Last Visible Dog / Digitalis Recordings
ew Zealand must have the largest population of free-noise musicians on the planet. The number of bands is deceptively large, since most of the key players migrate freely between projects, but a glance at solo releases reveals an eccentric scene with an aesthetic consistency that masks the wide variety of music released. At first glance, Clayton Noone’s CJA moniker bears little relation to the raw scree of the Dead C or the drone overload of 1/3 Octave Band, but similarities persist. Some cornerstones, as I see them, of New Zealand music (or, rather, this odd branch of it):
1) An emphasis on improvisation. Even pieces that are composed strive to capture the spontaneity and energy of an improvised piece.CJA preserves these trademarks, but Noone strips them down to the point of paralysis. His music is primitive to the extreme, featuring little more than impassioned strumming, wordless, moaning vocals, and the sound of tape decks decomposing. His guitar figures repeat stubbornly, but Noone’s insistence pays off. In the course of a song, he finds the heart of his notes; he digs below the music to the soul of the performer, until his simple sequences are so saturated with meaning they bludgeon the listener.
2) A love of texture, be it from feedback, fuzzy recording, or an array of electronic instruments and sourced sounds.
3) A deep reverence for the guitar.
“4:39” (each track is titled by its duration) finds CJA at his best. An undulating drone succumbs to production breakdown while the guitar ventures into the muck over Noone’s soaring lament. Halfway through, a metallic scrape begins, sounding incidental at first, that transforms into a frenzied squeal that dominates the track despite its insignificance in the mix. Perhaps Noone’s funereal vocals color me too much, but the track feels like a struggle against death. It overflows with the emotional weight demanded by such a grand theme.
The extreme stillness of Ironclad often seems deathly, and the subtle tension between development and paralysis is rife with struggle, albeit one that never erupts into violence. Ironclad dramatizes life’s simpler struggles: the struggle to sleep at night, the struggle to listen to yourself, and the struggle to recognize beauty amidst banality. But the smallest of conflicts harbor seeds of the largest, so the clash between life and death rings dimly throughout Ironclad. Ironclad is the aftermath of a tragedy rather than the tragedy, and the anticipation of a miracle rather than the miracle.
But you can’t win every battle. Luckily a loss is rarely a permanent defeat—just a lull. Ironclad suffers many such lulls. Noone is often overcome by apathy, and his music can move sluggishly. And since the recording often sounds as if he’s underwater, in these aimless moments, CJA seems on the verge of drowning. But strangely, Noone’s dull tracks feel purposeful in their purposelessness, as if he is acknowledging his inconsistency and scripting a bad performance. While this tactic frustrates, it allows Ironclad to feel like life: days of ecstasy are bookended by days of defeat.
More than most artists, CJA demands that you “get it.” Noone’s music is so astonishingly private, informed by such personal joy and pain, that not only does it not reveal much on first listen, it actively withholds. But once you appreciate the near-religious reverence with which he approaches his songs and sense the dense web of intent behind every note, Ironclad is breathtaking. And depressing. And sometimes boring. But, most importantly, alive.
Reviewed by: Bryan Berge
Reviewed on: 2005-07-26