Black Dice

Miles of Smiles

(DFA; 2004)

By Todd Aman | 13 August 2004

Listening to noise music, one can't help but feel really smart and really stupid at the same time. You may feel smart, because you and only you "get" the music. The heathens around you lack the intellectual prowess necessary to dissect noise music. However, you may feel stupid, because while you were busy "getting" the music, the heathens were moshing without you. You may feel smart, because you and only you understand that noise music is one giant sham. Noise can't be music--music requires melodies and counter-melodies, logical structures and composition, right? However, you may feel stupid, because you and only you don't "get" noise music. You don't admit this fact to your indie friends, most of whom also pretend to "get" noise music but really don't.

At various points in my experience with noise music, I've felt smart and stupid, in all of the above ways. Whenever I feel that I understand the reasoning behind noise music, the critics laud Jimmy, the new noise genius, for reasons I don't understand. Jimmy produces "brilliant compositions" that don't sound like compositions at all; in fact, the compositions sound distinctly like random, unlistenable, crap. In fact, they sound distinctly like cars driving on the highway -- so distinctly that I begin to suspect Jimmy of recording my own Taurus and selling the sound back to me. And I'm really, really pissed when I learn that Jimmy did exactly that … in exchange for my $17.

Jimmy: 1.
Me and my Taurus: 0.
Count it!

Given the rampant frustration and confusion surrounding this troublesome genre, we can only hope that critics will soon discover the universal standard for distinguishing music from noise. Wait … we're technically critics! At least, we care enough about music to listen with our critical ears. Why don't we develop our own standards, you and me, here and now?

First, let's define some terms. Noise isn't music. Noise is sound, before the process of composition occurs. Noise is banging out random keys on the piano, rather than playing ordered notes. Noise is chirping birds, jackhammers, taking a shit. Second, by implication, music is noise given order through the process of composition. Some intelligent being deliberately arranged sounds to accomplish some rational purpose. Therefore, if music is rationally ordered sound, the term "noise music" -- usually shortened to just "noise" -- seems awfully redundant. Technically, all music is noise music. I gather that, in the parlance of our times, the phrase noise music signifies any music composed from non-traditional sounds. Rather than guitars and drums, the composer constructs music from natural sounds (like taking a shit). Noise music also tends to signify non-traditional structures. The composer abandons verse-chorus-bridge-chorus for swells and fades. However you define it, noise music still requires deliberate order. Should it fail this requirement, we call it noise. Or crap. Or art? Your judgment call, buddy.

Pardon my huge-ass introduction to this review of the Black Dice's Miles of Smiles EP. I'll hop down from my soapbox and talk about the songs. The EP is divided into two tracks, which each contain three movements. Starting with chirping bugs, the title track builds to an awful quagmire of noise by gradually introducing layers upon layers of other organic sounds. Weird growling, layered incomprehensible talking voices, and repeated carnival-esque horn doodling. Sounds like the Fairfax County Fair... of the dead. Approximately six minutes into the track, as this mess of noise begins to stretch the very limits of your patience, the Black Dice shift into the second movement without warning. Personally, I found this movement less rewarding than the first. The chirping insects return, perhaps to establish some thematic link the second and first movements. And there's not much else, except spare and random drum taps. The final movement also begins without warning, slapping you in the face with another round of the twisted carnival noise from the first movement.

"Trip Dude Delay" begins innocently enough, floating repeated synth chords overtop eerie dissonant tones and reverberating wordless vocals. For exactly 4 minutes and 17 seconds, the track seems harmless and pleasant… and then Hell breaks loose. The song descends into three minutes of pure grating and rumbling, with the repeated synth theme emerging from the murk to occasional tease you. Some critics euphemistically call this second movement "oceanic" or "overwhelming." I believe the phrase "irritating as all fuck" better describes the experience. Finally, around the 10 minute mark, the track enters its third movement. Congo drums clatter about without any readily discernable pattern; lightly hummed vocals rise and fade for haunting atmospheric effect; the three note repeated theme struggles to provide some semblance of coherency. Altogether, the movement sounds like midday at Roman Polanski's beach house -- interesting to visit once, but terrifying to live in.

Final assessment? According to our "definitions," Miles of Smiles clearly qualifies as music, not mere noise. The songs travel through identifiable movements; the movements develop in swells and fades. And Black Dice have obvious skill. They create some interesting textures by layering non-traditional sounds and occasional electronic chords. From an objective standpoint, Miles of Smiles is impressive. It's better than the vast majority of noise music out there. Whether you actually enjoy noise music, however…I guess that's up to you.