Review Summary: If a label doesn’t pick this up I swear to God I’m going to press it to vinyl myself, inflicting penury on myself and misery on my neighbours / Yea it’s really good eh
It’s been about a year since I moved to Dunedin (hereafter “Otepoti*”, in rightful deference to its Maori name) after an embarrassingly extended period of itinerant, peripatetic wandering (gotta eke out as much bohemianism in my twenties as I can, bro) and anyway I feel comfortable, and happy, to call it home. This despite the fact that for the first six months or so I barely left the domicile I was inhabiting, indeed often timing my outings to ensure minimum public contact. I wrote a lot, “worked” “on” “myself” a bit but mainly just… processed. I was grieving, deeply (see: list) and also felt nascent without the crutch of abusable substances. You may so choose to call me inchoate. You do not have to mean it kindly.
There I could have resided, a hermit occupying his hermitage, were it not for the pull of, uhh, a warm body to sleep next to at night (look; Otepoti gets ***ing cold) and the gravity of Otepoti’s live music scene, which I’m pleased to report is as fructuous as ever. Context: Otepoti is known for a certain Presbyterian grandiosity (the ratio of churches to people is approx. 1:1.69), mutton pies, being New Zealand’s only “college city” equivalent, truly harrowing binge drinking and concomitant shenanigans (i have borne witness to the act of “pelicaning” and all i can say is; salute, comrades), this one pretty cool castle and albatrosses. It’s also renowned for “The Dunedin Sound”, a style that emerged in the 1980’s where bands, febrile and prolific, remapped the countries music scene, and then the world’s with a distinctly Otepoti ethos. I don’t think I *got it*, before I lived here, but the only way I can describe it is… the Dunedin Sound sounds like Dunedin. Something about the rugged, charming heart, the cultural nooks and crannies at ease with other recreational pursuits. Comparable, I guess, to “Detroit Sound”, so named not just because it emanated in the city but represents an aural reflection of it: Roland drum machines pound like automotive pistons, augmented with an array of mechanical infusions by day; vibrant, unsettled, pounding by night.
Or so I like to assume.
I have not lived in, nor even visited, Detroit.
But you get the gist.
A great thing about gigs in Otepoti is that, in the rude health the scene finds itself in now, is that you’re likely to find a new favourite band in the openers for established acts. The two most obvious examples, for me; 1) Dunedin-Sound-being-fed-a-slow-drip-of-post-rock-post-punk-and-shoegaze, excellent, actually-shares-a-guitarist-with-Dale-Kerrigan-who-I-remind-you-are-the-subject-of-this-”review’’ Porpoise warming up the stage for a kinda underwhelming Kane Strang set; 2) Dale Kerrigan, opening for Wax Chattels. Dale ***ing Kerrigan. Riveting, hair-raising, ***in coruscating, I hadn’t seen a band that transfixed me like that in a long time. It was loud. Like, burst eardrum, vertigo-inducingly loud. Like, imagine being underneath a jet engine as it takes off while a clap of thunder strikes metres from your person and oh dear someone’s brandishing a chainsaw at you now man what a *** split second in time! loud. Like, the only comparable decibel-level experience I’ve had at a concert was My Bloody Valentine loud. [foreshadowing note: My Bloody Valentine will pop up again at some stage in this review.] While MBV famously pound you from your absolute highest pain threshold to submission and then a weird, heady euphoria, Dale Kerrigan were more dynamic, content to let poised, sophisticated melodies (d)evolve into torrential feedback, yelps, howls and screams, just your basic dissonance and atonal *** with something extra. My ear-plugs were first ineffectual and then nugatory; this was brave, exhilarating music worth risking a wee bit of tinnitus for.
And, having experienced this incredible, affirming experience, did I immediately track down any and all material from them? Kia Ora, my name is Wines, it’s great to be here tonight, and I’m an imbecile. In my defense, unfortunately the quality of a live gig by an Otepoti band rarely corresponds to quality of the recordings; there are, I think, reasons why, but this isn’t the place and I don’t want to be dick. I can understand friends muted responses to the output of very, very good, or at least promising, artists; without crucial live context, and an abundance of things to listen to, watch, read, masturbate to etc. one could err on the side of dismissal quite easily.
Fortunately, noise bitch refuses to be spurned, demanding - and then commanding, and then rewarding - one’s attention.
noise bitch ensconces itself firmly in the tradition of albums that manage to sound like they’re paying homage to noise rock cognoscenti of the past while simultaneously sounding entirely like themselves, which is to say, in this instance, like nothing else. I joke about Public Strain being “the last guitar album” but truthfully my tastes are very rarely rockist in scope these days: what is it about noise bitch in particular that makes me listen to it at least 3 times a day, a routine as fixed as morning coffee or the self-medicators urge to smoke? Which is to say there’s something almost addictive about the damn thing: one of those albums where each day yields a new track to purport as favourite, and one of those with enough idiosyncracy and distinction to draw one back in.
