Spool's Out: Cassette Reviews For July With Tristan Bath
, July 18th, 2016 08:38
A collage of field recordings before an empty dancefloor, minimal song structures from Glasgow, tape squished swarmandal improvisations, and heavy acid techno. It can only be Tristan Bath with this month’s roundup of cassette releases. Graham Dunning portrait by Daniel Kordik
One recent episode of of Spool’s Out radio broadcast on London’s Resonance FM featured an introduction to California-based cassette label Grey Matter Productions. "Dedicated to sound waves of all kinds. A mix of the dark and the light, the black and the white – grey."
The episode can still be streamed in full via the above, as well as via podcast.
Tom Wallace & Graham Dunning - Dawn Into Dusk
Out on a relatively new London-based label focusing on field recordings and improvised music, Dawn Into Dusk dedicates a side apiece to sound artists Tom Wallace and Graham Dunning. Mr Dunning has become a staple of the UK experimental music scene of late, above of all for his mechanical techno set-up for turntables and contact mics, a video of which went somewhat viral online. However, the man remains as active as ever utilising his gear in the name of beatless abstraction and weirder experimental sound art, and the monolithic half hour piece here - ‘Field Recordings On Dubplates At Corsica Studios’ - is easily one of his more engaging works made using field recordings. Recorded before an empty dancefloor in the titular London club beneath two railway arches in Elephant & Castle, Dunning uses recordings on dubplates to craft a slow moving collage that blends sounds from countless other places into the low level hum of lights and urban drone of Corsica Studios. A whole host of unwanted noises creep their way in - tape hiss, vinyl crackle, trains passing overhead, the moaning of children, even some toolkit buzzing - but Dunning keeps everything thoroughly engaging. At points some near-rhythms emerge from looped noises - but vitally the entire thing comes across as a strangely moving experience as sound ghosts criss-cross before Dunning on the vacant dancefloor.
Tom Wallace’s flipside is an utterly brilliant counterpoint, comprising six field recordings made during travels through the South East Asian countryside, each with a spoken word introduction by the artist explaining where he was and what he was doing. The source sounds come from places untouched by human hands, and Wallace gently overlays several recordings from the same location each time to thicken the pieces. Cresting swarms of cicadas, birdsong, and running water coalesce, and several strange animal noises actually resemble synthetic tones at various points. Surprisingly the similarities between Dunning’s rumbling urban ceremony and Wallace’s rainforest reportage far outweigh the differences.
Fousek/Hansen/Tellier-Craig - No Sound Without a Misunderstanding
(Spring Break Tapes)
This cassette tape documents the earliest meetings between this trio of Montréal improvisers before their first live performance. Each of the three players - Roger Tellier-Craig (Le Révélateur, Fly Pan Am, Set Fire to Flames), Devon Hansen (D.Hansen, Stefan Jós), and Karl Fousek - have released plenty of solo music from the the very edge of experimentation with purely synthetic sound, but dividing the tasks between three players results in the strangely beautiful hybrid. Unlike free jazz, where additional players almost inevitably leads to increased entropy and volume, this method of dividing up the synthetic playing field leads to if anything, a more detailed soundworld. There’s little in the way of logic to how these beatless tracks unfold, rarely veering into spiralling crescendos or pronounced emotion, rather choosing just to simmer uneasily. The foreground comprises a whole load of analogue FM synthesis, ring-modulated textures, and chaotic processed percussion (which resembles a faulty baby’s rattle at times), sparsely conversing like the bleepy bloopy sci-fi landscape of Bebe and Louis Barron’s trailblazing music for Forbidden Planet in 1956. The six-and-a-half minute ‘III’ is one of the few to have a pulse in its deepest core, and the stuttered drones in the background take on an almost menacing tone. But it’s that seamless sci-fi spaceship hum the defines the majority of the outing. It often sounds like a conversation between three R2 units - or perhaps a trio of sentient refrigerators - plotting something we should perhaps be worried about. For a debut release this is quite something - and who knows where this trio are going to go next.
