Sven Kay has been interested in extreme music for a long time. Having arrived to the party as an early teenager via hyper-paced electronic genres like gabber and terrorcore, he then cycled through intense forms of rap and extreme metal, before discovering a short article about Merzbow in a music encyclopedia owned by his father. That was a key fork in the road.
In 2003, he started his own noise project named All Collapsed, and he hasn’t slowed down since. Over the years, he has established a name for his hyper-specific sound projects. The most obvious example is Opaque, a solo sound project based around a fetish for down jackets; most of the artwork featured women dressed in brand-name puffy jackets, with album titles like Short Pink Down Jacket With Fur Collar and Two Girls In Nickelson Moena And Jolina Down Jackets. The music consisted of unchanging blocks of harsh noise, a.k.a. harsh noise wall (HNW). There are at least sixty-nine Opaque releases, each a slight variation on the central theme.
Opaque is not his only such endeavor. His Immaculate Affection project has produced three volumes of HNW, each release dedicated to the Glee character Quinn Fabray. And his Unbelievable Black Magic label puts out noise inspired by old mondo films like Faces of Death — documentary-style video compilations that were popular in the seventies and depicted graphic footage, including clips of accidents and injuries. All of Kay’s Unbelievable Black Magic releases feature artwork inspired by the format:
Kay’s biggest fixation may be the subgenre of noise music called harsh noise wall. His Absent Erratum net label specializes in the style, along with the related genre ambient noise wall. (Stylistically, it’s less harsh, but just as monolithic.)
Absent Erratum captures two of Kay’ tendencies. For one, it showcases his tendency to cross-pollinate HNW with other ideas; in this case, HNW is imbued with a colourful and post-modern vaporwave aesthetic. Secondly, it is highly obsessional. Since 2018, Absent Erratum has put out a constant stream of new releases, each one carefully designed and often titled using baroque linguistic chicanery — album titles include ⌺⌺⌺⌺⌺ and 𝕯𝕴𝕾𝕽𝖀𝕻𝕿𝕺𝕽 𝕴𝕴.
Kay, a high school teacher from just outside Rotterdam, is a disarmingly nice guy. Via email, he told me about Absent Erratum and his unique aesthetic, enthusiastically sharing the many details behind the operation.
Kay started Absent Erratum in the summer 2008. Before that, he had been collecting images in a computer folder called “vaporhnwave,” as a process of refining the vaporwave-cum-HNW direction he was moving towards. As he developed the modus operandi for the label, he started to invite artists to contribute. “I sent them a list of core ideas/requirements,” Kay explains. “Each project was to have a new and unique project name; the release should thematically and/or sonically be ‘non-traditional’ — somewhat vague, perhaps by design, as many things have become fairly commonplace in (H)NW — but none of the typical gore or sex. They could work anonymously, if they wanted. And they were to submit an image that, for them, was a suitable visual companion to their track, which I would use in the artwork.”
Kay mainly works in his living room, though he keeps his pedals, cassette decks, and contact mics at his dad’s place, a vestige from the days when his kids were young and he was too busy to create music. He tends to work on Absent Erratum at night. He tells me he has a tendency to hyper-focus, staying up to 3AM engrossed in his work. “When I get into it I forget time, I forget to eat and drink, I am completely immersed in the creative process. I usually notice I am entirely parched and hungry by the time I stop,” he says.
“I’ve been doing noise and experimental music for a long time and while my girlfriend and family are always supportive, none of them really understand noise in the end,” he explains. “My girlfriend, for instance, has literally said time and again that she doesn’t understand it, but she is always super supportive and always speaks positively of my projects to her family and friends. My sister probably gets closest to really getting it. (I dragged her along to a The Rita show some 10 years ago and we share a lot of musical interests, generally). I’d say she understands it, as she likes plenty of weird music herself, but even for her noise is not something she listens to of her own accord. Everyone will take a passing interest in it, find the effort commendable, but that’s where it ends, pretty much. Apart from the odd friend who I share some musical interests with, I don’t even share my creative projects with my friends. If anything, I feel it’s way too alienating, most people in my experience just find noise/HNW ‘weird’ and see little artistic merit or even any redeeming qualities to it.”
