventionally minded ‘rock’ group? Misreading the group as some raincoat collective of sweaty-palmed perverts brings one to a dismal creative block, one occupied by pale, pig-minded imitators like Black Leather Jesus and Deathpile – ‘rock music,’ but only more so, louder, denser and viler. Is this what Whitehouse is about?

Maybe this vision of excess can be applied to Japanese noise such as Masonna or Merzbow. Hegarty observes that many Japanese noise musicians “…see themselves as carrying on the project of rock, jazz, or both, with many citing King Crimson and Black Sabbath as key influences.” Whitehouse and similar minded projects-Sutcliffe Jugend, the Sodality, Ramleh and the Broken Flag label of artists, as well as early Maurizio Bianchi, do not fit within that mold. These artists are involved in what SPK and Maurizio Bianchi have termed the ‘decomposition’ of sound, rather than its explosion in bombast and excess. But with propulsive numbers such as “Why You Never Became a Dancer,” Whitehouse positions themselves as the fist-pumping figureheads for a displaced male violence. Is William Bennett really vindicating such self-congratulatory displays of self-delusion?



Buyer's Market. Peter Sotos' solo album is a curious release. It is composed entirely of audio collages of sexual molestation victims along the line of tracks such as "Public," "Private," and "Bird Seed."

I would argue that something much more complicated is going on here. If the two previously mentioned Whitehouse releases can be said to ‘define’ the noise genre in the early-noughties, then “Asceticists 2006” refutes the genre and its expectations. What we have is in many ways a negation of the clichés and tired postures of the noise genre that claims Whitehouse as inspiration. Between 2003’s “Bird Seed” and “Asceticists 2006,” third member Peter Sotos had been expelled from the group. This bears consideration. Sotos is an incredibly important figure within the power electronics community even outside of his contributions to Whitehouse. He first came to prominence for publishing the child pornography fanzine, Pure, and gained further notoriety as the author of a series of books that can only nominally be termed crime novels. Peter Sotos can be viewed as an even more elemental figure within the power electronics community than his former bandmates. Bennett and Best both position themselves as critical intellectuals opposed to hypocrisies within the present modes of discourse, rather than the apparatus of discourse itself.



Asceticists 2006


On “Asceticists 2006,” Whitehouse has been pared down to the sympathetic duo of Best and Bennett, and much of the album can be read as an attack on Sotos, and therewith, a certain breed of ‘noise’ connoisseur whom Sotos typifies. The Best-recited vocal tracks in particular seem to mull over a Sotos-type; “Ruthless Babysitting” is unremitting in its bluntness. Best screeches how he’ll “…give you fucking honest/ your favourite movie: the War Zone/ favourite album covers/ :Virgin Killer, Houses of the Holy, U2 Boy/ favourite photographer: Dodgson/ favourite artists: Balthus, Remarko/ :anything with a kid in it/ favourite Google search/ :Russian orphanage/ :ruthless babysitting/ :elite gymnastics…” The boutique obsessions of the noise aficionado are ridiculed as cheap stabs at individuality. Impeccable taste is just another one of the false signifiers of identity Whitehouse dismantles. The cliché predilections of the ‘power electronics’ fan are insulted as Best barks “the leggy Burzum fan started it/ when she sent pictures of her tiny ass/ nestling snugly in a mini-bikini…” The accepted codifiers of worth and taste within the power electronics community are disseminated to useless trash. The Burzum fan is an empty signifier of good taste – Burzum himself, Varg Vikernes, represents a bombastic, but ultimately empty show of rebellion and violence. Empty actions.

There is a clear disconnect between the cultivated detritus of life and the source of self-worth, if such a thing even exists. Best dismisses “those exquisite books” accumulated over time, those “…Octavo editions of poets that sit still unread/ on the shelf by the bed/ for dreaming of who-the-fuck-knows-what.” This disconnect is one of empirical intent. Best’s vocals are for the most part composed of specific taunts and tirades against specific banalities. He attacks the limp mysticism so prevalent in British industrial culture, asking “what kind of wronged animal are you?/ And just how are you on/ : Remote viewing, crystal worship/ :Water divining, and other esoterica/ :the Vienna Boy’s Choir, pissing on Limahl/ :Intergenerational intimacy, bedwetting + web design…” Best diatribes are, significantly, ones of negation, as he eliminates the empty placeholders for value.

William Bennett’s vocal contributions lack the masculine bravura of Philip Best’s, but don’t loss any of the intensity or the high camp. The Best-dominated “Language Recovery” or “Ruthless Babysitting” speed towards an unapproachable horizon; but the promised climax never arrives. The tracks simply end in abrupt, almost arbitrary stops. Bennett-dominated tracks like “Guru” or “Killing Hurts Give You the Secrets” proceed at a slow burn; he is more concerned with abstractions, often intimating an ideal of some elemental source of self-hood, while ultimately admitting the predominance of artifice. Bennett delivers most of his lines in a throaty whisper far-removed from the shrill screeches of “Shitfun” from Whitehouse’s earlier release, “Erector.” He incredulously wonders at “the fact you still don’t know you know the fuck how it is/ the fuck how you lived, the fuck how you’ll die/ so while you stare at your blank self/ from where I see it/ from up here/ it’s just the way it is/ just as that’s just the way it was…” These tracks reach for some core of truth, but can only get so far as negations of hypocrisy. Bennett promises “I’ll call your fucking bullshit/ just as I’ll turn your hate to sympathy/ just as I’ll fuck you so hard/ just as I’ll work you like fucking slavery… and if: you’re willing to work and create alters (sic)/ I’ll reach over/ take hold of the zip of your fucking parasite façade/ and pull it down so so so quickly/ strike so very fucking fast/ that a desperate tortured fragile soul of yours/ your tired slow tendered dissociated fucking core/ slides onto this floor…” Again, Bennett strikes towards a core, but the very idea collapses into a mockery.

By the time “Asceticists 2006” reaches its final track, “Dumping the Fucking Rubbish,” the very idea of the aggressive power electronics provocateur has been exaggerated into caricature. Best taunts the listener, asking “Do you think could you foster all that hate?/ Could you foster enough hate?,” bluntly mocking the supposed integrity of the violence inherent in the genre. Best utilizes the clichés of psychoanalysis both to trivialize the hyperbolic ‘transgression’ of power electronics, and the very futility of explaining away human behavior. He sneers, “Were your parents mean to you?” as if such an act could explain the complexities of human depravity and insecurity. The certainty and stability that power electronics promises for so many listeners, the inalienable right it imparts, is decimated by Phillip Best’s lyrics. But it is the final verse from William Bennett that clarifies this loss of control. He promises “you’re about to/ experience getting seriously fucked up/ and once you’re willing to/ feel that out of control/ dump the fucking rubbish/ rise up/ rise up/ kill this fucking nightmare/ that’s inside you.” The pathologies Whitehouse struggles against are those of control, and it is only that an acceptable of the lack of control that any worthwhile experience can occur.

2 comments:

Social Drift said...

IS IT NOT A TINY BUT MORE AMBIGUOUS THAN YOUR REVIEW SUGGESTS?

Anonymous said...

Hehe "tiny butt"