A famous quote of mysterious provenance (most likely the American actor and singer Martin Mull) has it that, “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture,” and anyone who has ever tried to write about music will know that language can be an inadequate tool.
One of the most popular complaints about music critics is our annoying penchant for pigeonholing — our incorrigible urge to define. There are legitimate concerns behind this criticism, in that the very act of defining or classifying a work implicitly shuts it off from other material not in its approved category. The flow of neologisms from the keyboards of music critics can seem baffling and pretentious — post-this, proto-that, nu-whatever — but the root of this ever-changing meta-vocabulary is in the failure of language to adequately describe an ever-changing, largely intuitive art form.
One of the greatest words ever coined by a music writer is “skronk,” attributed by Lester Bangs to fellow critic Robert Christgau. Basically referring to any music with guitars (or these days sax, synth or any technology that comes to hand) that sounds like sheet metal being attacked alternately with dentist’s drills and chainsaws, its strength and resilience lies in how the word embodies an admission of language’s failure. “What does it sound like?” “Well, it’s got these crazy guitars and they just go, ‘SKRONK!’ ” Skronk isn’t a genre, it isn’t a pigeonhole, it is not a thing you are: It is a thing you do.
Japanese musicians were midwives at the birth of skronk in the raw, discordant 1970s New York no-wave scene — Ikue Mori played drums with DNA, while Reck and Chico Hige of skronky punk pioneers Friction had founding roles in both Teenage Jesus & The Jerks and The Contortions — and the sounds they brought back with them mixed with existing Japanese underground rock sounds, happily sitting alongside more conventionally defined genre influences from funk to jazz, punk to dance and beyond. It reached violent extremes in early Boredoms and continues to inform the sounds of the Japanese underground live scene.
Now for those of you born after 1992, live music is the same as normal music except instead of listening to it out of the tinny speakers of your MacBook from an online stream at 2 a.m., you have to go into a special room to hear it being played out of massive Marshall and Jazz Chorus amps by real live humans. Skronky music was born in clubs and bars, and it’s in these kinds of places that the term makes the most sense, with current Japanese practitioners such as The Mornings and Otori torturing sounds out of their instruments that can only be described through the medium of excitable comic book onomatopoeia — Shlack! Btyanng! Squee! Skronk!
As today’s emaciated, blog-led indie scene staggers around, grasping for new words to describe increasingly airy, wispy sounds — chillwave, seapunk, vaporwave — skronk spits stubbornly in their faces. It’s the ghost at the Apple-sponsored feast for the new dominion of music conceived, composed, disseminated and experienced via laptops and tablets. That’s not to diminish the validity of what is music born from and soundtracking a genuine lived experience that is increasingly mediated by screens, but rather it’s a Luddite reminder of the raw, physical world we leave behind. Again, the non-word “skronk” anchors it in the caveman simplicity of the physical.
While recorded skronk is usually enjoyed as a companion to the live performance rather than its substitute, thanks to a freak convergence of a number of planets with particularly wonky orbits, 2014 has seen a mini-boom of new releases by some of Japan’s skronkiest bands.
Underground veterans Panicsmile’s marvelous “Informed Consent” back in July was a rattling, clattering atonal thrill ride, Sonic Youth-influenced Nagoya band Nicfit released the “Swell” 7-inch EP in August, and this October sees a cluster of new releases within the space of just one week. Otori presents its long-awaited and decidedly no-wave-influenced debut “I Wanna be Your Noise” on Oct. 25; The Mornings have a richly textured, intricately layered but no less fierce-sounding second album, “Idea Pattern,” out on Oct. 29; and despite an otherwise complete online news blackout, self-proclaimed “cute noise hard junk love band” Halbach are threatening a debut album release party on Oct. 22.
The invention of new vocabulary to describe music is as necessary as it is irritating to many people, but it’s true that most of it is ephemeral, lost to the winds and ashes of time (who talks about romo anymore, or even something as recent as witch house?) Sometimes, however, a word comes along that describes something just right. Times and places change, and the language that goes with them dies, but sounds keep coming back again and again: “skronk” is a harsh sounding word for a harsh sounding music, and they’re both beautiful in their ugliness.