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Spool’s Out: The Top Tapes Of 2016 With Tristan Bath
Tristan Bath , December 12th, 2016 11:11

Out tapes editor Tristan Bath is back with his top cassettes released in 2016

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You don’t need another article telling you it’s been a turbulent year, and this won’t be it. That’s one of the things about handling a column dedicated to reviewing new cassettes: it’s an entirely parallel society. Like those rank little kids populating the town of Xenia in Gummo, or perhaps one of those short-lived utopian communities from The Walking Dead, it’s outside of mainstream society to the point where the concerns of the few outweigh the many. Small, quiet, out-of-the-way individuals can carve their little masterpieces in their corners, and get their little share of admirers to swing by. Cheap tape duplication continues to mean there’s practically no barriers in the way of a release (minus the will to do so), and the small but intensely receptive audience continues to grow - as does the thirst for any and every type of music from all corners of the globe.

Although it’s mostly just a bunch of geeky types trading small run tape releases on Bandcamp, it’s still something of a visionary paradigm of liberated artists, unconcerned with borders or ballots. If you’re putting out tapes of your strange music and guiding your energy into such an exercise, you’re basically opting right out of society; a society which never worked well for you even when everything seemed relatively sane and normal. So for many of us lot in tapeland, the worst part of Brexit and Trump is probably little more than the inevitable bump in postage they’ll have to start coughing up.

That having all been said, assembling the contents of this column has continued to be a Sisyphean uphill slog. For one thing, my postman is getting increasingly suspicious that I’m involved in an international drug operation (dozens of baggies of Class A’s every week seems more likely than several dozen cassette tapes apparently). Given the vastly broad remit I have assessing releases based on format alone, I try to keep the contents of Spool’s Out equally broad, attempting to portray a cross section of the women and men from all continents putting out everything from garage rock and bedroom folk, to psychedelic rap and musique concrète. And yet, I continue to fall into those same patterns of largely covering music by white men from North America or Western Europe, and largely the ones putting out middle class chin-scratching electronics. With that in mind, there’s been a wave of interesting trends in the tape-sphere. Away from the ongoing love affair between bearded dudes from Portland/Brooklyn/Berlin and their modular synths, methodologies for imbuing noisescapes and experimental structures with perceivable meaning has been a key aspect of 2016 that’s trickled down to (or perhaps ‘up from’?) the tape scene. It’s as if it’s taken four decades since the inception of Nurse With Wound and Merzbow for atonal and noisey music to escape the gravitational allure of the absurdity and incongruousness of Dadism.

One terribly strong bit of serendipity came in the form of a late-in-the-game tape self-released by Chicago’s MrDougDoug. Titled These Magical Numbers, the tape largely documented a session recored live utilising dozens of tabs on Youtube, blending countless versions of 'The Star Spangled Banner' into half an hour of pure nightmare. Little did MrDougDoug know how prophetic he was being. Similarly, the Montreal improvised synthesis trio of Karl Fousek, Devon Hansen, and Roger Tellier-Craig seemed to propose a rekindling of simpler electroacoustic exploration on their debut tape No Sound Without A Misunderstanding, and both Graham Dunning’s side of a split with field recordist Tom Wallace and a full album by Korean artist Heejin Jang (included in our list below) took the groundwork of Helm’s vision of the city as concrète playground and assembled vast collaged soundscapes that seem practically hymns to the dull hum of urban living.

Two other key trends tracked include the cresting prevalence of artists deploying tape manipulation itself into their music making, and a discernible resurgence in acid techno. The former is something dating back a long way to the early days of electronic music itself (the late Pauline Oliveros used tape heavily in her early works, as did Steve Reich earlier in his career), but tape manipulation is now back in vogue. Artists like the disgracefully talented Stuart Chalmers compose entire songs and build their whole live set-ups around cassette tapes either foraged for source material, or mangled into new textures.

Then there’s the reappearance of Acid tropes in techno and house. Perhaps it’s the result of Syro reminding us all of unfinished business with the genre. In fact, Aphex Twin even put out an edition of 2000 cassettes of this year’s incredible Cheetah EP along with the standard CD & LP formats via Warp Records, just like Mike Paradinas also did with the Planet Mu reissue of his and Aphex Twin’s classic 90s funk meetup Expert Knob Twiddlers. One UK label appeared during the year, dedicated entirely to Acid Techno tapes - Newcastle-Upon-Tyne’s stellar Acid Waxa, and the Manchester-based 801383 or Acid Liner seem to continue to dedicate themselves to the genre, and it even infected the bleak black underbelly of some Opal Tapes releases. Maybe it never really went anywhere, but acid electronics have certainly been more audible in 2016.

As straw polls go, the view from this writer’s tape deck actually doesn’t seem as far removed as one might think from the tumultuous international goings on of 2016. Britain’s vote to leave the EU, the lurch to right across many European governments, Australia’s continuing to be the same as it always was, America electing a man Dave Chappelle perfectly described as "an internet troll" - all of these things are a move towards ‘clarity of message’, a move away from pretentiousness or intellectualism, a shift towards lowest common denominators. Noise has become more meaningful, experimental techno has become more fun and hell, even free jazz has started to swing a bit more again. What follows is a list of ten top cassettes from 2016, presented in alphabetical (not preferential) order - but first, it’s our label of the year….

