Fight Your Own War: Power Electronics and Noise Culture edited by Jennifer Wallis

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One of the central tenets of this blog – something that I consider almost sacred – is that its contributors should review what they’re actually reading; if they’re reading a romance, I want them to review it, instead of feeling they should be reviewing a Booker Prize winner (unless, of course, that’s what they read this month, in which case, have at it).

It is in that vein that I’m reviewing this book. I dithered over it, considering that it’s a niche book for a niche audience about a niche subculture, but according to the central tenet, I must!

Before we begin, however, I must confess that whilst I was looking forward to reading it, I bought this book because a musical project (not power electronics, but another type of noise music) that I did for about eight years was briefly mentioned in it, which left me feeling lovely, and I was glad to be included about a book on noise music.

Whilst being a fan of noise music (for those who are wondering what exactly noise music is, I say two things: one, it is what it sounds like and two, there’s a good explanation here) but not particularly the sub-genre of power electronics, this is the first book that I’ve managed to make it through on the topic, but it’s given me the impetus to go back and continue reading the others (They are, for reference, the Irish academic and noise musician Paul Hegarty’s book, Noise / Music, and David Novak’s Japanoise: Music at the Edge of Circulation), especially since they are felt throughout this volume.

As far as noise music goes, however, power electronics was never particularly something that I was drawn to, especially given the often ridiculous and offensive vocals that accompany the noise – my interests lay more at the harsh noise / wall noise (static noise) end of the spectrum, so I thought this book might be an interesting overview of the topic.

Overall, it is interesting, but I felt that overall, somehow – I can’t quite put my finger on it – I felt that this book evaded the topic. The subtitle Power Electronics and Noise Culture never feels resolutely (and thoroughly) addressed. Saying that, there is a huge swathe of articles about power electronics artists, and articles about both notable noise releases and aspects of noise culture such as noise zines.

I primarily bought this for my friend Clive Henry’s article on wall noise, Listening to the Void: Harsh Noise Walls which is an excellent exploration and quasi-history of the sub-genre, but what’s interesting is that the book doesn’t feel like it’s a book on noise culture; it feels like it’s a book on PE, and chapters like this, or on japanoise, feel somewhat out of place, despite being some of the best in the book. I suppose what I’m saying is that I wish this book had a tighter focus, almost, and excluded non-PE artists – I feel it would work better as a book. But then, I also would read an entire book about Harsh Noise Wall, and I’m probably in a very, very small minority.

To discuss the book a little more, it is laid out in three parts: Scenes, Performance and Readings. The opening chapter, The Genesis of Power Electronics in the UK, sets the scene quite well, as does Mikko Aspa’s chapter on The Rise of Power Electronics in Finland but some of the chapters are personal reminiscences of a scene based around a band’s viewpoint of their place in it – which while totally valid, I wish wasn’t the case. My favourite chapter of this first section was Chronicling US Noise and Power Electronics covering as it does a wide range of noise, projects and stances.

The second section, Experience and Performance, talks about noise performance, various notable venues and the like. Again, the most interesting chapters for me were the non-PE chapters, Clive Henry’s HNW chapter and Power [Electronics]: Exploring Liveness in Noise. It’s weird, I think as I write this I feel like the reason that that’s the case is because I’m just not really a fan of power electronics, so reading this book was a love/hate affair. I think, in addition to, and converse to my idea of just having this book as a book about Power Electronics, that it would’ve been stronger for me if it was a book about noise and noise culture, with all genres covered.

The third section is the most interesting in regards to PE. The first chapter, Questionable Intent: The Meaning and Message of Power Electronics was interesting, addressing the fact that a lot of PE projects use highly controversial imagery without comment or context. I feel that a lot of projects with very, very dodgy messages were almost let off the hook because it’s “art”, which shouldn’t be the case. You can talk about controversial topics, but when you make a career trading off controversy, sexism, racism, etc., you shouldn’t be surprised if people try and hold you accountable. What I would’ve liked in this book would’ve been a much more in depth treatment of race, culture and PE than was offered, and at least one where such content was taken to task. The most interesting chapters of this section were the two that viewed Power Electronics as a form of high-impact comedy; where the lyrics and vocals are so ridiculous that it can only be viewed as such. I’m not sure if I agree, but it’s an interesting thesis nonetheless.

What’s interesting though, is that the book ends with a chapter called Talking About Noise: The Limits of Language and the practical inabilities of accurate description, which is perfect for a book where the music discussed is pure noise.

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You can reserve a copy online at South Dublin Libraries’ catalogue here.

England’s Hidden Reserve: A Secret History of the Esoteric Underground by David Keenan

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This book is almost as legendary as the bands it describes. First published in 2003 by SAF publishing, it went out of print and started to fetch HUGE prices among booksellers. This revised, updated, indexed and absolutely gorgeously put together is a welcome new edition.

Written by experimental record shop (Volcanic Tongue) owner, David Keenan, this is a hugely in-depth and fascinating history of three very interrelated bands: Coil, Current 93 and Nurse With Wound. I have been a huge Coil fan for many years (one of my big regrets was not ordering the DVD boxset Colour Sound Oblivion- which now goes for RIDICULOUS MONEY – when it was first advertised) and much like the book, their records can be very hard to come by, and expensive when they are found – but I was always fascinated with Jhonn Balance and Peter ‘Sleazy’ Christopherson. These were men who made explicitly queer experimental music – an idea that fascinated me when I was younger.

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The book tells the history of these three bands from their early days, up until about 2003. The book is hugely detailed and you can tell is written by a man who knows the bands, the musicians, the scene and the history inside out. And it’s been carefully researched; Keenan quotes from his own interviews with the bands, the other major players, and even bit-players or influences. And this book is an exploration of not just the bands, but their influences; from David Tibet (Current 93)’s religious obsessions, and his other stranger obsessions such as his Noddy obsession, to Coil’s mystical, ritualistic ideal of Austin Osman Spare and the like, and Stephen Stapleton’s (Nurse With Wound) more music-based fascination with Krautrock, the book catalogues, expounds and places these influences within the canon.

More than anything, this book is wonderfully well-written in detailed, easy prose that skilfully darts between the three bands. Despite knowing NWW and C93, I’ve never really listened to them, so I was surprised to be just as engrossed in their story, as much as Coil’s. This book reminds of two other fascinating music books that I would also recommend:  John Higgs’ book, The KLF: Chaos, Magic and the Band Who Burned a Million Pounds, which much like England’s Hidden Reverse, uses the framework of a band biography to elucidate the band’s influences, and the larger scene; and Simon Ford’s book Wreckers of Civilisation: The Story of COUM Transmissions and Throbbing Gristle which, dealing as it does with TG, is the perfect counterpart to this book (and much like this book’s first edition, is now woefully out of print – perhaps if EHR is a success, Strange Attractor Press might consider reprinting Wreckers?)

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A rollicking ride through England’s esoteric underground that had me keep coming back to it, over and over. I must also point out before I go that it is FILLED with loads and loads of fantastic and rare pictures of the bands; mostly of Coil and C93 (there is a little bit more of a focus on Coil and C93 over NWW – just a little – but I feel that’s because NWW have shied away from having a frontman somewhat, and also because their music is less based on literature or esoterica than the other bands – NWW is heavily discussed, dissected and chroniclized though and NWW fans will find plenty here).

Highly recommended, and this beautiful new edition is only £20 sterling!

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You can reserve a copy online at South Dublin Libraries’ catalogue here.