March to the Sea

(Skin Graft; 2010)

By Jessica Faulds | 27 October 2010

If anyone’s wondering if the cartoonish cover art of March to the Sea heralds a change in the overall AIDS Wolf aesthetic, I’ll cut you short: AIDS Wolf still sounds like skin shredding off when you fall face-first into the gravel. At least, that’s the best synopsis I can come up without resorting to the apt but overused descriptors that generally swarm the band: abrasive, shredding, brutal, face-melting, violent, et cetera. Calum’s hypothesis from his review of 2008’s Cities of Glass has yet to be disproven: “It will take the average person exactly five seconds to decide that they want to never again hear this dreadful noise.”

That being pretty much a given, there is a growing faction—definitely not “most people,” but still “a surprising number of people”—who are at least occasionally willing to flay themselves with noise in order to exfoliate that grimy layer of mass appeal that coats most music, now that the digitization and easy access have made us realize that almost everyone likes almost everything. The glut of easy melodies suddenly pouring from basement studios and Bandcamp profiles everywhere is, for some, a sign that a new cultural enlightenment is upon us (anyone can do anything, “the hills are alive,” and so on), while for others it marks a watered-down artistic pool and a simply wider variety of pabulum for a distracted public to toothlessly maw.

For the latter camp, AIDS Wolf offer a baptism of alienation and fear. As with most noise and experimental acts, they reject the parameters that enclose what we tend to think of as music. But the odd thing is that their line of converts seems to be growing. AIDS Wolf have become a touchstone in Canadian music, a noise band most people even peripherally involved in local music scenes have heard of, and a leader into the new weirdness that is growing in reaction to the prevailing euphony. Pop Montreal, the music festival that showcases music in AIDS Wolf’s hometown and simultaneously curates the city’s future musical direction, had a motto this year—a self-conscious proclamation perhaps meant to preempt criticism of the way that they, like so many of us, have dumped the twinkling indie rock they championed yesteryear (circa 2006) for stranger and harsher sounds. “Weird is the new indie,” said the posters, and, in that weird music is an escape hatch from mainstream values the same way indie rock seemed to be a few years ago, it’s true. “Weird” has yet to show us its bland underbelly, or the scars of being rehashed one too many times. Surely it’s coming, but not quite yet.

The result of the exodus from easy music to challenging noise is that AIDS Wolf, if only due to notoriety and having their name all too frequently dropped, have become a gateway band, and something of a standby in their hometown, though they continue to put out some of the most impenetrable masses of sound that most of us will hear. Their strange perch at the edge of low-level infamy, despite their utter indecipherability, makes it difficult to hear their music for what it is, because it is obscured not only by its own lawlessness, but by the band’s reputation (as innovators or hacks, depending on who you ask.)

And while the reputation of a band is a common enough obstacle to getting a clear, unbiased listen, in the case of AIDS Wolf there’s also the nature of the noise itself. If noise is, as some argue, not even music, then what’s the marker of quality? How does the noise created by AIDS Wolf measure up against the noise being ground out by my slowly-dying refrigerator? Not by the metric, harmonic, melodic, rhythmic, groove-centric standards by which we judge music. Perhaps it’s a guttural reaction, a raw response to sound. Or maybe it’s an interpretation of signifiers. My fridge’s death rattles symbolize economic anxieties, so: bad. But AIDS Wolf’s sounds represent the crushing of expectations: presumably good. But then, what makes AIDS Wolf better, or different, from other noise bands?

Perhaps it’s their utter rejection of absolutely every musical convention. Their music has drums, but no beat to speak of. Their songs are, as far as I can tell, not representational; it’s not supposed to “sound like” anything. And there aren’t any funny tricks like slugs crawling on Theremins, though it feels like there is some strange sense of humour being exercised through these tracks. They are as annoying as anything I can imagine, and yet who’s to say this isn’t the point? I’m not a noise aficionado, but I did once try to understand jazz, and so the closest comparison I can find for what they’re doing is John Zorn’s interpretation of Ornette Coleman, minus a fair bit of technical polish. It’s primal chaos.

Album opener “Teaching to Suffer” is a primer on the AIDS Wolf sound, and makes good on its name, offering not even a semblance of the safe haven of regular rhythm, which so often makes heavy bands accessible through the medium of head-nodding. Instead, there are few musical markers: no tonal centre, no bass guitar low-end, nothing resembling harmony. Not even machismo. Singer Chloe Lum’s girlish ululations are a whining retort to any idea that there’s something inherently masculine about noise.

The rest of the album follows in suit, varying textures and levels of intensity, but all within the confines of two-minutes-ish nihilistic clattering. It’s all very exciting, or boring, grating and stirring and new and already old by the end of a track. That is, until the ten minute album closer and centrepiece, “Very Friendly.” However good the rest of the album might or might not be, this is clearly the highlight. While it is impossible to increase on the doom-infused horror of the original song by Throbbing Gristle, AIDS Wolf add their own bouncing mania, emulating a presumable sense of carnivalesque glee felt by the serial killers depicted.

Given a narrative thread, AIDS Wolf thrive. Even ten minutes of chaos seems justified when holding up the underlying story. The guitar swoops carve out dreadful shapes on a backdrop of sinister intent, the tonal plunges illustrating the dropping stomachs of doomed hitchhikers, fizzling hopes. The pound of drums recalls the dull thud of killer Ian Brady’s axe. Lum’s vocals grow frenzied as she describes scenes of violence and the final Moore murders. Suddenly (and here the clouds part) there’s meaning. And only because it’s an AIDS Wolf album do I question whether this is a triumph or a trick—a wolf in sheep’s clothes, lulling me back into false securities, into the easy sense of meaning that all this weirdness is supposed to subvert.

Side one (tracks one to six) and side two (“Very Friendly”) are pitted against one another, the first vehemently denying meaning, and the second, perhaps accidentally, falling back into it. This album is at odds not only with the musical framework external to it, but with its own statement/anti-statement/meaning/meaninglessness (et cetera). The confusion is not just projected from AIDS Wolf, but is pointed inwards as well, and the result is a self-cannibalizing mess—the value of which is what you make of it.

Few things are certain. One day the fridge will die. Our concepts of dissonance and consonance, and of meaning itself, will shift in time. Perhaps one day the honeyed strains of AIDS Wolf will lull infants to sleep. For now, it’s a long haul back to indie rock from where the band has picked me up, and dropped me, on a dark moor.