Spools Out: The Best Of November's Tapes Reviewed
, November 21st, 2016 12:17
It’s the penultimate Spool’s Out of a tumultuous year, and the cassette tape underground shows no signs of slowing down. Belgian Stoner Rock, imaginary SNES and Czech TV soundtracks, techno noise from Poland, and droney modular synths from none other than Surgeon himself keep our master of tapes Tristan Bath in a good mood. Anthony Child photographed by Cathrin Queins
Spool’s Out Radio #79: DJ K-Sets
For last week’s episode of Spool’s Out radio broadcast on London’s Resonance FM, we hosted a few brief mixes put together by Spanish tape archivist and tape DJ DJ K-Sets, all assembled with cassettes from across the Middle East, Turkey, and Kurdistan.
The episode can still be streamed in full via the above, as well as via podcast.
The Asistent - Anja And The Memory People
(Horror Pop Sounds)
Is this real? Considering the current prevalence of imaginary film and TV scores emerging from the underground I’m guessing not, but then again so many of the sounds on this are just too perfect. Proclaiming to be the "30 minute score from Czech TV thriller Anja And The Memory People" which suspiciously disappeared after airing on Czechoslovakian TV in 1975. One imagines those forlorn washed-out colours from Don't Look Now soundtracking suspenseful drawn-out encounters between mistrusting characters while some invisible force is hard at work behind the scenes…
So it’s clearly a mocked up retrofuturist vision straight out of the Ghost Box Records hauntology playbook - all arpeggiated synths and slowly released tension - but it’s an extremely well-realised vision. Each side works well as a seamless fifteen minute suite, but highlights are littered throughout the fifteen discrete snippets, incidental moments of drama, and credits sequences. ‘Changing trains - city/country’ is a particularly excellent chunk of cresting keyboard notes, hitting a beautiful crescendo by its finale, and the mocked up opening titles are a killer chunk of spooky chiller synth twiddling. Safe to say this is the best fake Czech TV soundtrack you’re going to hear in 2016.
Computer Says No - Enfant Terrible
Although pretty rigidly chopped into recognisable rhythms and mostly logical techno structures, this project by Polish artist Jakub Pokorski still focuses in on textural exploration. An intrigue with the ability of sonic textures to communicate is what’s come to define the stylistically diverse Pawlacz Perski label from Warsaw, so there’s actually more than a little DNA shared between this tape and labelmates such as free jazz group Cukier, or solo double bassist Jacek Mazurkiewicz. Every track on this one from the (somewhat unfortunately titled) Computer Says No project seems broadcast from an ageing speaker in need of some soldering. Some pretty simple sidechaining tricks - enabling kick drums to machete through incidental hissing - are deployed excellently, turning run-of-the-mill minimal groovers like ‘Now's the Time’ into creeping post-industrial chambers filled with rusty paranoia. The bits and pieces on other tracks come together just as gradually, and can really get under your skin. Just try and listen deeply to the yearning hiss and sharply interwoven higher pitches on ‘Refugees’ or the persistent thud thud of the title track. Allowing those vacant space within these minimal beat structures to not only fill with nuggets of hiss and fuzz, but to get them evolving and mutating, has some potentially devastating power within a mere few minutes. I was ready to kick back and get a miniature wash of meditative Moritz Von Oswald trance - instead I got some strangely fast-acting nightmares.
Philipp Quehenberger & Didi Kern - London /
This duo from Vienna have been staples of the city’s improvised music scene for well over a decade, between them playing in groups with the likes of Linda Sharrock, Marshall Allen, and Mats Gustafsson along the way. The gangly Philipp Quehenberger puts his hands to a handful of relatively plain keyboards, while Didi Kern furiously pounds an unfortunate drum kit into submission. Having seen them play a live show in the Austrian capital not too long ago (upstaging headliners Lightning Bolt in the process) I can confirm they are some of the most relentlessly energetic improvisers on the planet.
