Now in its fifth year, New York’s No Fun Fest rode its gathering momentum into lower Manhattan’s Knitting Factory May 16-18, leaving the confines of jolly-old DIY Red Hook far behind.
Now one of the world’s largest gatherings for noise and experimental music, the epic event sold out both Friday and Saturday, a clear indication that there is real force today in a broad musical underground, with branches that stretch across a dizzying spectrum of genres, drawing energy from industrial, jazz, techno, the twentieth-century avant-garde, psych- and krautrock, and extreme punishing death noise.
The loose confederation that makes up the No Fun scene, however, renders such name-tagging largely ineffective. What the army of performers over the weekend did share was a willingness to engage sound in a context largely or entirely liberated from traditional forms and structures, and the results were everything from jagged, abstract sound scraps, sustained, seemingly infinite drones, World War I machine-gun electro beats, and deafening waves of primal, cathartic white noise.
The recital-side of the live show and all its comforts were also heavy casualties. In its place, it was open season for all the hairy glories of improvisation: wild coincidence, blind intuition and the vicissitudes of abyssal freedom. Improvised noise music is a risky enterprise, there’s a great deal of daring and surprise at play, but at the same time the de-shackling of the musician’s freedom comes at the price of possibly alienating the audience members, because their understanding and enjoyment are no longer paramount in an immediate sense. Here, being musically difficult is never a flaw, and often it’s the point to be able to stand in the direct line of fire during all manner of unbounded sonic assaults.
Thus in addition to many other traditional musical elements, communication between performer and listener likewise became an open target for experimentation, capable of being can be twisted, mangled, mutated, suspended, or annihilated.
Numerous godfathers of free improv were on hand, including Alan Licht, Sonic Youth’s Lee Renaldo and Thurston Moore, and the extremely durable Tony Conrad, who has been ceaselessly shredding amplified violin drones since he performed with Lamonte Young’s landmark Dream Syndicate outfit in the late '60s. It was Moore and Conrad’s respective performances in duo formation which most accentuated the immediate, ecstatic joy that is the unique territory of improvised noise, and a number of groups on hand, like Burning Star Core and Nautical Almanac, were able to expand this pleasure into an expansive communal undertaking.
This year, however, it was the solo electronic acts that dominated on both stages, such as experimental veterans Keith Fullerton Whitman and Consumer Electronics, Pax Titania, Japan’s ASTRO, the Skaters, and festival organizer Carlos Giffoni. Giffoni’s own set, during which he evinced a number of intense guitar-god grimaces over sinister Southern Lordian tones, was the most heavy metal. This isn’t something distinct to today’s experimental/noise underground but part of a larger trend, evident in indie-rock circles -- in the likes of Panda Bear, for example, and El Guincho and Final Fantasy. In such a performance the musician becomes a machine conductor, something like Sebastian, the reclusive cyborg inventor from Blade Runner, winding up his noise-makers and gleefully allowing havoc-wreaking to commence.
The unexpected coup this year was the Saturday headline performance from Cluster, the legendary '70s electronic krautrock duo absent from public eye for decades. While the appropriateness of getting two German grandfathers to headline might not be immediately apparent in theory, their performance put everything in proper context: a dynamic born of decades-long collaboration, a winding, breathtaking set that swooped from organic industrial grooves to bleepy analog ambience backed with washes of filtered samples, and a general visionary spirit made a great deal of the festival’s other acts seem like their earnest and dutiful offspring.
It was, therefore, a shrewd curatorial move to put Brooklyn’s Religious Knives directly ahead of the headlining duo. Of all No Fun’s younger crowd, Religious Knives is the most overtly involved in traversing the psychedelic/krautian territory that their elders helped pioneer.
It’s perhaps ultimately fitting that a band named Cluster led the pack this year, because the word is quite appropriate to describe not only the disparate assemblage of styles and influences that come together under the umbrella terms "noise" and "experiment," it very handily accounts for a lot of what happens on stage: Nothing is permanent, holy or taken for granted. Instead, the stage is given over to the drama of a torrential cluster of free spirits colliding in sound, in which a musical gathering is held together by an intensity that can as well overwhelm and destroy it at any time.