“Fight Your Own War: Power Electronics and Noise Culture” Edited by Jennifer Wallis
As soon as Fight Your Own War was announced, a ripple ran through the loose confederacy of friends, contacts, label heads, and performers that make up the noise “scene.” For performers and fans of power electronics, a book focused almost exclusively on the genre can be seen as a nod towards recognition of influence for a style that is frequently both misunderstood and miscategorized as a loose cabal of angry white men. More importantly, this provides an opportunity for legitimization—not necessarily to the wider pop cultural zeitgeist, but at least for those who tend to look down on power electronics as low-brow shock art. By utilizing a diverse array of contributors, editor Jennifer Wallis has compiled a collection of scene reports, regional histories, loose philosophies, and select release reviews, all with the aim of fleshing out the question of power electronics. Wallis openly admits that, “although power electronics is extensively documented in zine and web format, […] accounts of it by music writers and academics tend not to delve beyond surface appearances, or to actively seek the input of artists” (p.4).
What Wallis has delivered via her editorial and curatorial duties is a tome that is both academic and anecdotal; philosophical and humorous; historical and contemporary. While recent publications—specifically Paul Hegarty’s Noise/Music: A History and Alexander S. Reed’s Assimilate: A Critical History of Industrial Music—have focused on definitions and historical developments of genre movements, Fight Your Own War manages to move beyond a strictly academic framework for discussion. With twenty-four individual contributors spread across three chapters, this book strives to not only define power electronics, but also establish a loose chronological timeline from the “then” to the “now.” Where Hegarty and Reed may have lost readers with dry academic text, Wallis has collected a diverse range of voices that write with as many different voices and foci as there are iterations of power electronics. The text is divided into three parts, “Scenes,” “Experience and Performance,” and “Readings.” Each part includes a selection of album reviews that help to further flesh out the overarching chapter topics.
A major success of Wallis’s effort is that the genre in question is much newer than industrial or noise; as an evolutionary descendant of Russolo, Marinetti, Throbbing Gristle (the usual suspects), there is less need to define the genre. Jacques Attali and Hegarty have done most of the heavy lifting when it comes to defining the purpose and practice of noise as music. This allows Fight Your Own War to operate much more informally, allowing artists and fans alike to weigh in on their own experiences. Additionally, wherein many of the artists and groups discussed in Assimilate were bequeathed the designation of “industrial,” power electronics very directly draws its name from Psychopathia Sexualis by Whitehouse. In many respects, this is a designation that is actively chosen by its participants. As such, there is often a more cohesive understanding of just what constitutes the power electronics sound.
Therein lies the central question, however. With roots that trace back to 1982, power electronics is arguably the same age as black metal. Comparatively though, it’s a far less visible concept. Where black metal has achieved notoriety with their church burnings and murders, power electronics still mainly caters inwards with, “one of the highest percentages of active artists in any given audience,” (p.78) arguably due to the specialized interest required by most extreme/experimental art. There is no set base of operations anymore. Philip Taylor, Mikko Aspa, Scott Candey, and Ulex Xane all provide their own experiences relating to the establishment of power electronics in the UK, Finland, America, and Australia respectively; they all mention their exposure to zine culture as sources of camaraderie and communication. Nothing in life occurs in a vacuum, or so the adage goes. Similarly, the genre simply did not spring forth like Athena from Zeus’s head. The vibrant culture of mail-order, zine reviews, and message boards (in the early heyday of the internet) provided as much a springboard for the development and proliferation of ideas as Facebook, Bandcamp, and MySpace all provided in the millennium. This lived experience of establishment—tribal gathering—provides a perfect segway into the various discussions of live performance which make up the second part of the text.
