Anthony DiFranco has been a stalwart of the UK noise scene under many guises since back in the Broken Flag days. In recent years, he has mainly constrained his activities to Ramleh, but he spent the late '80s and early '90s quite actively, recording as Ethnic Acid, JFK, and as an early member of Skullflower. He also made several gnarled and ugly guitar noise albums as AX, which have long been woefully unavailable. Metal Forest happily remedies that inequity, cramming all of AX's highlights into one snarling and truly brutal CD.
This compilation collects nine songs originally released between 1994 and 1997 on the defunct Freek Records label. Of the three albums cannibalized for Metal Forest (Nova Feedback, Ax II, and Astronomy), only AX's debut LP (Nova Feedback) has been included in its entirety, which is a wise move in many ways. For one, it seems like DiFranco was particularly inspired early on, covering a lot of stylistic ground and doing so in very visceral fashion–he made quite a definitive statement right out of the gate. Secondly, the first two AX releases were previously only available on vinyl, so it was much more useful to digitize and disseminate them than AX's later work. Finally, due to its harsh nature, Metal Forest is already quite exhausting at around an hour–if anything, it could benefit from being less comprehensive.
Given DiFranco's Ramleh/Skullflower pedigree, it is not particularly surprising that AX's strain of noise is often more indebted to rock than electronics, though the line can get quite blurry at times. What did surprise me is how varied Anthony's attack was within his stylistic constraints: it is not entirely fair to say that noise has become rigidly codified in the years since Nova Feedback's release, but most artists nowadays tend to stake out very narrow terrain for themselves and stay there until they have exhausted every possible variation. While the six pieces culled from Nova Feedback are primarily built upon bulldozing, heavily distorted bass and dissonant guitar squall, each song is still fairly unique (despite sounding uniformly massive and overdriven). Also, several pieces sound remarkably ahead of their time, as "Theme One" anticipates the current Harsh Noise Wall genre and "Heavy Fluid" sounds like the missing link between Power Electronics and Sunn o))).
The two pieces taken from 1995's Ax II mini-album are perhaps even better than those from the debut, however. DiFranco's scope seems to have narrowed dramatically into harsh electronic noise/power electronics territory during that period, but both sections are brutally, grindingly heavy from start to finish (in fact, they probably sound almost exactly like being run over by a tank while trying to saw through it with a chain saw). Given that intensity, the sole piece from 1997's Astronomy cannot help but be a step in another direction–DiFranco had already taken his inclination towards ugly, violent, roiling chaos as far as it could go. As a result, "Kortex" is more like crushing, buzzing glacier of heavy that replaces fury with sheer relentless massiveness. It is quite good in its own right (I loved the undulating sub bass), but it is not nearly as apocalyptic and attention-grabbing as some of AX's earlier triumphs.
The sole flaws with Metal Forest stem primarily from the difficulties inherent in condensing AX's entire discography into one album, as the balance between sequencing and comprehensiveness is quite tricky and required compromise in both regards. For example, it is perplexing that the third (and final) section of AX II is omitted, given that the two sections that were included probably represent AX's absolute zenith. Also, 1994's "Cluster" seems a bit contextually out of place, sounding like an extended intro to an early Soundgarden song (they were arguably a cool band then).
Despite that, Cold Spring probably did as fine a job as could be expected, juggling chronology and style to make Metal Forest as listenable as possible. That still makes for an exhausting and overwhelming dose, I am afraid, but that is entirely due to the sheer force of the material (and there almost nothing included that I would have cut). The bottom line is that Metal Forest is a crucial piece of noise archaeology, as DiFranco made some of the heaviest, most nightmarishly uncompromising music of the '90s and it deserves the wider recognition that this release will hopefully give it. Consequently, I am more than willing to meet it halfway and intelligently limit my listening for maximum impact.