Absent Erratum’s discography is a mixture of work by Kay and by other artists, most of whom have chosen to remain anonymous. Each album is attributed to a one-of-a-kind noise project, so you won’t find Absent Erratum artists anywhere else. There is one exception: an artist named Liz Clark has put out two releases on the label. “[This] of course goes against the idea of Absent Erratum; I can enjoy this particular case of rule-breaking though, as it seems to fit with the spirit of AE — it wants to do things differently, so when, within that framework, things are done still differently, when it plays with the restrictions imposed in a somewhat rebellious manner, I enjoy that, too. Of course, it’s been done now — Liz Clark was the original rule breaker. Other rule breakers would have to find new ways to be inventive enough to break some more rules.”
I was struck by the myriad concept releases Absent Erratum has put out, many of which are conveyed using cryptic images and symbology. Kay was ready to tell me the story behind a number curious releases, even rooting out the perspectives of the original artists when possible:
𝑭𝒖𝒕𝒖𝒓𝒆+𝑵𝒆𝒐𝒏⁹⁹ – TIME WARP
TIME WARP is a collection of brief noise walls by 𝑭𝒖𝒕𝒖𝒓𝒆+𝑵𝒆𝒐𝒏⁹⁹, one of countless pseudonyms of Sven Kay himself. This one is noteworthy because Kay created the walls by sampling ASMR videos from the internet. “I am not entirely sure how many videos I used, but it was quite a few as I was looking for very specific sounds,” he tells me.”For each track of five minutes I used about an hour of ASMR videos. The videos themselves came from various channels off YouTube. I’m not very familiar with ASMR, so I had to search around aplenty to find proper material. The sounds from the videos themselves were not altered significantly, mostly just cut and trimmed to remove all extraneous materials and volume-adjusted where necessary.”
Kay combined the ASMR sounds with distorted white noise to produce the final product. He sees a parallel between ASMR and HNW, pointing out that both areas of sound production involve obsessive, detail-oriented approaches to audio, especially when it comes to the “texture” of sound. He tells me about the recent emergence of non-amplified, or acoustic, walls, as well as the idea of field-recorded walls — for example recordings of waterfalls or humming machines.
“I remember a remark by Evan of Ritual Stance on one incarnation of a HNW message board where he had noticed how the sound of his suitcase’s wheels on gravel had made a great wall,” Kay laughs. “ASMR works with a similar ear for texture, and thus is a great potential source for materials. I wanted TIME WARP to work with this type of ‘field recorded’ sound while also further using ASMR to add to the intertextuality and pop culture references in the release’s theme and titles. Many of the textures [used on TIME WARP] are of the handling and opening of playing card booster packs.”
Interestingly, this is the second time Kay has used ASMR samples in his music. His super mario record release, produced under the name Wow War Techno, combines ASMR with sine waves.
This record may be a Bandcamp first: it has no name and no artist. “The intention was to have the artist anonymous and the record untitled,” Kay explains. “I did some work to find out how to generate entirely empty fields in Bandcamp, which made it come out excellently. It is definitely one of the most unique things on AE.”
Curious about the ASCII trickery responsible for gaming the system, I asked him to tell me how he subverted Bandcamp’s algorithms to create a nameless release. “There’s a lot of different whitespace characters besides the plain ‘space’ we tend to use most (by hitting the spacebar). These include figure spaces (for monospace digits), em and en spaces, tabs, and so on, each with their own function. While Bandcamp does not technically allow spaces to be submitted as characters in the submission fields, at the time of release this was not true for all possible spaces. The space that it ultimately did recognize as a character and not as a space was the Mongolian Vowel Separator. Thus the submission fields are technically not actually empty, but for all intents and purposes, they are.”
Forces Spéciales – Leviathan
This record is listed as the first release on Absent Erratum’s Bandcamp page; like many others, it is based on a complex web of ideas nestled deep inside Kay’s mind, which he has attempted to externalize via harsh noise wall. Kay traces its influence to Toni Morrison’s novel, Beloved, which he read 15 years ago. “Beloved, the character, served as the inspiration for a series of scenes I devised for a ghost story set in Central Africa that I intended to write but ultimately never did. The story disappeared somewhere in the recesses of my brain until I hit upon the image from which the picture on the cover was cropped. It’s a picture of a trio of Fulani women. Something about this image had the same mood as my conceptual ghost story had. I then combined it with various different influences that all share this powerful, mysterious, ominous sense.”
