Spools Out: April's Tapes Reviewed By Tristan Bath
, April 21st, 2015 08:53
Tristan Bath is back with a Spools Out special which investigates the confluence of spoken word and experimental music
The marriage of spoken word and far out musical explorations is clearly no new thing. The likes of Ken Nordine's Word Jazz albums from the tail end of the 1950s saw the man intoning poetic invocations atop smoky jazz club atmospherics, while proto-rappers like The Last Poets and Gil-Scott Heron later took word-jazz to their aggressive political limits. There's always been a more experimental edge to any music making use of largely antimusical spoken words though. Take Alvin Lucier's I Am Sitting In A Room, where the composer plays a brief recorded statement of his intent back into a room, and records and re-records each subsequent recording before our ears for over an hour, eventually leaving behind nothing but the "natural resonant frequencies of the room articulated by speech". It's part experiment, part-performance art, and part-farce. Most of all, it's an intensely and unnecessarily difficult listen. A personal favourite piece of spoken word has to be the below clip of Derek Bailey interviewed in 1973, where the guitarist speaks for minutes at a time without divulging a single piece of information, stuttering from conjunctive to conjunctive, and mirroring his own atonal, antimusical guitar style. Tellingly, it was released on a Bailey compilation put out by Cortical Foundation, a label whose intentions were purely for "preservation". It's the very antithesis of commercial music, which brings us to the onus of this column: 21st century cassette tape releases.
Lately, there's been a spike in the tape releases coming through my post box making heavy use of spoken word, so it's time to pay some special attention. The low-cost of production, and microscopic audience size makes the tape format ample for the least musical and least approachable of styles, which often leads - as followers of this column may have noticed - to lots of drone, noise and cosmic synth music coming out on cassette. The rawness of plain old speech (outside of straight up storytelling or comedy) is perhaps too brutally personal for most bedroom musicians, inherently anti-social as they often are (sorry guys), but treading the outer fringes between poetry, drama and song with readings over music seems to be on the rise. As several tapes from some of Spool's Out's favourite labels make clear, it's a well that's fit to overflow, and provides an outlet for anti-melodic musicians who wish to imbue their sounds with the potent meaning (or quite often, the just as confusing lack of it) to be found in words. The strange appeal was summarised by Dale Cornish on his recent collaborative release on The Tapeworm with noisemaker Phil Julian. "Language is a nuisance," he says (with no small amount of irony), "dishonest and vulgar." He speaks the truth.
Vanishing - Ramifications
This tape actually dates back to November last year (so physical copies are now depleted I believe), but it's a shining example of contemporary raw speech-meets-music. Words from Gareth Smith (Stranger Son), along with industrial sounds and beats from Paddy Shine (Gnod) and Zak Hane (Warm Widow) craft a dark netherworld of whispered anger and nightmarish brooding. Brutalist structures litter a grey landscape, while Smith's malevolent thoughts spew. The effect is akin to Throbbing Gristle at their most primordial ('Very Friendly'), but if you check out the tape's seven minute gothic centrepiece, 'Tear Machine', Smith calmly narrates over the deluge rather than opting for teetering-on-brink Genesis P-Orridge craziness. And it simmers all the more brutally as a result. 'The Return' even brings to mind Chris Morris' surreal radio montage Blue Jam. Admittedly, at times this is more like sing-speak than spoken word, but you get the point.
Duncan Harrison - Others Delete God
This tape put out on Reckno in February only sporadically features the voice of Duncan Harrison - some of the tracks are purely instrumental - but the entire thing is a killer document from an artist obsessed with the shape of sound. Opening 'Rubicon' strings together cut-and-paste randomness, featuring dozens of twisting, yearning cut ups of vocal samples, coming across as utterly alien. 'The New Harbour' brings to mind Captain Beefheart's 'The Dust Blows Forward 'N The Dust Blows Back', blending two or three recordings of Harrison spewing poetic thoughts into a tape player while out and about, at one point listing high street chains, "Lidl... KFC… a big Sainsburys." It's a claustrophobic trip directly inside his mind. We're described as having an internal monologue, but in reality it sounds a lot more like this - two or three differing voices clashing all at once, utterly ignoring each other. 'Sloterdam' is an exercise in abstract vocal sounds, layering dozens of gurgles, gulps, wheezes, hums, mumbles to dizzying effect, while after a few minutes of pretty tinkering on East Asian sounding instruments, 'The Band I Used to Be In' becomes almost a pure field recording, with distant bird song and wind rustling in trees and chimes. Others Delete God explores both the limits of the voice as a noisemaker, and pays tribute to the banal beauty of what goes on sonically in between all our words.