This double cassette release boasts over two hours of music recorded in lo-fidelity at live shows in London and Brussels, both of which actually date back to 2012 and 2010 respectively. Luckily the duo’s uniquely hard rocking and relentless form of improv requires little in the way of sonic clarity to come across, particularly on the first tape recorded in London, where three long pieces never really slow down at all. It’s particularly impressive in Kern’s case, as he takes on a jolly nutter persona somewhere between legendary Dutch drummer Han Bennink and chunky rock god John Bonham. All the while Quehenberger crafts rugged riffs and textured squall on his synths, but the slightly clearer sounding and less explosive second tape reveals far more nuances and humour from his keys. Across nine shorter pieces on side A, Quehenberger whips up some cheeky little Casio instrumentals (‘nutune’), piss take impressions of accordion folk from his native Tirol (‘landla’), and cosmic bleepscapes (‘untitled’). The thirty minute ‘fin’ on the flipside keeps Kern in the backseat, giving Quehenberger some space to fiddle with those stranger synth textures. Blindingly good with their instruments, completely in tune with other, and best of all unafraid of having fun, these two are an example to improvisers everywhere.
Anthony Child - You Have Already Surrendered Your Total Will
Ali Wade - Geomorphology
This pair of releases unabashedly delivers two bouncy glistening galaxies of modular tones. The fact the Surgeon himself has fallen so completely in love with the modular synthesizer is really of no major surprise, as it represents a balanced mix of hands-on live performance and impossible complexity he’s chased all these years. With that in mind though, the instrument has also tugged some of the man’s most meditative ever compositions. The 20-minute title track on this tape via London’s young Frequency Domain label falls right in step along with the epic ‘Midnight Rain’ and ‘Eternal Note’ from Child’s recent Electronic Recordings from Maui Jungle Vol. 1 (although minus the incidental jungle noises). The piece is little more than a pair of repeated synth groans, slowly grinding like tectonic plates while a bass rumble whirrs gently below. It’s a million miles from those British Murder Boys bangers, but the effect is certainly not weak, close to one of those gigantic long La Monte Young drones, rewarding deeper listeners by down right appearing to stop time. Fans of the arpeggios and programmed repetition tracks on Electronic Recordings from Maui Jungle might be disappointed to know this tape continues with the deeply unsettling minimal drones. Child’s even toying around with detuning effects, tugging piercing tones out of key and into gloopy new shades, particularly on closer ‘Caught Dreaming In A Perfect Past’. It’s certainly a strange and fascinating side of Child we’ve never heard before, even in comparison to the pretty out there Electronic Recordings.
Simultaneously released by Frequency Domain is the debut release by Ali Wade, which ironically should appeal far more to fans of the Surgeon’s more melodic and rhythmic modular synthscapes recorded in the jungle. Wade deals in potent moods, realised via simple sets of notes arranged into structures that play themselves into an inevitable corner. Limiting himself to relatively normal running times, the tunes range quite widely from the horror movie ice of ‘Zerzura’, to the almost soulful chord sequence played out on ‘Zoea’, and some pleasantly busy spaceship bleeping on ‘Frostwork’. It could almost sound like a modular-album-by-numbers, but the actual music is far too fully realised and emotionally intense to be at all soon forgotten.
Equip - I Dreamed Of A Palace In The Sky
Vapourwave (I refuse to spell it without a ‘u’) has entered a new phase, and it’s getting much, much cleverer. Despite having the title of a lost Explosions in the Sky track, this stellar album by Kevin Hein (who co-runs the great BARO records) is one of the very best of its kind. Taking cues from Japanese SNES-era soundtrack masters like Yasunori Mitsuda (Chrono Trigger), along with the generally accepted logic of how sonic chambers signify moods and chapters in a videogame story, Equip does away with the wry humour and copy-paste methodologies that can weigh down similar Vapourwave releases.