The title, Leviathan, is meant to conjure both Paul Auster’s novel of the same name, and the idea of a sea monster. He sees this double-association as a parallel to the Beloved and the scary ghost story he planned to write.
The name Forces Spéciales reflects his fascination with the Democratic Republic of Congo, another one of Kay’s obsessions. “Forces Spéciales refers to no particular military force, but is instead a semi-fictional one that is based upon a lot of reading that I have done on the DRC, the conflicts plaguing this country and the various militias involved. The French clearly has its origin there. It evokes militias, army groups, all huddled and hidden in jungles – Forces Armeés, Forces Démocratiques, and the Mai Mai of course – ghosts themselves almost, men sprinkling themselves with water to protect themselves from bullets, unseen and lurking in the dark, threatening and intimidating.”
Photos of Osho – Osho speaks on Meditation
Photos of Osho is not Sven Kay, but instead an anonymous artist; fortunately, Kay passed my questions on to that producer, allowing some insight into this mysterious release. It’s another bizarre post-modern noise wall excursion.
“Photos of Osho came about after reading material regarding the Rajneeshpuhram community in Wasco County, Oregon,” explains the anonymous producer. “During the 70s and 80s there was a surge of Indian godmen/gurus within the United States, such as Bikram Choudhury’s hot yoga, Swami Muktananda’s appearance in Woodstock, and Osho’s first persona, Bhagwan Shri Rajneesh. What attracted me to Rajneesh’s story was the idea of this mental barrier (i.e. wall) separating the previous persona from the current one. Many people that know about Osho haven’t heard of Rajneesh and the debacle that ensued, which included a bioterror attack using Salmonella that prompted the US government to shut him down. While all of this was happening, Rajneesh remained silent and isolated, having taken a meditation vow. Since my entire research took place after googling ‘photos of Osho’ it seemed natural to construct a release around these layers of silence and separation.”
The audio on this release has an interesting story itself. “There are some extracts of interviews that took place during [Rajneesh’s] incarceration and trial, in which you can hear this soft hiss in the background, especially in between words — or was it, perhaps, that the soft hiss was being interrupted by his words? The silent throb under it, that is mysticism channeled through.”
TRIBUTE – COMO UN MAR ETERNO
Another release by an anonymous artist, this one starts off as saturated dance music before fading into noise. Its producer explains that it is a tribute to La Favi, a contemporary singer who is considered part of the experimental fringe of reggaeton music known as neoperro. “I discovered her thanks to Sven, so it was a pretty obvious choice for a release on Absent Erratum,” says the person behind TRIBUTE. “On another level, that turned the album into a tribute to Sven — or a gift, or something he’d like — because his work is an inspiration on so many levels. Then, as with most side projects, it was also a way to go against a lot of my habits: the tracks are short, the post-editing was the biggest part of the work (at the time, I had more experience with single line, live walls) and finally it was an occasion to blend a wall with a melodic synth line.”
🐬 Ecco 🐬 イルカ 🐬 – The Marks On Your Head Look Like Stars In The Sky
This highly specific release has yet another exquisitely post-modern origin story. “The idea behind this release was my love for the game Ecco the Dolphin and other classic video games and the hidden themes of sadness and sorrow behind them,” says the anonymous producer. “A lot of classic games like this always had a happy and cheerful vibe to them, with the visuals, the soundtrack, etc., so for the artwork I wanted Sven to match it up to that look and theme, so listening to the release would catch some people off guard when hearing it for the first time after seeing the art.
“With Ecco the Dolphin you play as Ecco, who is on a quest to save his family and friends who were kidnapped by aliens. It has a cartoony and weird vibe to it, but the whole time you think of how sad, scared, and lonely Ecco must feel. He was just living a simple and happy life, just for everything to be taken from him. And he is forced to go on a quest to save everyone, and even though he probably isn’t ready for this, he takes it head on and is willing to do everything he can to save the ones he loves. When recording this album I tried to match those themes as closely as I could, with the title giving off that hopefully and cheerful vibe, while the tracks fit more with the underlying themes of loneliness and sorrow that Ecco feels during the game.”