Claire Potter & Bridget Hayden - Mother To No Swimming Laughing Child
(Fort Evil Fruit)
Coming from another one of our regularly featured labels - the Ireland-based Fort Evil Fruit - this tape sees extracts from Mental Furniture dramatically read out by its author Claire Potter along with additional noises and odd production from Bridget Hayden. 'Ste's Face Is Full' has Potter reading beside outright white noise, quoting an abusive husband - "If you can believe one thing, and feel another thing, if you can believe I love you and feel my knuckles break your nose, then we might just get through this together." On 'Still Woman Cold', Potter whispers a five minute extract as if we're hiding under the bed with her, while 'Picking' sees Hayden's noise accompaniment heads near to power violence, almost entirely destroying Potter's words. The subject matter of Mental Furniture is objectively hard and tough, but the power of her readings, combined with Hayden's noisy treatments, make it tough to imagine the experience being as powerful simply sitting on the page.
Bad Body - Do You Know I Live?
Recorded in Manchester "over a bleak December weekend", and originally released on LP in 2013, this incredible tape sees words from the artist known only as 'Paul' atop sounds from 'The Engineer' and Patrick John Carney. They use a variety of samples, synths, found sounds and specifically 'The Machine' ( a large custom made Perspex noise generator featured on the cover) to craft the molten sonic bed on to which Paul unfurls poetic ruminations, reminiscing about getting stuffed into a Biffa Bin, or a murderous rampage through a chicken coop. The music flits between beautiful silver-lined ambience and more traditionally musical sounding readings over folksy Current 93 industrial backings, split into two sidelong tracks circa 18 minutes long apiece. Static and a melancholy acoustic guitar loop whirr to life Thunder Perfectly at the start of 'Redway', and Paul chants a stream-of-consciousness self examination (at one point literally asking "What is me?") The piece moves through several metamorphoses, including an angry dense middle section with dark drones and static blasts underpinning a now aggressively yelling Paul, only to resolve with five minutes of shimmering Eno-ish atmospheres and Paul resignedly completing the story of a chance encounter on one of Milton Keynes' redways (cycle paths): "Security was on its way, the police soon followed, the woman's plans were foiled, but that image will always remain… I jumped back on the redway, continued my typical day." Some of Paul's tales are so vivid, Bad Body practically become a theatre troupe, and the wide range of sounds on offer stunningly score the spectral nether regions of the poet's bleak inner landscape.
Art Of The Memory Palace - This Life Is But A Passing Dream
This excellent debut from the Scotland-based duo of Andrew Mitchell and Raz Ullah (from Jane Weaver's band) blends the omnipresent influence of Krautrock (admittedly owing more to the latter, even less guitar-oriented 70s wave that included La Düsseldorf) with an uncanny sense of hooky melody and icy vocals - the beats and distant voices of Beak> mixed with the dormant psychedelic post-kraut of the still leather jacketed debut from Ultravox! if you will. For starters, it's incredibly well produced. The pair have a collection of vintage analogue recording equipment, and speak of painstakingly going over reel-to-reel recordings of improvisations, and "bouncing tracks back and forth, giving them an analogue vapour quality". Besides that inherent analogue warmth, the freewheeling improvisations behind the end products here - driven by what makes musical sense in the moment - solidly root the music in 4/4 beats, arpeggiator settings and droning chord movements, freeing the pair to explore the cosmos up above with a bag of truly addictive melodies.
'Sunblinded Capsule Memory Haze' opens the album with an irresistible drum machine and bass-synth groove straight out of the Hall & Oates cookbook, while the pair's soft vocals harmonise dizzyingly on top, and layer upon layer is added to the groove for five glorious minutes. The two-part suite of 'Ghost Of Benno Ohnesorg' opens to strands of cycling analogue synth settings setting a pretty moonscape, melting into a contemplative motorik jam, duelling a growing number of retro synth tracks criss-crossing behind the uncannily simple grooves. The pair's vocals are dreamily distant throughout the tape, wistful and Grouper-like at times, occasionally resembling almost church-like choral chanting, as on the atypical beatless ambient soundscape where the ritualistic 'Ancient Mariner's Burden' takes place. Other points on the album eschew the Kraut influence in favour of Moroder-like big movie themes - the fat synth melody on 'La Lumiere' bears a striking resemblance to Giorgio Moroder's theme from Midnight Express. In total, it's an incredible debut, sewing familiar elements together to make something that sounds fresh and euphoric. It's an edition of 100, but this sort of approachable, upbeat and nonetheless experimental music really deserves to sell in the tens of thousands.
Smiling Disease - Beach Bodies: 2008-2014
(Memorials of Distinction)
This tape from Brightonian DIY label, Memorials of Distinction is a straight up joy to hear. It comprises cuts from some six years worth of bedroom recordings made by Olly Moss (who also plays bass in London indie poppers, Evans The Death), and was entirely recorded using the most primitive of digital music tools: a Skype mic and everybody's favourite freeware, Audacity. It's brilliantly lo-fi like classic albums from Sebadoh or Beck, but broader in scope, bringing to mind Anton Newcombe's cinematic post-shoegaze take on psychedelic rock. It's not breaking new ground by any means, but the 18 tracks that make up Beach Bodies far outdo any of Smiling Disease's contemporaries in the field of lo-fi/slacker/psych, from Tame Impala to Ty Segall. The tape opens with a fifty second overture of glacial feedback between laptop and microphone, but quickly jumps straight into track after track of killer minus filler. Heavy beats play a big role in the bed of the album, holding our hands through messy walls of lapping lo-fi melodies. 'The Klingon Race' is a straight up bit of laid back riffage and Lennon-esque vocal murmurs, all buryin hidden layers of dense melody. Drumless tracks like the trippy folk of 'I Don't Know You' reveal the maturity of Moss' ear for melody, making killer use of Audacity's limited array of effects to morph gnarled tunes into beautiful interlocking lines of guitar and wordless vocals. It goes without saying, but had they been produced as sheened, crisp radio hopefuls, these songs wouldn't be any where near as compelling as they are.
