In 1900, Daniel Paul Schreber, a former judge who had been institutionalized after a series of mental collapses, began writing a comprehensive account of his experiences to use in an appeal for his release. 

“I hear words from the talking birds impinging on my ears from outside,” Schreber wrote. The woodpeckers, blackbirds, and swallows nesting in the asylum garden shouted the same question at him over and over: “Are you not ashamed?” 

Our senses can be unreliable narrators of what is going on around us. Especially in abstract genres such as noise music, there are sounds that may or may not just be a trick of the ear. What are all these things we hear amid the crunch of distortion and the hair-raising gale of electronics? Are they really there at all?

“I think that’s the attraction of noise music for a lot of people,” says Bob Pence. “You’re never sure what you’re hearing—whether what you’re hearing is in your mind or not.” 

Pence, who makes music as Crowmeat Bob, is a horn player and guitarist who’s been a mainstay of the Triangle’s experimental and free-improv scene since he moved to Raleigh in 2000. Judge Schreber’s Avian Choir, his latest project, is his first as a bandleader. In October, it released BLEED, an album composed for heavy-metal band and strings. The record takes its concept from Schreber and what he was hearing outside of his window. 

About 120 years later, Pence hands me the notes Schreber submitted in his defense, printed and bound in a book called Memoirs of My Nervous Illness. We’re sitting on the couch in Pence’s apartment, bordered on all sides by a musician’s equivalent of mounted game: instruments, lecterns, concert posters, and shelves and shelves of records. There is a precarious stack of books on the coffee table with a little desktop sign that says “Out to Lunch” perched on top. A record by old-school Chapel Hill psychobilly band Flat Duo Jets blares on the turntable. 

Pence says that the “avian choir” Schreber heard outside of the asylum served as a jumping-off point for the album’s monster-movie string theatrics. 

“I think the whole string orchestra thing lends itself to hallucination,” Pence says. “I was thinking about those dissonant harmonics on the higher end of the spectrum interacting and creating all these little weird sounds, ghost sounds, whatever you want to call them. If you turn it up really loud, get really high, you can hear all kinds of shit in it.”

The album also takes musical cues from two other wildly divergent sources: spectralism, an abstruse style of classical composition informed by the harmonic series, and ‘90s drone metal bands such as Earth.

“Just the thought of combining those dense, intense string sounds with the droney heavy metal stuff, I thought would make for some really cool shit,” Pence says. 

Orchestral metal is something he’s done in live performances since the mid-aughts, with the Micro-East Collective and other large ensembles, but this is the first time he’s done it in a professional recording studio.

If you heard this coming out of a passing car, you’d be halfway home before your groceries hit the ground. But when you approach it intentionally, the effect is one of startling rapture.

The blueprint for the record was sketched out in the same place we’re sitting. The acoustic guitar resting against the wall is the one Pence used to compose the riffs at the core of BLEED’s dense harmonic structure. The album is thrillingly frightening, with screaming strings, sharp peals of horns, raunchy guitar riffs, and a drummer who hauls ass like it’s the second coming. 

“With all that overdrive on the guitars and the density of the sound and the harmonics, the overtones, it creates all these tinier molecular rhythms,” Pence says. 

The album was recorded in one session—with some overdubs later—at Fidelitorium Recordings in Kernersville. It features a large ensemble: Pence on guitar and reeds, 14 string players, Jon Ferrell on bass, and Mike Isenberg on drums.

“The tightrope-walk was that you had so many people playing at once that everbody had to get it right,” says Isenberg, who has previously played with Pence in bands such as Kolyma and Savage Knights. “Sometimes the rhythm or string section would nail something, but [Pence] would be aware that something else didn’t go right and wave his hand to call it off.” 

BLEED is separated into four parts. Side A, “THE UNFOLDING,” is steeped in the idea of time unfolding in widening intervals, with music that follows suit. Riffs extend and repeat, the strings become more dissonant with each second, the drums plod along at their own stubborn pace, and Pence’s horn seems to writhe in bodily anguish. 

The first part of Side A, “Zarathustra’s Ape,” begins with a soft drone before the rhythm section kicks in with a swath of heavy distortion, which morphs into a hulking monolith of fractured sounds. In the feedback and horns, second part “The Cardboard Cutout Spiral Sundial” starts to take shape. A textured landscape appears: the whisper of a bow on strings, atmospheric static, gradual trills, and finally, a needle lapping against dead wax.

Side B, “THE RETURN,” opens with “The Bacillus of Revenge,” a long string piecein which an extended drone teeters, rattles, and crumbles into a crescendo of bow-scraping and violent Psycho stabs. As the mist clears, you can hear a sample of the ‘30s radio show Lights Out—the gong and the doom-laden voice that says, “It is later than you think”—before the deafening thrash metal of “The Wheel of Ixion” brings the record home.  

If you heard this coming out of a passing car, you’d be halfway home before your groceries hit the ground. But when you approach it intentionally, the effect is one of startling rapture. To Isenberg, for avant-garde music, it’s markedly direct rather than rarified.

“Things like this can be sort of precious, but I think it has a genuine visceral quality, and the metal parts sound like metal,” he says. “I don’t think anything about it is terribly delicate. I think it’s a striking recording.”

Pence is a regular at underground haunts like Nightlight in Chapel Hill and Neptune’s in Raleigh. On the day we visited him, he had a show coming up with HardFace—a horn-and-electronics duo with Alex Swing—at The Wicked Witch. Pence hunched over his laptop, pulling up the Facebook event: “Eighteen going, 43 interested, baby!” he says. “Gonna be a big show!” 

Located next to a tattoo parlor, behind a small, dark door that opens onto a staircase with duct tape at the edge of each step, The Wicked Witch has a distinct haunted-house feel. Smoke putters out of a fog machine in thin, looping swirls. The black walls and floor are bathed in red light, and there are floor-length mirrors around the perimeter. In one beside the stage, you can see Pence setting up mics and Swing readying his mixing board. There’s a brief sound check, and we’re off in a flurry of hair and sound.

Swing blows up distorted samples into zonked-out clouds of noise. Pence alternates between horns, cutting through the haze like an ocean liner through an ice sheet. His hands move frantically against the saxophone for several minutes; then he tosses it at its case and picks up a trombone. He muffles the sound with a plunger mute, and suddenly we’re in a boiler room with steam blowing out of our ears.

An amazing amount of thought and chops go into improvising a room full of noise or an album’s worth of harmonic phantoms. Whatever musical mode you’re working in, Pence says, your own voice—and in turn, your identity as a musician—comes through. 

“Identity is manifold and in constant flux but reveals itself through these songs or interval patterns, reflex arcs, things that you do that are your own, for better or worse,” he says. “So when you talk about a musician’s identity, I think you’re talking about a kind of a territorial instinct. Like the birdsong.”

It’s worth noting that Pence also plays in a duo called Reflex Arc with Ginger Wagg, and the alacrity with which the phrase floats into his mind seems to reinforce his point. In the end, Schreber’s story is a useful frame for exploring the gap between sounds that exist and sounds we hear, but what matters is Pence’s musical fingerprint, one we’ve come to know through so many projects, big and small, over two decades.  

“It’s all kind of arbitrary, because listening to the record, you’re not necessarily going to get any of that shit, and it doesn’t matter as long as it sounds good to you,” Pence says. 

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