Everybody knows that San Francisco, within the depths of her hills and under the deep shadows of her city lights, holds some glorious wonders. San Francisco’s Brutal Sound Festival glimmers as one of them. It’s more than a glimmer, more like an overpoweringly intense glare of white light in your face. While some of you got a nice auburn suntan at your coast of choice for spring break (or got a faux one at your local tanning salon), my ears and eyes were seared by some of San Francisco’s and the Bay Area’s local noise talents.
San Francisco’s Brutal Sound Festival (BSFX) has taken place since the mid-90s. The occurrence of the festival is always ambiguous – this year was festival number 56, so it’s certainly not annual. Unless your friend is a noise freak, or you religiously check out the message board, you have to find one of the gnarly but very well-drawn flyers to find the time and place. Be warned, it’s nearly impossible to decipher the almost unpronounceable monikers of the bands and the location under the heavy metal punk font scrawl.
Started by influential West Coast noise artist Bonnie Banks of Rubber-O-Cement (the inspiration for artists like Wolf Eyes and Deerhoof), BSFX spawned from the primordial soup of Banks’ online message board (www.brutalsoundeffects.com). Since then, it has raised little half-man, half-machine gremlins that have screeched and warped venues from the grimmest of bars to prestigious museums like the Yerba Buena Center of Arts.
BSFX #56 was within the bowels of an industrial area of the Mission, roofed by the El Rincon Cuban Restaurant. Reflecting the diversity of the area, all sorts of life crept in for the show. Gutter punks, tweakers, scenesters, elderly metal-heads and other local residents sat around the dance floor on tables or chairs as artists set up less than 10 feet from the crowd near or on the stage. As primary colors whizzed around from the main stage lights and strobe lights dotted your eyes out, the smell of pot couldn’t get you more light headed.
For me, the main attractions were two USF kids. I still find it amazing that two members of the USF community, Chad Corbi (junior, media studies) and Miguel Serra (KUSF DJ) tackle noise music composition. For those not familiar with the noise genre, artists experiment with tones, pitches and sine waves to create a song that’s sparse, raw and tonally/structurally unconventional. Songs can come off as a giant monsoon of distortion pounding for 20 minutes or can be like little bubbles of bleeps and clicks for one minute.
Although there are no rules to making noise music, it’s a universal sentiment that the crazier, the better.
When I arrived and heard Corbi filling the space with a high pitched drone of gangly distortion from an array of sequencers, pitch shifters, reverb and a big boy metal zone distortion pedal, while sitting in a life size Kinex tee-pee ball, it made up for more than the $3 admission. When Corbi crawled out of his Kinex tee-pee ball, referred to as the “Culture Ball,” it was like he was one born out of the motherly noise he incestuously conceived or an astronaut arriving back home from his spaced-out journey. Unfortunately, I arrived at the end of Corbi’s set, so I did not experience the full extent of the maniacal digital interpretations of his imagination.
You can usually hear Serra DJing for KUSF during the late night new music cycle, but he’s also half of the group Micose & the Maus Maus, a noise group that makes intense ambient tapestries. Unlike Corbi’s approach to making noise with relentless, in-your-face chaotic clamor, Miscose & the Maus Maus’ music builds up and falls. Their arsenal of pedals freak-wired to circuit-bent sequencers, a guitar and a cymbal orchestrate swoons of ambient bliss-outs. Serra’s partner, a raggedy looking German punk (who had a sweet half-Mohawk), would take a bow normally used for violin or cello and swipe out processed noise from a cymbal, while Serra ambidextrously controlled pedals and sequencers. Their piece lasted for a solid 15 minutes without any breaks or stops. Miscose & the Maus Maus explored timbres and tonal structure, giving them more depth.
Other BSFX artists pushed the limits of “experimental” music. The more ingenious noise artists do not use electronics; instead, they mold from their imagination crazy contraptions that seem like they’re straight out of McGuiver. Musician Dyemark had two-foot pumps connected to PVC tubes with balloons sticking out of the tubes and the tubes all led to a bucket filled with poles that looked like a set of interchangeable vacuum tubes. Dyemark would inflate the balloons through the pumps and as the balloons slowly deflated, it would cause a tone that Dyemark controlled through the bucket of vacuum tubes. It sounded like a tonal drone experiment with bagpipes, but without the Irish folklore behind it. For the finale, Dyemark made himself the human Doppler Effect. He picked up a pump and a tube and spun around the dance floor until he fell down.
I highly recommend that everybody attend a local noise show before leaving San Francisco. It’s like going to the symphony: when there’s a good conductor, a noise piece can move you to internal places you’d never expect. The clash of beauty and decadence can force you to confront your own fears or can leave you with the love and hope of the reality around you. It’s art, performance and philosophy all compact in one sine wave. If you want to know the skinny on any noise show, ask fellow student Chad Corbi. He promotes the Godwaffle shows every other weekend (eat pancakes while watching a noise band, for free!) and helps promote other citywide noise shows. The next major show is at the Luggage Store Gallery on April 30 at 8 p.m. The line-up includes Rubber-O-Cement. Go see the veterans and masters at play.