Of course, this gives no easy answer, either. Instead, what the various submissions present is a genre that promotes both farce and serious catharsis. Whether involved in a Smell & Quim performance piece, or being bludgeoned into submission by Consumer Electronics, the execution of power electronics is less clear-cut than might be initially expected by those looking in from the outside. Anecdotes of Whitehouse performing in 2001 (pp.104-107) contrast sharply with the inward reflection Daniel Wilson recounts regarding live show audiences in Japan. Is it strict ferocity, or is it more a notion of generalized, conceptual violence? From where and against what, then? There are stark differences between Death Squad, “putting the loaded gun against people’s temples… scream[ing] various things, most of which were unintelligible” (p.55), and the image of Merzbow who, “once settled, he is entirely static, not taking his eyes away from the computer screen for the duration” (p.129). If there is violence, it may be directed outwards to the audience, or internally towards the self. But if there is comedy—well, is there?
Spencer Grady and Paul Margree both contribute to the final chapter, and both focus on the notion of comedy within power electronics. Grady and Margree seem to argue that power electronics suffers from a lack of humor, where the absurdity of performances is crushed under self-serving seriousness and histrionics. While the argument is not entirely without merit, or precedent, there are contemporary acts that seem to be in on the joke. Even though the comedy may not always be executed well, there is still humor in the contemporary scene. Acts like Breakdancing Ronald Reagan are established as utilizing humor more often than most. Even “old guard” acts like Cock E.S.P. and Rat Bastard are more often than not known to rely on borderline slapstick absurdity, eliciting a chuckle from the audience as an errant pool toy, sheet of metal, or stray guitar cable takes out a viewer. True, they do not rest squarely in the camp of power electronics, but they certainly tread similar space. Arguably though, the most important chapter—despite its one-sided (yet valid) rage—comes towards the conclusion.
After numerous chapters examining the usage of serial killers, war imagery, and outright violence as forms of social commentary and personal flagellation, there has been very little mention of performers who aren’t men and primarily aren’t white. Sonia Dietrich (aka Brut) pens a scathing critique against the, “almost nonexistent diversity of colour, gender, and queerness (especially in female form)” (p.220) found in power electronics. As a queer, disagreeing with Dietrich’s assumptions is difficult to deny; bound women and serial killers are essentially tropes these days. Yet, at times, she seems to miss quite a many current acts that meet the criteria which makes them outliers in a marginalized genre: Forbidden Colors, Compactor, Plack Blague, Dolores Dewberry, Dolce, Rosemary Malign, CBN, Masturbatory Dysfunction, Gyna Bootleg, Burrow Owl, Angel Marcloid, Nyodene D, A Grey Mass, Contact Low, Zombie Bite, etc. There is an ever-growing community of performers who draw upon their experiences as members from marginalized groups. Moving beyond the simple identity politics of the Left (and Right), power electronics provides an opportunity for artists to transcend “apolitical controversy” and “thematic [confrontation]” (p.180). In Wallis’s own words, “if you’re not able to shock us anymore, at least make us think” (p.197), which is arguably what drives most of the artists Brut is seeking out. Still, like most forms of extreme music, power electronics is very much a “boy’s club” in perception and practice, but there are just as many excellent projects operating currently that have moved past the unaligned politics and barbarity of Genocide Organ and Con-Dom (to name but two).
Fight Your Own War provides no definite answers for the uninitiated, but its structure and easy readability place the text just as easily next to prominent zines like Noise Receptor and New Forces. For those who are already involved, this is a book which will find space on many shelves, and which invites revisiting. There is no requirement to read each chapter in order, and there is no pressure to visit every editorial. What Fight Your Own War offers, most importantly, is an opportunity for the power electronics field of fans, performers, and consumers to address their passions on their own terms. As Dietrich so passionately states, “Whichever is YOUR way, whatever is YOUR message, say it” (p.228)—fight your own war, indeed.
Article by: Thomas Boettner (Heathenharvest)
Publisher: Headpress (United Kingdom)
Editor: Jennifer Wallis
Publication Date: September 28, 2016
File Under: Music / Music History / Counter-Culture
ISBN: 978-1-909394-40-7 / 978-1-909394-41-4 / NO-ISBN
Formats: Paperback / EBook / Hardcover