Still House Plants - Still House Plants
Another inaugural release for a brand new label, this is the debut for Glaswegian band Still House Plants on GLARC (the Greater Lanarkshire Auricular Research Council). The quartet take a minimal approach to their songwriting without venturing into lifelessly clinical territory, maintaining the core of a romantically bent group of dreamers. The key elements of lush chords plucked from a guitar, cymbal-heavy washes of drums rhythms, and Jessica Hickie-Kallenbach’s contemplative soulful singing lock into a repetition and play out for as long as works, never getting overused or outstaying their welcome. ‘The House Sound Of Chicago’ has a jazzy TNT-era Tortoise like feel (perhaps the point of the title?) and introduces a wandering saxophone to duel with Hickie-Kallenbach for five glorious minutes. Final track ‘Obi/ Lowe's’ actually delves into some free jazz territory for a brief minute long introduction before settling into six minutes of imposingly quiet and meditative singing. The group’s consciously sparse use of their instruments within four simplistic repetitive songs is immensely satisfying, and the general tone is consistently soft and beautiful. To boot, it’s all somehow bathed in glorious light rather than Glaswegian damp and grey. Experimental songwriting is very rarely this successful or approachable, save perhaps the likes of Robert Wyatt’s ‘Sea Song’ or perhaps more pertinently, the Velvet Underground’s ‘Heroin’ - albeit with those soaring delusions of grandeur swapped for the simple paradise of one’s own living room.
Pierre-Luc Simon - Fixations
(Small Scale Music)
Having played in various groups ranging from doom and grindcore to free improvisation, Fixations is the first purely solo recording by Montréal drummer Pierre-Luc Simon. As alluded to in the title, the pair of solo drum kit pieces on Fixations are the result of intense focus from the player. First off, the 12-minute long ‘Apparition’ is something of a minor superhuman physical feat, with Simon locking into a machine-like repetitive 16 beat snare pattern, slowly upping and downing his power to nudge the drum’s tone into rising and falling peaks and troughs. Slowly Simon mutates complimentary patterns on the kick drum and cymbals, forming interlocking new formations and polyrhythms a la Reich’s Drumming or Boredoms’ multi-drum performances - only he is just one damn guy. The focus and detail in the performance is utterly striking, as he could obviously go for some showboating flurry of lightning speed Bonzo-style fills, but rather focuses in on the ability for velocity to yank and pull the drum skins into different frequencies. The flip side, ‘Cataire Party’, employs a lot more improvisation, but still makes use of Simon’s ear for the drum kit’s tonal possibilities. It does in fact also wind up heading into some pretty damn insanely fast territory for the finale, putting to shame so many douchey rock god drummers from Simon’s humble studio.
Dan Walsh - Fixity
Another album by a drummer, coincidentally called Fixity rather than Fixations (see Pierre-Luc Simon’s album above), this tape from Dan Walsh seems to somewhat flip convention and reframe the drums as a lead instrument within a (rather dreamy) band setting. The ritualistic echo chambers of Keiji Haino’s late-80s work spring to mind as noodling guitars zig zag throughout the stereo field along with wandering bass and keyboard drones - but that’s all a sort hazy backdrop for Walsh’s drumming. The tinkling cymbals of the young Tony Williams did the same thing, turning the waggling arms of a young percussionist into those of a shaman. A pair of longer tracks break from the rest of the tape’s convention of shimmering multi-tracked dream noise battling against freeform drumming. The motorik ‘Blue Paint’ builds surreal bass thumps and crackles over a driving Stereolab drum machine supplemented by real drums, while ‘damagedgood’ actually jettisons the drums for eight minutes of chord washes and distorted keyboard and guitar melodies. Who would have thought such incredible abstract dark psychedelia was waiting to be discovered in Cork?
OGRE And Dallas Campbell - All Hallows’
(Spun Out Of Control)
"By now it was hard to dismiss the idea that she was being followed, the unmistakable sound of footsteps, the sucking of cold mud, the crunch of dry leaves… drawing closer."
Music inspired by the synthesizer syntax of 70s and 80s horror - from Carpenter to Argento - is hardly in short supply of late. Hell, the master himself John Carpenter is now even playing the stuff live. With that in mind, the quality of this package on offer via London label Spun Out of Control is more than high enough to justify its existence. Performed by Exeter-based Robin Ogden (OGRE) and US-based Dallas Campbell, the tape comes with a short story (quoted above) detailing a murderous night time pursuit through a dark forest, an imagined film for which the music is a potent soundtrack, employing all the giallo and slasher techniques to inspire images of a chase to escape an unidentified knife wielding antagonist. The core elements of arpeggiated synthesized notes, wobbly spectral pads, and pulsing electronic drums make up most of the music, but there are a handful of experiments with weirder textures - such as the atonal choruses of wispy windy drones on ‘Of Terror’ or ‘Carve’. In total, it’s nothing new but of course that’s not the point. They even manage to suspend our disbelief enough to prevent the whole thing from being a laughable retro outing of Garth Marenghi proportions. As an exercise in pure immersion in a genre, this is pretty much perfection. The only imaginary synth horror soundtrack you’ll ever need.
