Last week, I listened to “Machine Gun” — Peter Brotzmann’s punishing, relentless 17-minute noise-jazz epic — three times. I chased it with two spins of Ascension, John Coltrane’s 38-minute free-jazz big-band experiment (which is actually 80 minutes if you listen to both versions). And if you had told me that I’d be spending my early 30s subjecting myself to some of the most chaotic, cacophonous works ever recorded (at least by a jazz ensemble), I probably wouldn’t have believed you. But here I am, doing just that, and enjoying the hell out of it.
I distinctly remember the first time I heard Ascension. My dad had picked up a copy in the middle of a year or two spent stocking up on the John Coltrane catalog, but reached the conclusion that it wasn’t for him. Only 16 or 17 at the time, my tastes still crystallizing, I said “What the hell” and gave it a spin. Within seconds I had reached my own conclusion: It wasn’t for me, either. More than a decade later, however, I decided to second guess my younger self.
Looking back, it doesn’t seem that long ago (14 years by my rough estimate), but as a listener, I’ve changed so dramatically, that I might as well be talking about an entirely different person. Now, I want to make something clear, because this can be very easily misunderstood: I haven’t stopped enjoying any of the records I liked 10-plus years ago, for the most part. In fact, with the passage of time, my fondness has only grown for albums like Loveless or Rid of Me or either/or or — and this rebounded in a big way lately — the grunge canon. But there’s a lot more room for other, more intense, much harsher music that, as far as my palette was concerned, simply didn’t exist before.
I’m not necessarily alone in opening up to more challenging music the deeper I plunge into adulthood, either. NPR’s Robin Hilton observed last month, “The music I now listen to is louder and harder than ever.” It seems entirely counterintuitive to the idea of changes that come with age. Aren’t people generally more sensitive to loud music as they get older? Probably — that’s the stereotype as depicted through popular culture anyhow. And it’s easy to buy into. At one time, I might have believed that noise, free jazz and metal would be the last things to make my playlists after a certain age. Boy was I wrong.
Still, I can’t explain in any concrete terms how I reached this point. I’ve never been heavily invested in noise, and I’m not sure I’d label myself a noise guy now. Doing so would have other implications — just check out some of the (adorable) freaks on Noise Park — that I’m not willing to have attached to myself. But music based in noise or harsh sounds has never been as appealing to me as it is now. A particular album that’s struck my fancy of late is Pharmakon’s Abandon, which is not by any means an easy listen, though it’s far too rewarding beyond the initial shock for me to stop listening.
I recognize, however, that the average person would hear Margaret Chardiet’s screams and abrasive sonic constructions and either hit the stop button immediately or walk out of the room. That’s a perfectly normal response to music that assaults your ears with such ferocity. But you can also learn to like it. The bigger question for most, I’d imagine, is why you’d bother. After all, if there’s plenty of music out there that pleases your ears, why punish them?
It helps if you don’t perceive listening to music as punishment, for starters. But you also don’t blindly walk into a Merzbow performance and instantly become a fan (side note: I did once walk into a Merzbow performance at All Tomorrow’s Parties while waiting for Sleater-Kinney, and found it super confusing, but that was 10 years ago). Chaotic or harsh music is something you work up to. Before I leapt into Machine Gun, I went through the process of listening to Ornette Coleman’s The Shape of Jazz to Come and Eric Dolphy’s Out to Lunch!, two albums that accomplish something similar without losing melody or a generally agreeable atmosphere. And before I became invested in harsher industrial sounds from the likes of Pharmakon, or predecessors like Throbbing Gristle or Nurse With Wound, I listened to Swans and Cabaret Voltaire.
Once at this point of noise curiosity, it then becomes a question of whether to take the extra step of diving right into the deepest of extremes. A rational person might say that two hours of The Seer is extreme enough. But once you’ve made it that far, one is just as likely to be overcome with a voracious hunger for more. It’s a bit like eating spicy food. With each meal, you challenge yourself to sample something just a little bit higher on the Scoville scale.
But like spicy food, the obstacle, itself, isn’t enough to keep me engaged. There ultimately has to be something pleasurable to bring me back to it. If I’m eating a chicken wing that burns a hole in my stomach but doesn’t actually taste good, then I really am punishing myself. The same goes for music — if I’m listening to something intense or noisy and there’s nothing about it that strikes me as enjoyable in any way, there’s no point in continuing to listen to it. I mean, I’m not that stupid.
It’s not every day that I listen to extreme music. In fact, I’ll never not love a really good melody, or a perfectly written chorus. Pop music is something I’ll always hold dear. But every now and then, all hell seems to break loose, and I’m perfectly content sitting back and listening to it unfold.
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.