I don’t know, but when it comes to the band's choice in genealogical forebears to emulate they at least prove themselves as having excellent taste. There’s not much point in dwelling on this, especially because music criticism that broaches women-fronted acts, and women-fronted noise acts in particular - which this emphatically is - often the default referent in the narrative is to another band / artist who happens to have someone who menstruates in it, regardless of how infelicitous the comparison is i.e. Kacey Musgraves + Taylor Swift; Taylor Swift + Lorde; a tired retread of tropes that this band has no time for (one wonders how many times Hole, Sleater-Kinney and Bikini Kill have had their context ripped from under them because a music critic had a deadline to meet). It’s enough to say, then, that some of these riffs, dovetailing guitar lines and furious vocal inflections wouldn’t have felt out of place on Sonic Youth’s “Sister”; that perhaps “whatever” owes more than a little to Slint’s “Washer”, sure; that the album cover must, surely, be a nod to “Loveless” (an album in whose echelons “noise bitch” belongs). Shlee Nicholls, frontwoman and, I gather, the Brains Behind the Operation of Dale Kerrigan, bares her signature docs stepping on a pedal amidst a background of pink fug. Hilariously, the picture is interjected (and interrupted) by what looks to be a sex toy. This interpretation could be a manifestation of some Freudian symptom, dear reader, but if my eyes don’t deceive me it’s fitting. Prepare for noise. Prepare for textures, layers, volte-faces. And be prepared for wry humour, candidness and, uhh, sex, I guess.
Although perhaps not the fun kind. Nicholls opens proceedings with an invitation to “do what you want to me / I won’t hold a grudge / you can say what you want to me” on “grudge”. It’s immediately confronting and visceral, made more sinister by the affectless, distinctive antipodean (honestly; without knowing about her background, her voice sounds half Western Australia half Otepoti drawl and vowel problems) way in which she sings it. Later the song takes an antithetical direction - “I run / so I don’t see you”, delivered in shouts - but the effect as a whole is disconcerting; a natural progression of reaction to abuse, but rendered with uncomfortable viscerality. Elsewhere paranoia reigns: “lock the door / wreck it up, my room” Nicholls clamours, before things plunge into outright psychosis. There are deliciously twisted, eldritch, almost *creepy* queer love gestures; there is the defeated refrain, heard by people experiencing mental illness countless times: “whatever / it’s in your head”.
All of this is delivered in a character that, if not always abrasive and dissonant (though there’s plenty of that), is certainly always uncompromising. Props here to the excellent mastering by Otepoti’s best, Nick Graham, for giving each instrument room to breathe while waging war on the other: props to the other members of the band, willing to go where Nicholls directs them through blood-curdling scream or (and onomatopoeic replication is the only way to achieve capturing this vocal effect) “UHHGHHGHGHGHGHGHGHGH” or pithy aside. The guitar tones here are incredible, subtly advanced, layered and if my experience is anything to go by unreplicable. The drummer forms a perfect companion and occasional foil, though the fact he and Nicholls are siblings has probably given him experience in that area (he is also, according to reliable sources, basically the only drummer in Otepoti, in about 100 projects and has been since being in utero) and
- ok. I’ve worked it out.
noise bitch manages to pull off the delicate art of
a) Almost goading an already niche audience into disliking it through the various twists and turns it takes
b) Doing so in a way that isn’t insufferable but is respectful, warm-hearted, and endearing.
Most obviously “car/teen movie” and “whatever” initially run on emo tropes, with quintessential emo guitar lines running through it, before shifting into full-blown noise excursions: but it doesn’t feel sneering or ironic but emotionally generous, a genuine designator of respect for the genre they’re taking pains to subvert. Humour, too, courses through the album: the song “Dynamite” is easily the most pared back, (comparatively) restrained song of the album, contra the song title, and it closes it - after the climax and feedback of whatever, it feels very much like a bit, though whether interstitial or integral will come with time. Certainly it’s out of place, an addendum, a “oh *** by the way” comment to a friend about something you’ve meaning to tell them but only remembered as you go separate ways. I quite like it.
noise bitch is obviously built on a steady aesthetic foundation, but one which comingles and frequently trusses a crucial component of the framework, and that’s socio-political. There's Something… gender-explory here that I would struggle to give concrete examples of, admittedly, but also adamantly swear exist. You’re reaaaaaaaaally going to have to bear with me for this one, but extradiegetically obvi women in noise rock music have more overt pressures than men people. Increasingly, there’s not really an appetite - let alone an audience - for this kind of exploratory, experimental noise rock, and especially not for women (which is why it’s great to see Puce Mary or Lingua Ignota succeed, regardless of my thoughts on their music). How do I know this? Because I am confident that if it was male-led, they would have been signed (there are too many bands and artists in Otepoti that I can say this about, but it goes double here). But also… I don’t know. Call it a hunch picked up from the atmosphere of the album but the rejection of femininity as heteronormative, glamorous, alluring, elegant is palpable - the unreliable narrator is mentally ill, wounded, paranoid, sinister and has some serious issues with boundaries (“HEY GIRL ARE U GOING OUT TONIGGGGHHHHHHHHHHHT”) - but at the same time it’s not reduced to a ***ting, bleeding, coming body, such is the vibrancy and nuance and complexity here. It’s all the above and more, and it’s so heartening to have it stated, albeit not through words, in such an unabashed, joyous, deranged, unpalatable fashion.
Which brings me to my biggest leap yet. I’ve always felt there’s been something about the culture - the Culture - which has been irretrievably lost in the last decade but exists within the living memory of my peers. Perhaps that thing was nuance. Perhaps that thing was a kind of perspicacious vision. Perhaps that thing was a willingness - eagerness - to confront and disturb rather than soothe and console; echoes of a time when artists pushed boundaries, challenged without wanting to disregard past influences that got them there. I don’t know, but listening to noise bitch makes me feel like the magic’s back. It makes me hopeful for a new generation of musicians, Otepoti-based and beyond. And most of all?
It sounds like Otepoti, which is to say
It sounds like home.
*having difficulties with the appropriate macrons translating to sputnik: the O should have a macron atop it :)