Who are Nocturnal Emissions? A guide to 10 essential records from the back-catalogue of Nigel Ayers and Co.

This coming Friday (May 31st) sees the third instalment of KARST’s experimental music series curated in association with Electric Knife. Pioneering experimental act Nocturnal Emissions head up the billing with a fantastic card of supports in Devon-based sound and performance artist Alice Kemp as well as ambient group Contrastate. Tickets for the show are available here.

I spoke to Nigel Ayers of Nocturnal Emissions in anticipation of the show and put together this primer of essential records from his rich, varied and prolific life in music. Enjoy!

Drowning in a Sea of Bliss (1983)

Perhaps one of the more surprising facts about Nocturnal Emissions is that Ayers is adamant they are not, and never were, an industrial band.

Drowning in a Sea of Bliss is the one that tops the industrial charts, but it’s a record of far more emotional contrast than industrial music to date had offered,’ he tells me. ‘By halfway through we were very sick of industrial music. I’d always described our music as post-industrial up until then. It was music of the Information Age.’

In retrospect, the hallmarks of early 80s industrial are there on Drowning — shards of metallic noise, abundant sound collage, plunderphonics, and themes of inhumanity. But as the record develops over its two sides we hear a hint of the beat-laden electronics and synths that would be in store for the group as they start to forge their own path. In many ways, it is Ayers just setting out on his journey, but ironically it is this LP that is most frequently cited as the NE album to own.

‘The industrial scene wasn’t really supportive. There was this intense narcissism. It was built on people trying to shock one another. I used to think “why are you trying to shock your own audience? These people who buy your records…What’s the point in that?”’

Chaos (1984)

As Margaret Thatcher cruised to her second general election victory on June 9th 1983, Nocturnal Emissions brought their electro noise clash to The Ritzy theatre in London. This LP documents their set in full (and with surprising clarity) and even includes a snippet of live election coverage from the night as the noise dies down. Ayers’ hollering ‘bad evening…BAD EVENING’ and ‘SMASH WITH LOVE’ is all the more poignant given the context.

As I wrote in Echoes and Dust a few years back: “In 1983 Nocturnal Emissions were embarking on an era of fevered invention, experimentation and de/reconstruction…[Chaos] is a sort of London Calling for industrial people, and a fascinating glimpse of these fevered experimenters on the verge of the absolute unknown.”

Songs of Love and Revolution (1985)

Recently reissued in a deluxe vinyl package on Mannequin, Nocturnal Emissions flirt perilously close with synthpop here. The result is a a wonky melange of singalong ditties and earthmoving John Carpenter-esque ambience.

‘Caroline could play piano properly. Like, she knew chords and things,’ Ayers says. ‘Whereas I’m a lot more of a naïve musician I suppose. I do things by how they feel. So she was doing more of the synth work and I was doing the beats and vocals.’

Spiritflesh (1988)

From 1987 onwards, the sound of Nocturnal Emissions changes significantly. The project is no longer a band in the conventional sense, and with Spiritflesh Ayers finds himself relocated away from the squats and noise of London to the wilds of Derbyshire — the landscape of his youth.

The LP is a landmark of British psychogeographical ambience. Salvaged harmonium drones, looping nature noises and analog-sounding beats present something of a journey record from which the “active listener” can trace a route around the Dales. The sounds contained within touch on dark ambient, neo-folk, post-rock and minimal electronica. But the whole is much more than the sum of its parts, a country record as if hewn by the geology of Derbyshire itself. It has also recently received the reissue treatment thanks to Mannequin.

Invocation of The Beast Gods (1989)

Invocation… is the first proper Nocturnal Emissions CD release (and in desperate need of a vinyl issue, in my opinion). Following on from the ambient experiments on Spiritflesh, loops and layers of animal noise and field recordings are assembled into rising and swelling post-rock nuggets.

Out of all the records in this list, it is perhaps the most listenable — calling to mind Brian Eno’s 80s work and latter Talk Talk. Ayers is careful to ensure these tracks are cohesive conceptually and musically, while managing to create fairly concise — almost modern-classical — movements seemingly without any conventional instruments at all.

Mouth of Babes (1990)

The first significant Nocturnal Emissions release of the 90s marks a move into multimedia art. Mouth of Babes sees Ayers turn his curiosity for new sounds back to human source material — but all performers on this LP are under the age of 18 months.

The record — delivered wrapped in a towel nappy (and now something of a collector’s item) — is eerie, haunting, and ritualistic in a kind of Lynchian sense. Somehow recognizable. Somehow hyperreal. The babbling and gurgling is stretched, slowed and re-pitched into occasionally melodic, and occasionally discordant little sound pieces. Perhaps one of Ayers’ most conceptual pieces of work, and undoubtedly one of his most fascinating.

Music for Butoh (1993)

In a continuation of Ayers putting his sound experiments to use in a multimedia context, 1992 saw Nocturnal Emissions commissioned to score a number of performances by Butoh dance troupe Poppo and the Go Go Boys in New York.

Poppo Shiraishi

The content of Music for Butoh draws heavily on the source material for Spiritflesh, Invocation… and other earlier recordings but sees this audio disassembled and remixed with additional instrumentation into something wholly new.

Autonomia (1996)

Inspired by his time in the US with Poppo, Autonomia is Ayers’ foray into American car culture. Beats and synths shine as if reflecting off chrome, while recordings of everyday conversations from random US citizens permeate the noise.

It is another success as a more listenable Nocturnal Emissions record, despite it coming from a deeply experimental place — especially for fans of This Heat-esque beats and CB radio plunderphonics. This time in the US also introduced Ayers to the bourgeoning American noise scene.

‘There was lots of university radio stations, and there was always one guy playing weird shit,’ he says. ‘He’d be the guy in a town putting on little shows in a café or art space. And there seemed to be this loyal following. Merzbow really tapped into it in the 90s. It was very different to what I knew from the narcissistic industrial cliquey scene of the 80s back here…it was much more of a community.’

Ophiuchus (2006)

Along with Nightscapes, some of Ayers’ best ambient work arrived in the new millenium.

Ophiuchus only had a relatively understated CDr release of 100 copies back in 2006, but is thankfully available as digital download at the Nocturnal Emissions official Bandcamp page.

Crystalline synthesized sounds and subtle field atmospherics give a kind of digital new age feel to the tracks. Album opener ‘Ras Alhague’ is a particular standout of repetitive drone, spacey pulses and metallic shimmers — but the rest of the record is essential too.

Spinal Correction Shred (2012)

Ayers has always been keen to document his own live performances, as well as those by some of his contemporaries such as SPK and Lustmord whom he released through Nocturnal Emissions’ own label Sterile Records.

Consequently, there have been a good number of fascinating and exhilarating live albums from the project over the years and Ayers continues to put out live tapes. Spinal Correction Shred was recorded in Berlin in 2012. The performance veers from Radiophonic workshop style sound effects through to a stomping extended mix of ‘Never Give Up’ — and taking in all the corners of the NE oeuvre along the way.

Nocturnal Emissions performs at KARST in Plymouth as part of the -gamma- event in association with Electric Knife this Friday 31st May. Also performing on the night are Contrastate and Alice Kemp. Doors are at 8pm. Tickets are £5 adv available here, £4 student, or £7 on the door.

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Covering a fertile era of experimental music and sound art in Plymouth - from Outlands to Aslomga, Plymouth Art Weekender to the Atlantic Project - and beyond.

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