For nearly three decades, perhaps more, Boyd Rice could always be found making something, whether it was an elaborate prank, a misanthropic screed, a magazine article, an experimental film, an abstract work of art, a tiki bar, or his own iconoclastic cum occultist cum social Darwinist “brand.” He has always managed to keep himself occupied. He is, in other words, a professional hobbyist, a rare breed of human indeed. But it is by way of his signature “hobby” that we are given to discussing his work once more, that of music, or sound generally. Back to Mono is Rice’s first full-length record in ten years under his moniker NON, and as the title suggests, it is a return record, a return to his rather unique roots.
Though far from being a household name, that which is dubbed “noise” music has every bit as significant an audience as any other underground and/or experimental genre, and has broken beyond its niche to influence (or infect depending on one’s point of view) those other genres. This state of the art would not have been possible without the efforts of Rice and his peers, who since the late-1970s had been approaching music with a more avant garde mindset than usual. When Lou Reed was running as far away as possible from his sonic tantrum Metal Machine Music, Rice was essentially meeting him halfway in the opposite direction, seemingly having little interest in dabbling in the Neanderthal rock revisionism of that period, whether glam or early punk. Rice was sound sampling, for instance, at a time when it was little more than a simple concept at least, and with far fewer resources than are available now. Ironically it was those limits that make him — as well as his peers Throbbing Gristle, Merzbow, etc. — stand out among the only marginally distinct crowd of contemporary noise-mongers.
Back to Mono is an unabashed noise record in the distinct Boyd Rice style, and not simply because it unearths — and rerecords — some early pieces. It bears Rice’s fondness for loops, samples and minimalism rather than mere 100-plus decibel assaults. “Turn Me On, Dead Man” starts things off subtly. A collaboration with fellow noise pioneer and renaissance man, Z’ev, it contains the closest thing to a melody among the original tracks. A simple ’50s style rock riff goes toe-to-toe with an undulating drone that soon overpowers and conquers. That ends soon enough with the all-out abrasiveness of “Watusi,” an early track of Rice’s brought back out with the help of Wes Eisold of Cold Cave/American Nightmare-fame. It carries on from there with oppressive tracks like “Obey Your Signal” and “Man Cannot Flatter Fate,” another ’70s cut “Scream,” recorded live at the Whiskey-a-Go-Go, and a brutal live rendition of the title track. The other Z’ev collaboration “Turn Me On, Dead Man, Reprise” is the most ambient, though that’s not saying much. And “Fire Shall Come” is the only original track with the sinister spoken/barked vocals found on classic tracks like “Total War” and “Out Out Out.” The album concludes with a cover of The Normal’s Ballardian single — and Mute‘s first record — “Warm Letherette.” It’s been covered many times over by pop and industrial acts alike, and Rice’s version injects a good amount of mordant sleaze, even sadism, and dissonance compared to the cold original.
Rice’s return to noise seems to have been inspired by the lack of distinction he heard in the recent glut of noise acts, which is more or less true just as it is true of any contemporary genre. Rice stands out still after all these years not because he brings anything new to the genre but in part because of his unique talent and original circumstances that led him to create the “roto-guitar,” and in part because most noise acts haven’t really followed him. Most preferred to follow the chaotic aesthetic of Merzbow and Whitehouse rather than Rice’s more stripped-down, atmospheric bent. Rice’s noise doesn’t jar the listener so much as subdue them and hold them in place like a dominant, barely controllable lover, total submission being one’s only path to survival. If that is any noise fan’s idea of a good time, then a renewed interest is owed, if not a long unpaid debt.