Johnny Cash’s debut album came out in 1957. Throughout his career, he released 93 albums. Dolly Parton’s debut album was released in 1967, and she has since come out with 68 albums. Robert Pollard, the paragon of indie-pop prolificness, who was born in 1957, released the first Guided by Voices album in 1987. They have recorded 21 albums as a group, but Pollard himself has recorded at least as many solo albums, apart from his work with other groups like Boston Spaceships. He is probably edging up on Cash’s numbers by now if he hasn’t already surpassed them, despite Cash’s thirty-year head start.
All of these numbers are approximate of course. Apart from my questionable counting abilities, we have to account for greatest hits albums or live albums that may get counted in these artists’ “official” discographies. And in terms of songs, Pollard surely has everyone else beat by a long shot. While Cash and Parton covered other people’s songs frequently, Pollard has written hundreds and hundreds of his own songs and recorded very few covers. Then, we have to consider EPs, singles, B-sides, unreleased demos, and etc. You can see how this sort of thing can lead to headache.
Merzbow’s debut album came out in 1982. Since then, he has released 111 albums. He’s released nine this year alone. And I’m not even going to attempt to summarize the discography of someone like John Wiese. He celebrated the release of his 100th 7-inch this year. If you were to count his solo work, his work with Sissy Spacek and Bastard Noise, and both his one-off collaborations and his frequent collaborations with people like C. Spencer Yeh, you would literally find hundreds of records. And that 111 up there is laughably far from any realistic account of Merzbow’s actual output; it is far more inaccurate than Cash’s 93 or Parton’s 68. In addition to official releases, in these cases you have to consider self-released tapes, CD-Rs, Internet-only releases, and on and on.
John Wiese Flipping Through His 100 7-inches
The point is, eventually any attempt at a comprehensive discography of someone like Merzbow or Wiese becomes preposterous. Everyone knows that noise artists are more prolific than other types of musicians. And arguments about why this is so are usually predictable and boring. One side says that noise is simply easier to make, while the other side says that releasing music in such quantities is part of noise’s aesthetic in and of itself. It’s supposed to be overwhelming, uncategorizable, and not even so much anti-corporate as anti-anything, anti-“statement.” The reality probably lies somewhere in between, and it’s different for every artist. Nobody would accuse Merzbow of thoughtlessness, but there is a quantifiable difference in the amount of work that he produces versus someone like, say, Grizzly Bear. A band like Lightning Bolt, on the other hand, releases about the same amount of music as Grizzly Bear. The argument about noise as a genre quickly turns into an argument about specific artists.
Which brings us to a much more interesting question. What does it say about the fans of these artists that they are drawn to music that is undefinable, music that must be defined, if at all, metonymically by a representative selection of artists? The answer can be approached through an investigation into the taxonomic drive of noise fans. This is made even more problematic, I think, because noise fans would not likely be amenable to such armchair psychology. But here we go anyway.
Merzbow – “Silent Night” (This Gets Very Noisy)
All music fans have a taxonomic drive of some sort. Any fan of the Pixies that takes themselves seriously will know that they have four studio albums, but that EPs like Come On Pilgrim should also be considered as major works. If you like a thing, you want to make sure you have all of it that is available. In the case of noise fans, this idea is multiplied to the extent that it ceases to have any practical meaning. If you know that you cannot have everything recorded by a single artist (without losing your mind in some absurd Borgesian “Book of Sand” way), the horizon stretches limitlessly ahead of you. You can literally never get enough of an artist.
On top of this literal taxonomy of a single artist or genre’s various output, there is a stylistic taxonomy in terms of pure sound that has to be accounted for. A fan of noise music (and for the record, I land somewhere this side of Wolf Eyes in terms of taste, while fully understanding why Wolf Eyes are considered sell-outs in some circles) has, in my experience, gone through the usual process of selection and rejection that any music fan goes through. Starting with punk rock or heavy metal, you embrace and then disapprove of a series of bands or genres, fine-tuning your approach until you hit on Indian tabla music or some other of a constantly rotating series of interests. What’s happening here is not that your tastes are getting “better” or more “worldly,” its simply a desire to hear different types of sounds. Guitars, no matter how heavily FX-ed or manipulated, get boring, so you move to electronics, then to relatively obscure international musics, then start investigating what the limits are to what “music” can actually be.
What makes noise music so fascinating and powerful for some people is that this process has no end on either level. Just like I can never figure out how many releases Merzbow has actually produced, I can never properly categorize all the sounds that he has made. A band like the Grateful Dead has one of these aspects but not the other. It would take a dedicated fan indeed to sort through the hundreds of bootlegs of Dead shows that have been distributed, but at the end of the day no bootleg is radically different from another. They represent variations with limits. Different performances, but of the same songs, with the same instruments, by the same band.
Merzbow’s records, on the other hand, range wildly from melody to noise, using different instruments and recording techniques without ever repeating themselves. And while it’s still entertaining to argue about which no-wave band was most important, or which of Morrissey’s solo albums is the best, it takes a noise artist like Merzbow to return us to where we started: not knowing the limits, or even the terms, of the conversation.