Tape Label of the Year 2016: Bokeh Versions

While a great many labels have sought to take dub into new 21st century directions, Bokeh Versions is the one that did it best in 2016. Based out of South London, the label is far from prolific by the standards of the tape scene (where labels will occasionally issue the equivalent of a tape a week), the six cassettes Bokeh Versions completed in 2016 assembled the whispered shreds of a new psychedelic stage in postmodern dub music and compiled them into an outright movement. This music seems to be gaining enough broad appeal to move soon from cassette to vinyl (as this label has already done a few times for artists like Jay Glass Dubs or Seekers International), but Bokeh’s services to the format will not be soon forgotten.

Ten Tapes Of 2016

Áine O'Dwyer - Locusts
(Fort Evil Fruit)

Áine O'Dwyer returned to the label that first issued her beautiful Music For Church Cleaners with two more albums of pipe organ improvisations. One was largely a reissue, but the seven tracks on Locusts were recorded more recently in 2015 at churches in both Barrow-in-Furness and Brooklyn. It captures unexpected developments in O’Dywer’s playing, introducing more wordless singing alongside growing dissonance from the pipe organ. Third track, ‘Interruption’, sees intensely high pitched tones and throat singing brought to an abrupt end by a plea from a bystander for it to stop. O’Dwyer commands these organs better than ever, crafting weird textures and some blasphemously bending notes (‘Alter Boy’). Melody has been largely jettisoned in favour of drones and disharmony, unshackling the instrument from the burden of tradition in the process. O’Dwyer’s has an uncanny ability to convert the vastest of instruments into something deeply intimate.

Atlantikwall - Atlantikwall
(Sivilised)

Out via a new tape label based on the island of Anglesey (or Ynys Môn) called Sivilised, this self-titled collection of long form lo-fi tribalism is anything but. It’s the sort of record you’d find halfway down the rabbit hole of the NWW List, seemingly impossible to attribute to a mortal from this dimension. A bedrock of looped simplistic drum figures and confused guitarscapes battle it out with all manner of overlapping gloop and - on the first side of the tape - half-murmured chant-like vocals. The artist’s clearly overlapped way too many takes, but it has the effect of adding weight to the five colossal tracks on offer (rather than burying their key elements in a confused haze). ‘Rebuild The City Lies’ opens with a kind of confused song of relatively complicated multitracked singing somewhere between King Sunny Ade and Mark E Smith. To clarify, this is no lo-fi, outsider project. The artist behind Atlantikwall is an intensely clever arranger, and each of the ten minute plus tracks builds and shifts with a keenly thought out logic, occasionally parting the sea of criss-crossing textures and chanting for a perfectly placed guitarpeggio. Side two’s instrumentals are arguably more focused, and somewhat less weirdly joyful. ‘Downriver’ spends 12 minutes slowly marching drums, feedback, and piercing synth tones, sounding like Jad & David Fair covering 'Teeth Of Lions Rule The Divine' in their bedroom, and winding up as engrossing as a La Monte Young outing. ‘Duneskin’ closes the album with 20 minutes of higher energy beats that slowly grow and shift behind a barely changing set of repetitive guitar fuzz and gloopy keyboard mud. The billowing shards of amplifier noise and psychedelic sounds ride the funkified drumming deep over the horizon, to extremes $hit & $hine would proudly put their name on, and it’s an immense experience to follow it all the way. Five tracks of epic sprawling repetitive lo-fi percussive gloop you can nod your head to? I may have found my favourite cassette tape ever.

Charles Barabé - Cicatrices
(Never Anything Records)

&

Charles Barabé - Les Dernières Confessions
(Orange Milk Records)

So much more than just another idiosyncratic voice from Quebec, Charles Barabé is that understated type of visionary. He’s put out a good dozen or so releases to date exploring all manner of synthetic textures and patchworked composite-ions, but this double tape - along with the latest edition of his intensely orchestrated synthesizer instrumental Confessions series, out earlier this year via Orange Milk - feels like something of an apex for Barabé. Cicatrices is a sequel of sorts to last year’s Cicatrice, Scar, Éclair on 2:00AM Tapes, which similarly compiled western musical junk and Barabé’s own synthesizer warblings into extended suites of concrète collage. A woozy computerised voice punctuates sections with deadpan announcements of "Part Four", "Part Five", etc., ushering in vintage cha-cha or lounge samples, and bleeps from Barabé’s synths. A key aesthetic cousin is most certainly the proto-electronics of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, Delia Derbyshire, and David Vorhaus’ White Noise project. The four sidelong pieces each last a full 25 minutes, comprising a total of 20 pieces listed on the j-card. Ultimately a very abstract and convoluted narrative journey emerges, travelling through a voltage-driven theatre of the absurd. Not a second is wasted or dull either. Cicatrices is a gigantic, playful, and crazy delight, while Les Dernières Confessions is some of the most emotionally honest synth music this side of the year 2000.