At points, the recognisable musical signposts always disappear in the noisy vortex of poundshop production values, as on 'Mild Detergent', where if it weren't for the driving snap of a rhythm, beat out on a desk or something, the notes would practically dissipate into a single slap of hazy, colourful noise. An amateurly scraped violin enters the mix here, so close to horrifyingly atonal, but rather comes across as wholly pretty. The sonic qualities lend the collection a feeling that Moss is almost trapped in a cell, smuggling out heartfelt musical cries for help, strewn together on limited resources and all the more potent for it. It's a labour of intense love, and one assumes the artist could well have upgraded his soft and hardware at some point during the six years covered on the album (worth noting he was aged only 14 on the earliest recordings on this tape), but why would he when the result is so striking, and ultimately becomes a vital part of the composition itself? We hear Moss get more ambitious at points on the tape, with the filmic melody that opens 'Sarcastic Compliment' aiming for heady baroque pop, his voice emerging from the fuzzy buried depths to come front and centre on 'Windup Merchant', and the epic-sounding distorted keyboards of final track, 'It Was Empty' hinting at the orchestras in the artist's head. Beach Bodies is an incredible debut - you can practically feel the frantic joy of the artist yourself just listening to it.
(PS. Purchasing the tape from bandcamp also unlocks a .zip folder with four full length albums of bonus material from the same period, so Memorials Of Distinction are definitely giving you more than your money's worth.)
An Trinse - Deeds Of Shame
Beyond, "this is chillout music" or "this is scary music", it can often seem contextualising drone should be more or less pointless. Of all musics, it's surely the most abstract and purely aesthetic. Surely? An Trinse - a Northern Irish Londoner - sees this as a something of study of the "culture of repression and silence" he grew up with. What better medium to explore the nature of the unutterable than drone music? Two ten minute plus tracks present us with gaping cavernous of yawning analog drones, hovering shards of feedback and simmering atmospheres of intense repressed emotion. 'Deeds Of Shame' spends 12 minutes slowly opening and closing, with distant scrapes resembling bowed cymbal and a hissing monstrous foreground synth resembling a growling monster. The 14-minute 'Buried Out Of Mens Sight' on the flipside is marginally less malevolent though, with some quite heavenly chime-like tones and a more driving bottom end imbuing the piece with a positive energy, bathed in light rather than shrouded in darkness. An Trinse's evocative soundscapes house smatterings of retro-sounding bubbly synths, but it doesn't come across as cosmic, ultimately feeling more like Tim Hecker's self-examining ambience or Kawabata Makoto's unfurling solo minimalism than the likes of a Klaus Schulze or an Eno. This EP comes very highly recommended for anybody in need of their drone fix, and An Trinse promises plenty more to come. The design is also worthy of note - the artist is also a designer himself, and the package has a beautifully printed J-card sporting a strikingly awesome pop art cover that belongs in a gallery.
Shredderghost- Golden Cell
(Power Moves Label)
When the guys from Tabs Out aren't belching into a microphone in their mom's basement in Delaware for their excellent tape music podcast, they're all engaged in their own prolific music creation. This tape from Tabs Outer, Ian Franklin, comes via the Power Moves Label based out of Toronto under the name Shredderghost, and focused on some sleight of hand effects pedal work, twisting loops into amorphous epics of strange noises. 'Among The Flowers' leaps immediately into stuttering samples of guitar (or is it synth?), which seemingly short circuit crafting unusual rhythms that shift constantly, phasing through a variety of shapes and tones before our ears. 'Among The Flowers' incorporates hissy recordings of acoustic guitars, lending a summery tone to the piece as it enters its second half. It's at times like somebody took a Blithe Sons recording and mashed it to shreds using plunderphonics, and the result is thoroughly engaging. 'À Soi-Même' is slower, taking its time with deftly chosen slices of sound that come across almost entirely alien - a shred of organ and chimes perhaps, but meshed together into a brief loop and becoming something entirely else. Franklin is blurring reality itself, fogging the boundaries between organic and synthetic. It's for the most part very beautiful music, and moves from non-sequitur to non-sequitur at a high speed, keeping the listener actually on the edge of their seat - there's definitely not many abstract experimental musicians who can claim to do that. It's essentially the antidote to Basinski's Disintegration Loops, choosing to actively cultivate and grow small slices of music into a colourful musical flower bed, rather than stepping back and moodily watching things decay.