British musician Stuart Chalmers’ tools of choice are mostly cassette players and tapes themselves, forming the foundation for much of his music which he relentlessly releases via his own bandcamp page as well as a host of tape labels. He defines himself as a ‘sound scavenger’, which pretty well summarises how he finds the majority of his source material. That having been said, his The Heart of Wilderness tape out on Was ist Das? is something of a break from said convention, focusing in on Chalmers’ own improvisations on a swarmandal (a zither-like Indian instrument). Alternately plucking, bowing, and brushing the strings, Chalmers’ forms a melodic bed on the swarmandal, which is then reprocessed, squished through circuit bent tape players, laden with effects, and meshed with a droning Yamaha VSS200. The raga-like tone of Side A (in particular the utter paradise of ‘Cascade’, which lives up to its title with a stunning oceanic drift of bashed zither notes) is countered by the noisier and weirder second side. ‘Blood Yearns’ in particular is a ten minute hellscape of atonal string battering, littered with sped up cassette tape samples and demonic voices.
Imaginary Musicks Vol. 5 put out by Invisible City is a much more typical set of Chalmers’ explorations into tape sampling and tape player bending. Each track mostly comprises a tape loop over which all manner of decayed detritus is mixed, on side A with confusing results akin to woozy drug trips that veer into high volume industrial territory. Side B, and particularly ‘Nightscape’ is a more sensitive sort of outing, finding bliss in the many whoozy shades of magnetic tape. It’s all easily as engaging - if not more engaging - than the more monochrome tunnel vision of a decay artist like Basinski. Chalmers is something of a visionary, and his craft only gets more engaging as it’s refined.
Isabella - Isabella
This tape by Boston-based producer Isabella (who is actually a woman, not just a bearded bro in his bedroom making music under a feminine name) is a pretty damn punishing set of outright techno bangers. This is exactly the kind of music you want to wander into a busy club at 3am and find pumping at full blast. Razor sharp hi-hats and earthquake kick drums pound away like busy roadworks throughout the tape, while the synthy mid-ground is variously made up of old school acid synths bubbling away, and funkier mutant house keyboards. Odder ghostly elements sneak their way in as the tape marches on, such as the fuzzy drones behind the action on ‘Failed Attempt’, or the needle-burying synth pulsations on grand finale ‘Heard Through Walls’. The latter actually sounds like the Surgeon and Giorgio Moroder collaboration we’ve all dreamt about. The punishing sonics of these beats is what defines Isabella’s productions, but the odder inflections and sidebars - such as ‘Cease’ which is the only track to never quite settle into a straight up 4/4 groove - are what make the tape worth spinning again even when you’re stone cold sober on a Wednesday afternoon.
Kösmonaut - Master Generator
(A Giant Fern)
An intensely odd album, this release by American artist Kösmonaut put out on Leeds-based label A Giant Fern is a sort of dense psychedelic noise paired with handfuls of tribal music tropes and rhythms. While the project began life aiming for something resembling the Berlin school of cosmic synth music, it’s now turned into a mix of Vibracathedral Orchestra’s ritualism, the industrial drum circles of Muslimgauze, and the textured noise in Ben Frost’s discography. Case in point, the 12-minute ‘Leukocyte’ opens with a wash of Tangerine Dream keys before a grinding tambura takes over and gradually devotional hand percussion creeps its way in and cycles onward as the unwieldy noises grow ever more chaotic. The next track ‘Chemotherapy’ summons distant chants recorded at low enough fidelity to become near enough to white noise when layered over each other, and dismantled at the last minute into a vibrating then collapsing house of cards; an evil shadowing of 10cc’s transcendent I’m Not In Love. The tape continues as such, mixing Middle-Eastern grooves with torturous noise and atonal sampling, all to surprisingly cosmic effect.
Carre - Grey Scale
Released on Luke Younger/ Helm’s Alter label, Grey Scale was the result of a collaboration between industrial Japanese duo Carre with painter Sakura Kondo. It was described as "the results of a three year ongoing exchange between the artists in which each produces sound or image in response to the other creating an audio visual experience through communication." Only listening to the audio, one can imagine Kondo’s paintings pretty accurately. Abstract washes of black and white, textured sprays of light and dark, wigged out protrusions of reality dismantled by the subconscious. Carre have been making their form of industrial music since the mid-2000s, and it seems to harken back to early moments in the genre, or even the proto-industrial soundscapes of Conrad Schnitzler’s initial post-Kluster trips such as Rot. The music on Grey Scale is unsurprisingly monochrome, but still manages to vary pretty broadly, taking in ship like creaking and shapeless tones on ‘Geography’, wigged out trumpet noodling on ‘Trompete’, and even a vaguely groovy track infused with ritualistic noh sensibilities in the form of ‘Tepid Liquid’.