The power of aggressive music to provoke has been a constant thread in the development of rock and various forms of electronic music and hip hop. The word “provoke” was the title of a Japanese postpunk-themed compilation album (No.20 in this list) this year, which, intentionally or not, raised an interesting question of what it means for music to be provocative in the 2010s.
Listen to a lot of early punk and, while you might understand on some intellectual level that this was shocking music in its original context, it rarely feels that way on a visceral level. The Clash might have bellowed, “No Elvis, Beatles or The Rolling Stones” but their music feels now far closer to those classic acts than it does to the kind of extreme music that followed fairly swiftly after them. Nowadays, even noise, which emerged in the ‘80s and remains through artists like Merzbow, Hijokaidan and Incapacitants some of the most sonically abrasive anti-music ever, is no longer really shocking as a stance: it’s simply a medium in which artists can operate, experimenting based on texture rather than melody and rhythm. The extremes of the noise path have now largely been charted. and if it doesn’t sound exactly conventional, it certainly has its conventions.
So what can a musician do nowadays to shake a listener out of their comfort zone if simply battering their ears with noise no longer works? One way is to irritate them, which is perhaps one of the reasons why many artists from the postpunk era who retain the greatest power to provoke are not those who used the raw power of sonic missiles but the insistent, needling irritation of a small child singing out of key as they repeatedly kick the back of your chair. The erratic, hysterical, amped-up fairground prog-psych of early Cardiacs annoyed the NME so much that they banned the group from their pages for ten years or more. The confrontational, droning, repetitive standup of punk-era comic Ted Chippington continues to be divisive even among the more esoteric fringes of the British comedy scene.
It’s that wilfully unbalanced, needling, insistent aural aggravation that is at the heart of what makes Narcolepsin such a silly, fun and challenging band. On stage, drummer Ami plays a minimal kit consisting of just a kick, snare and hi-hat, while synth player Popo Copy taps impassively away on a single note like an icier Ron Mael. In contrast, Naoki Sakata (formerly of tepPohseen — yes, this is another Fukuoka band) plays sax, two different guitars, and yaps away atonally like a confused, angry chihuahua.
Narcolepsin’s songs confound the traditional structures that some more nominally extreme music can at times unconsciously cling to, as in Equal, which teases you with the possibility that it has finished over and over again only to return laboriously to the start. Si builds layers of sax, scratchy guitar and playground taunt vocals over a relentlessly repetitive two-note synth part. The title track, meanwhile, takes delight in its rhythmical inconsistency, each instrument seeming to play along to an idiosyncratic beat of its own, Sakata’s vocals yowling incoherently in the distance.Equal (live)
While Narcolepsin employ many of the tools of progressive rock, with overlapping rhythms, deviations from standard rock chords and key, and an evident jazz influence, they are nonetheless distinctly postpunk in the way they present their chaos of sounds with the join still clearly on display, feeding a fractured, angular soundscape that plays out over the album’s short 21-minute runtime. It’s annoying as hell, but it’s also playful, silly and fun in how it teases you and mocks your expectations. Like all extreme music, it demands you step out of your comfort zone and approach it from their perspective, and like all extreme music, part of its appeal is the subsequent pleasure in being one of the ones who gets it.