Jesus is a big fan of free improvisation. Not a lot of people know this. How do I know? Because the Bible tells me so; just take Mark 13 as an example: “when they lead you delivering you up, be not anxious beforehand what you shall speak; but whatever shall be given you in that hour, this speak; for you are not the speakers, but the Holy Spirit.” See, there’s Christ explicitly telling people to not prepare a speech beforehand and just say things as the spirit moves them, so to speak. And if one imagines that a musical performance can be a means of evangelism and perhaps martyrdom, then music itself should also be improvisational. Jesus digs John Coltrane.
Clang Quartet (US), the alias of Scotty Irving, is one of the few currently active Christian noise projects. The only other one that comes to mind is the Maronite Christian power electronics unit Koufar, but I’m fairly certain Koufar is on hiatus. That would therefore make Clang Quartet the only currently active Christian noise project. There have been notables in the past such as Mental Destruction and Blackhouse, but these two projects were always steeped in the industrial elements rampant in early noise music and in many ways these two bands fail to count as noise proper. Yet, being the one true Christian noise band isn’t the only distinction Clang Quartet exhibits. The first show Clang Quartet did was back in January of 1997 – making Mr. Irving one of the founding American pioneers of noise.
This particular tape on Hanson is gritty. Both tracks are recordings of live sets. Side A is taken from 2009 Voice of the Valley in West Virginia and side B from the 2010 Brooklyn International Noise Conference. Each side has audio issues; I had to turn up my speakers to a point where it should have aroused complaints from my neighbors in order to properly hear it. But given that this is taken from a live show that’s loud as fuck, it’s amazing that the recordings bear anything listenable at all. The tape does highlight many aspects that the live audience of a Clang Quartet show might miss like the bass rhythms inherent in the pedals. In any case, in order to describe the cassette in question it is necessary to simultaneously describe the now legendary live performance of Clang Quartet. Having recently seen a performance at the Candle Haus in Virginia, I am able to provide a synopsis.
Before the set begins, Mr. Irving confronts you in wife beater, slicked back hair, and a total Southern aura while being surrounded by his sculptures. These guitar pedal sculptures are sometimes formed into crosses that have random Christian slogans on the other side them like “tomb empty he is risen.” Some sculptures just have a Seven Deadly Sin or a word like destruction in bold. Other items around the room include circuit bent toy masks connected to other electronics as well as massive pedal board. Initially, my friends and I were a bit wary of the man as we thought he would use these sculptures to slam into the audience. Then the noise begins and you can immediately tell that the artist has prepared each pedal knob and sculpture in an extremely meticulous fashion for a specific effect. You can also tell that each sculpture has been chosen for a theme like sinning, the apocalypse, the victory of Jesus Christ, and these will be adorned during the set for a sort of non-linear passion narrative that you can’t ultimately follow. For example, when I saw him, the resurrection and destruction signs were chosen out of order and I highly doubt it was by accident.
And then the noise stops. Suddenly, Irving appears on the floor playing a few high school marching band standards on snares. Then it’s back to the noise with Clang Quartet in full regalia wearing his homemade noise sculptures again. And just when you think it couldn’t get any weirder, he’s back on the ground again with his cymbals laid out, ferociously playing like a New York City street drum hustler. Finally, there’s some more noise and a few select masks before it all ends. Having been to innumerable noise shows, I can usually tell the difference between someone just dabbling in the arts, someone with mediocre talent, or a good idea and true passion, or not one god damn clue how to use their equipment, etc. Every once in a while, you come across someone who is using pedals in a manner that differentiates them from nearly everyone else on the planet. You can tell immediately at a Clang Quartet show that the years of practice have paid off for Mr. Irving; this isn’t just a show or mere shock performance, this is art made by someone with a rare talent for the genre of noise.
My only concern with Clang Quartet is the level of improvisation. As I mentioned in the beginning of the review, I think there’s theological justification for free music. I actually got the chance to speak with Mr. Irving after his show about Mark 13 and improvisation. He tersely replied, out of breath from his performance: “well, it’s always a little different every night!” Indeed, it would have to be when you’re hauling six or seven interconnected pedals on your back and hitting snares and cymbals on the floor. As anyone who has ever tried to play a noise show knows, sometimes the minor change in a pedal knob position, the acoustics of a room, an old cable, dying batteries, or even the electrical wiring in a building can completely change your sound. So, it is necessarily always a little different every night. But there is definitely a method to Clang Quartet’s madness. I can tell even by the tape and the show I saw that there’s a rigid structure to his sets. It’s basically noise followed by snare drums followed by cymbals followed by more noise, and then the set ends. I’m sure other avant-garde musicians have faced similar conceptual problems with improvisation; I imagine John Coltrane debating with his band about whether or not they’re truly free to play whatever if they’re loosely basing their music on jazz standards or interpretations of “My Favorite Things.” Additionally, I suppose early Christian martyrs wondered whether they were truly following Mark 13 if they meant to talk about their faith when being “delivered up” rather than allowing the spirit alone to wholly guide their words.
Yet, I guess the theme of religion must be implicit. Anyway, even though Scotty Irving’s equipment might glitch up or he might hit a few different pedals for this particular show, his set is still a set like any other musical composition and not wholly improvised. What I love most about this tape is the amount of thought it provides me. What would a truly improvisational and spiritual noise band sound like? What form should Christian music follow? What does it even mean to be truly improvisational? And what would underground Christian music sound like today if it hadn’t gone the route of hardcore metal, Norma Jean, and The Chariot, and instead followed the supreme example of Clang Quartet? All great questions that still resound from a noise project that’s 15 years old.
Side A: Untitled
Side B: Untitled