Tom Smith / Sightings
Gardens of War
oise defies language. In the everyday sense, noise is the category of sound that cannot be explained (“what is that noise?”) or doesn’t merit explanation (background noise). Thus noise is marked primarily in its relation to language, or more precisely in that lack of relation. In a technical sense, noise lacks the typical harmonic patterns that mark most resonant sounds produced by this wide world o’ vibrating objects. This too is a refusal of language, that most important of organized sounds in our acoustic lives. And finally, noise music attempts to obliterate our critical faculties, to send reason scurrying to a tranquil wrinkle deep in the brain stem while caustic sound ravages the ears. At its best, noise overwhelms, leaving the listener a battered, quivering mass of flesh who gulps for air and squeaks like an animal but who certainly does not smugly put down the headphones and deliver a discourse on the effectiveness of the brutal crunching sound in the fourth minute of the third track.
But here I go anyway.
Luckily, Brooklyn-based Sightings and Tom Smith of To Live and Shave in L.A. do not quite play noise. Don’t get me wrong—this collaboration is littered with shredded guitar, ugly bowel-rattling bass, and synapse-splitting electronics, and if forced into a corner by a big, angry man with a genre fetish, I would call it noise. But those of you who have heard the solo material of Sightings and TLASILA know that noise is only one point of reference for their musical endeavors. The NYC punk-funk and freak-folk scene has clearly influenced Sightings, and To Live and Shave in LA has morphed into a unit as concerned with digital cuts and spoken-word theatrics as with raw nerves and acidic feedback.
All these influences show on Gardens of War. And they prevent me from lumping this effort with the noise camp and shrugging my shoulders and saying, “it’ll kick your ass, but if you like that sort of thing, it’s right up your alley.” The album transcends the pain and dread of noise, while still inflicting more pain than the average straight-noise release.
The drumming of Sightings’ John Lockie moves Gardens of War perilously close to noise rock. Here he again unloads the pulsing rhythms that made the recent Sightings album Arrived in Gold a success. The beats are basic, but Lockie bangs ‘em out with such tribal intensity that the listener can latch on and grip for dear life. But just when the songs threaten to veer into rock territory, such as during the apocalyptic shudder of “ECM the Money” or the odd rubbery bassline and almost-funky trashcan clatter of “Capitalism & Schizophrenia,” Smith laces the track with harsh electronics and spews static to remind the listener that this ain’t Deerhoof we’re hearing, but fellas who can bring some serious hurt.
Whenever I was tempted to form a thought during Gardens of War—“this song sounds like a particularly frightening Sunburned Hand of Man session overrun by homicidal robots” or “is that fuzz guitar playing some sort of insect melody?”—a grating din arrived to punish me. We’re talking some serious negative reinforcement here. So I never strived for language and conscious analysis again—all that you see here was written after the album had seeped into my skin after so many listens that I could relive it without the threat of another storm cloud breaking in my ears.
Only guttural grunts and surreal words-in-isolation issued from my brain and mouth while the record played.
As such, I did a spot-on impersonation of Tom Smith’s vocals. Sure, he’s singing words, but ala TLASILA, they are mostly buried under the colossal layers of sounds. Occasionally, the dedicated listener can dredge a word or two up from the sonic bog, maybe even a sentence, but lyrics are not the focus here. Rather, the impact of Smith’s voice lies in his slurred, sometimes-sleazy, sometimes-fanatical delivery. He caterwauls over the tracks with reckless abandon, dropping cryptic lines (“hospital drug den,” “mighty germs of steel,” “the world is nothing”) obscured by showers of spit and sparks.
So Gardens of War isn’t noise, and it certainly isn’t anything else. But it’s worth hearing, if only so you too can experience life on the edge of language.