The music, indeed, is a quiet and ominous breed of textbook ambient noise wall — like a massive boulder, all alone, rolling endlessly over a desert plain:
Stories & Themes
I return to Kay, curious about how he has taken such an abstract genre and used it to explore these very overt themes. “For me personally, harsh noise generally and harsh noise wall in particular, are very narrative, writerly media,” Kay says, explaining that his approach has almost always been to use the sound to tell a narrative. “My first ‘proper’ release ever, a harsh noise/free jazz disc by my project horsing, was called Chanzheng and its track titles were taken from the various chapters of a book called On The Long Road With Chairman Mao. At that time, I think, that ‘narrative’ was something very literal, and of course through the years that has changed. Absent Erratum is a good example of a journey ever further into the abstract. But at its core, this is still what it is to me. As a waller, you are a storyteller, a writer, giving shape to ideas, relating them. In the end, every project is a story – and every release for this particular project adds a chapter to the story, or a new perspective, or a footnote – it can do many things, but it will never be a new story.”
He recognizes that there is something unusual about blocks of unchanging harsh noise being a paradigm for storytelling. “Since the sound is so abstract, how can it truly ‘tell’ anything? I think that for many people ‘narrative’ music probably sooner conjures up images of story-telling classic rock concept albums, Ziggy Stardust or Tommy or things like extravagant Ayreon albums or that Scrooge McDuck album by Tuomas Holopainen. Music that in the most straightforward way imaginable actually tells a story and has the means to do so by employing dynamics, melodies, lyrics, instruments to convey settings, scenes, moods.
“HNW is pretty much the exact opposite, especially the monolithic kind that is entirely void of dynamics, melody, lyrics, instruments. Of course, this allows a certain freedom. It is actually extremely non-restrictive. HNW is a blank canvas that, in its purest form, in itself has no inherent ‘mood’ – that mood is imposed by the artist.”
He proposes an experiment: Take two HNW tracks, one by the producer Love Katy, whose releases are all glittery tributes to Katy Perry, and another by the very nihilistic French HNW project Vomir. Without the artwork and context, he suggests it will be impossible to distinguish them. “Try to decide what inherent characteristics within them make them, respectively, a glamorous, glittery pink pop tribute and a nihilistic void. It is only imposed by the themes, the language and the imagery that the artist provides.
“What also makes HNW ideal to engage with obsessions, passions, and fetishes is the fact that creating HNW in itself can easily get very obsessive, perhaps always is. I think for many creators, their engagement with their obsessions and passions and fetishes focuses on minutiae, super fine details – it’s micro-focal,” he says, citing my recent article about The Rita’s Thousands of Dead Gods, in which Sam McKinlay discusses his passion for great white sharks.
“You see that same kind of micro-focus all throughout [the HNW scene]. Runway releases are each dedicated to a single specific runway look; Oyasumi Punpun has a separate release for each chapter within each of the volumes of the manga of the same name; the h POKÉDEX project has a separate wall for each Pokémon (so far, at least, the first and second generations, about 250 in all); Cory Strand has done tapes for separate issues of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comics…”
“That micro-focus on these details of the objects of obsession also comes into play when creating walls. It’s concerned with these minutiae: the pops and crackles, the spaces between them. In that sense, the engagement with walls parallels the engagement with the object of obsession.
“In the end, there is also a very simple reason for the abundance of project names that is seen throughout the experimental music scene but perhaps especially in HNW, which was also addressed recently by Richard and Sean in their interview for Noisextra: it is a very direct way to deal with or respond to an obsession, which can come from the most insignificant thing. In the interview, they talk about how a certain turn of phrase or a title of a movie could be enough, for instance where they talk about the origin of the project name Gourmet Shit Scene [which references a particular bit of dialogue in the movie Pulp Fiction]. I think that is very recognizable.”
Many Absent Erratum releases tend to experiment with language and typography, either by utilizing unusual characters or by toying with loose association. Kay, in addition to being a schoolteacher, also has training in linguistics, and when I ask him about his fondness for wordplay, he has much to say.
He first points to the Leviathan album, which makes direct references to a book. Yet other releases can get a lot more abstract. “I find a lot of pleasure in juxtaposing language from very different sources within a title or release; to me, this is a great source of tension, invoking erratic, odd mental imagery,” he says. “It’s one area where the vaporwave element comes in, of course. Vaporwave is all reference, extremely intertextual. A lot of the appreciation of it comes from the appreciation of its referents, whether we are familiar with them specifically or just with their time frame and associated atmosphere and feeling.”
