Around this time last year, I received an advanced copy of Cloud Nothings' soon-to-be-released Attack on Memory. The Cleveland-based group's sophomore LP was a far cry from its past work, as Dylan Baldi traded in his warm-and-fuzzy lo-fi pop gems for an intense eight-song effort. The album had hooks, but the one-time bedroom songsmith had buried them under layers of brooding aggression. I thought it was too abrasive and loud, and it quickly fell out of my rotation.
What a difference a year makes. Not long after shelving Cloud Nothings' record for those very reasons, I found myself increasingly immersed in the musical characteristic of loudness. Six decades after John Cage showed the world that silence could be music, I've delved into the opposite end of the spectrum. In doing so, I've started to understand the finer nuances of sheer, unbridled cacophony.
That's not to say that I hated loud music before. I loved Superchunk and Guided by Voices, first and foremost, for their melodic hooks. OFF!'s efficiency, conveying more in 90 seconds than most other acts, stood out beyond Keith Morris and Co.'s volume. And Titus Andronicus' heavy-but-wry epics became more essential than each song's vociferous buildups.
But I began hearing loudness in a different light. Any music fan can understand volume. There's a particular moment, however, when one's sonic palette sharpens, in the way that a watery can of beer becomes a full-bodied Saison — the floor drops on your once-limited understanding of a particular idea. That happened to me, as I became more discerning toward high-decibel sounds.
Feedback stopped being a problem, or simply the by-product of an amplified frequency getting too close to its source. This acknowledgement could've happened in any calendar year. Yet as I reflect on the music made in 2012, crafting my best of year-end lists, it's especially apparent that the past 12 months belong to the purveyors of noise. It's happened not just in a couple genres, either, but across a diverse breadth of artists and styles.
I came to admire the beautiful shrills of Metz's sonic self-destruction on its lashing eponymous debut. Toronto's Alex Edkins, Hayden Menzies, and Chris Slorach harken back to Sub Pop's early grunge heyday, relentlessly pounding through tracks like "Headache" or "Wet Blanket." The Men's one-two punch of "Turn It Around" straight into "Animal" at the onset of Open Your Heart now carries an astonishing, visceral aura. These Brooklynites maintain a frenetic pace as they empty the clipper in a way that would make Iggy Pop proud.
Likewise, Japandroids' Celebration Rock possesses a life-affirming and enthusiastic energy — one that's channeled through its blistering two-man operation. Brian King and David Prowse, who once considered disbanding before making this record, fired back with this resolute statement back in June. I was already a fan of their impeccable 2009 debut, Post-Nothing. But it was the duo's scorching pace and hell-or-high-water sentiment, which fiercely emanated throughout the band's eight-song follow-up, that truly sold me. It's easily my favorite record of 2012, largely because it packs a gigantic punch that's much larger than two people should ever create.
There are other moments as well, including the immaculate shredding of Screaming Females guitarist Marissa Paternoster and Death Grips' assailing punk-rap deliveries. The true realization, though, came in October when I saw two longtime noise champions, Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Swans, within a two-week period.
Godspeed! played a rare Atlanta performance at the Buckhead Theatre, where the Canadian post-rock collective constructed its looming, ethereal crescendos on stage before letting its magnanimous creations fade into the ether. The band gloriously perforated my eardrums in one moment, while letting the beauty of its juxtaposed silence make a more emphatic gesture the next. Whether it's in the form of "Mladic's" dizzying fury or even a jaw-dropping stunner like the masterpiece "Storm," it's tough to not be mesmerized by the engulfing beauty of these leviathan instrumentals.
Fourteen days later, Swans' uncompromising performance at Terminal West rattled my cages. Throughout a near-two-hour set, Michael Gira's behemoth spiritual exercises pummeled with their relentless and callous precision. The group's earsplitting compositions voluminously weighed on my entire body and made me forget about performance conventions such as identifying specific songs or awaiting traditional cues from the band. Swans aren't that kind of group. I was jarred and I left the show with an uncomfortable feeling from the stoic intensity and colossal force bestowed upon me. That said, it shattered my expectations about loud music's boundaries.
During the past few weeks, I've revisited Attack on Memory and found that my initial dislike for the album has waned. It doesn't hit nearly as hard as I first perceived, nor is it as vast a departure as I originally recalled. Like the title suggests, perhaps my mental aversion toward loudness has given way to the collective sonic assaults I've encountered over the past year. It might be that, or perhaps my ears have simply gained some aural perspective.