These tunes are incredibly meticulously crafted, and ordered into an unironically beautiful trip from those ‘Opening Credits’ and a ‘Character Customisation’ screen, via a ‘dream corridor’, and through a ‘moonlit chamber’ before somewhat breaking out of the typical 16-bit narrative and ‘Ascending s k y w a r d’. The usual bitcrushed beats, digital reverb rooms, and slow phaser effects are all out in full force - but so are some great vintage gaming effects of 1-ups or characters blacking out at various turning points in the obliquely told story. That great big 16-bit picture is really wonderfully painted on this tape, and it ends up doing precisely its job. It sounds like one of those early gaming soundtracks that were so good you’d happily leave the thing paused or let the credits roll long after you were done playing.
Grotto - Smokonomicon
(Eggs In Aspic)
Christening a brand new tape label from Newcastle (seriously, that city just can’t stop releasing stellar music), Smokonomicon is the debut full length by Belgian group Grotto. Now this trio are a Stoner Rock band with an emphasis on the Rock, keeping volume and energy levels constantly high, and the guitar solidly supplied with amplifier skronk. It should really come as no surprise that these three met at the inaugural edition of Antwerp's Desertfest - they’re practically living breathing avatars for the damned thing. This quartet of circa-8-minute jams are real belters, relying on a solid bed of riffage from bassist Jeroen Moerman and frilless drumming from Arno Tucker Cottyn, while lead guitarist Marvin Dinneweth endlessly wigs out. His playing isn’t too mired in effects either, mostly just high gain with a tasty lick of delay, so the focus is right in on how the three let loose. The cover features a doodled illustration of some titanic beats, one of which is holding a token cannabis leaf. Grotto simply rock the fuck out with so much thunder though, the assisting imagery drilling the point home feels unnecessary. It doesn’t really go anywhere either, but it doesn’t need to. Congrats to this new Eggs In Aspic label on such a triumphant start.
Lily - Nightlife in Tokyo
Mysterious, presumably Bristol-based producer Lily returns with another tape of damp futurism following on from last year’s fantastic Modern Malaise. While that tape was bent on a William Gibson cyberpunk vision of the future, this one turns to some "furiously penned, half-remembered notes from the streets of Tokyo" for inspiration, and discovers a fully realised retrofuturist city in existence right here on the real planet Earth. Again, Lily’s a dab hand at writing killer little melodies that seem snatched right from the psyche of a wide-eyed Westerner in the Japanese city of neon. The keyboard sounds and grinding thud thud of decayed techno beats however, remain just roughed up enough to evoke the dampness of those Japanese pavements, or the grease stains around an eatery’s air vent. It’s a cracked and dank version of an increasingly busy future, but that doesn’t make it any less thrilling. It’s presumably the kind of atmosphere overwrought French movie Enter the Void was aiming for but just about failed to capture: the chaos, paranoia, and bacchanal neon-lit images of Tokyo misadventures. Some of the tunes are solid bangers in and of themselves, notably ‘Cassette Cowboy’ or the skewed weird beats on ‘The Empire Never Ended’, but the tape works best as one long cyberpunk adventure, consumed all at once.
Mustapha Bière - Fieldwork
(Tape du Jour)
A strangely affecting tape by UK producer Matthew Greasley, Fieldwork is filled with glorious small details that help it stand out in a ridiculously busy niche. Greasley’s eight tracks stay relatively concise, and reject standard song structures. They float freely, utilising an open ended palette familiar to Boards Of Canada fans, and similarly well versed in discerning rolling green hillsides amid spacey synths and beats. Opening track ‘Choke’ delights in a strange shuffle and lurching synth line which never quite slots into a groove - an effect wheeled out throughout the record. Fieldwork has a real mix or energy levels throughout, hinting at snare drum motorik on ‘Drillin'’, sparse atmospheres around a scarred Jungle beat on ‘Sinthool’, and even a simmering Ben Frostian rumble on ‘Glorious’ that’s replete with both a real life choir and some devilish percussion always kept at more than an arm’s length deep. If the Warp label didn’t exist this album would be a lot more essential - but it should say something about how great Fieldwork is that in a world where Warp does exist, I’ve gone back and spun it more than a few extra times.