Absent Erratum follows a similar method, he explains, taking me through one exemplary release: “[The album] TIME WARP is a fairly complex — or muddled — amalgam of influences and referents. TIME WARP refers to a Super Famicom Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles game, Turtles In Time, which is also reflected in the artwork, which uses a Shredder sprite from that game. In that sense, it plays pretty directly with this nostalgic idea of a callback to the feeling of carefree summers in the 1990’s — I was born in 1984.” He points out that this is also reflected in the “99” in the project’s name, 𝑭𝒖𝒕𝒖𝒓𝒆+𝑵𝒆𝒐𝒏⁹⁹.
“At the same time, many of the other elements [of the artwork] are distinctly not 90’s but do intend to evoke that similar vibe of a carefreeness and youthfulness, except in a more contemporary way: the abundance of emojis, the picture of neoperreo singer Tomasa Del Real (saturation boosted quite a bit). The track titles again are structured after the way the levels in the same Super Famicom game are structured, except now they reference Latin American beach destinations and nightlife districts, a series of visits to them unfolding in a single night.”
1. Playa Hermosa, San Juan Del Sur, 2:00 p.m. 04:00TIME WARP‘s track listing
2. Gazcue, Santo Domingo, 7:00 p.m. 04:00
3. Miraflores, Lima, 11:00 p.m. 04:00
4. Galerias, Bogotá, 3:00 a.m. 04:00
5. La Reina, Santiago, 6:00 a.m. 04:00
“It’s like a glimpse into the decadence of this unspecified jet set, time warping for all intents and purposes from the one place to the next. The future and neon of the title further shape this overall atmosphere: A 90s aesthetics of neon, the neon of nightlife districts, conceptions of future from the perspective of the 90’s and the actuality of that future that is this release.
“A lot of credit should also go to my contributors. There is some truly fantastic language that they use. Some personal favourite examples of the wonderful language in others’ contributions are I Swim In Prismatic Light, Unhiltered, The Marks On Your Head Look Like Stars In The Sky, Unbridled and Household.”
“Many other things are more or less abstracted amalgamates or derivatives from their sources of inspiration. S U D D E N L I G H T S U D D E N D E A T H was inspired by (though not taken verbatim from) a passage from Helen Winternitz’ travelogue East Of The Equator. The surface of the water reflecting the sky is a play on a Naoki Zushi composition. Xruelty And The Xeast is named after Cruelty And The Beast, in a way. Yet other things are inspired by the naming conventions for action movie sequels and J-pop singles. Yet others distort their sources even more.”
When I ask Kay to describe himself, he balks at the question, conceding principally that he is “compulsively productive.” I suggest the word generosity, given that Kay devotes so much time and energy to producing music for others to listen to, and to providing a forum for others to release their music.
“I think ‘generous’ is a very braggy term to use for oneself, but it’s funny that you mention generosity,” he says. “I release a tape batch about every half year and try to sell these tapes for as low as I can without bleeding money profusely on it — but bleeding it aplenty anyway, which I am absolutely fine with, as it only seems natural that you spend money on your hobby. Which, I guess, my projects are in the end. They’re not my day job.”
He shows me the math, explaining that he used to sell his tapes internationally for €5,50 apiece. At €4 in shipping fees alone, it was a losing proposition. And now that shipping outside the EU has ballooned to €11 per tape, he’s had to abandon the practice — though orders of multiple tapes can be more cost-effective.
Kay is tight-lipped about the future of Absent Erratum, saying he has releases in the pipeline, but wants to wait until they coalesce before announcing them. He does have a plan to bring the label into the physical realm, however. “Brief forays into the physical sphere have been made,” he points out. “A label patch and a tape (for Hair Like Water, Wavy Like The Sea).”
“The idea is to give more physical shape to the label, but to do so in a way that reflects its digital character appropriately. I have been compiling a list of the formats I would like to release on, some more suitable to audio (CD, LP, minidisc, VHS, etc) but some also decidedly not (perfume, candle, tote bag, sticker, pin). The idea is that they each constitute the true physical release for the album. The non-audio formats would include QR codes to refer people to the album. I have done some design work for some of these, but amidst all my other projects they have yet to take shape.”
Thanks to Sven Kay for the interview. The Absent Erratum Bandcamp page is here.