The Ghost - The Hole
(Tombed Visions)

As Tombed Visions put it, "This is the new Queer improv and it is unreal how fucking good it is." Led by fiery saxophonist/electronics ace Michael Foster, this second cassette by Brooklyn-based improv trio The Ghost is intensely striking. Framed as a reaction to homophobia and the perennial evil of prejudice, The Hole opens with an audio snippet of an American news presenter in 1967 declaring, "A majority of Americans favour legal punishment, even for homosexual acts performed in private between consenting adults." The ensuing electroacoustic clatter assembled by Foster with double bassist Henry Fraser and percussionist Connor Baker veers between sorrow, anger, and provocation. The trio just as often deploy hissy tapes and samples as they do bass bows and sax parps. ‘Certain Scars Appear’ sees murky sex sighs and electronic drones hum along fearfully until the trio pick up their instruments to add hushed creaky vibrations. The sense of dread and fear following the despicable news broadcast turns into something far more aggressive on ‘Apply Pleasure’, with Baker going postal on his kit and Foster blows his sax furiously, channeling Albert Ayler at the summit of Spiritual Unity. ‘Apply Pleasure’ also has BDSM sounds either side of it, one man yelling at another between spanks and cries of pain, "Don’t you fucking come!" Some enormously deep bowing from Fraser chucks the entire trio into a dungeon on ‘Under The Teeth Of Dogs Or Upon The Wheel’, somewhat resembling drone doom’s bleakest moments more than anything related to jazz. The entire comes to a head on the crescendoing intensity of 12 minute finale, ‘In Such Mad Worships There Is Peril’. After a bass intro sounding like a timeworn bike wheel in need of some serious oiling, drums begin to pound and the group work their way to the most intensely angry moment on the record. Tying such solid meanings and intentions to free jazz recordings can often seem like little more than an afterthought strapped on to some improvisations, but The Hole really seems like a cohesive and powerful statement (that statement being "fuck fascists and homophobes"). If there’s one emotion free jazz was practically purpose built to portray, it’s sheer anger.

Heejin Jang - Binary Breath
(Heavy Mess)

Released by self-described ‘discrete cassette label’ Heavy Mess, this tape by South Korean artist Heejin Jang seems in no small way influenced by the sonic architecture of her current home in Brooklyn. Jang is a multidisciplinary artist also working with videos and performance, so it certainly seems fitting when the four very loose and long ambient pieces on Binary Breath are such a thoroughly visceral and visual experience. The palette of the album is little more than sampled street sounds, digital noises and pulses, and a few unidentifiable chunks of processing. Jang allots the spaces with uncanny precision, particularly on the first and final tracks, both of which feel far quicker than 13 minutes apiece. The crunchy and obliquely realised assemblages of police sirens, traffic hum, echoed out subway clatter, PA systems, vocal snippets, plus - on the third track - some very noisy building works, all seem imbued with mystical weight. Here the city sounds like a lumbering living beast. Jang reverses and loops sections of sound intently, cresting walls of static and digital noise drones atop the mess like butter icing. London’s own Helm has been producing similar works for some time, although where his compositions can resemble larger scale urban ceremonials, Jang’s are far more intimate. The second track ‘0010’ is perhaps the most intense experience on the tape, with all the sounds gathering over a gentle metronomic pulse for the full 17 minute running time. This music truly creeps under your skin, and while neither nightmarish nor necessarily beautiful, it’s endlessly thought provoking. Jang’s clatter should really prods the pressure points of anybody who’s lived in a busy city.

Helado Negro - Private Energy
(Self-Released)

Roberto Carlos Lange is an Ecuadorian-American living in New York, and one of the least constrained musicians in existence. He’s turned his hand to lush hip hop as Epstein, avant-pop with Julianna Barwick, synthetic soundscapes under his own name, contributions to Prefuse 73, krauty instrumentals in duo ROM - the man’s a machine. His Helado Negro (‘black ice cream’) project though, is the one most indebted to popular music, and this year’s Private Energy album under the name received a low key cassette release. Private Energy sees Helado Negro slightly stripping back yet the subject matter is weightier than ever. Inspired by the racial divisions flaring up across his home country - most notably the shooting of Michael Brown, and hateful rhetoric of a certain toupéed demagogue - Helado Negro’s long underlying themes of Latin American identity are now well and truly foreground. A well balanced mixture of Spanish and English language, plus titles like ‘Young, Latin And Proud’ make as much clear right from the get go. Central to the entire record is Lange’s quivering croon (think Bolan/Banhart). A grab bag of instrumentation underpins every song too, meshed together with a Pet Sounds approach to timbre. ‘Calienta’ and ‘Tartamudo’ open the album with gentle tropicália balladry, then ‘Langua Larga’ picks up speed with an al dente analogue keys-and-drums rhythm section. Things are somewhat resolved on ‘Young, Latin And Proud’, which is far too gentle to be the J.B.'s style anthem of its name; much more the assuring lullaby of a proud parent. This is the sound of an artist finding and utilising the inspiration of his own diverse identity.

Laurie Tompkins - Heat, War, Sweat, Law
(Slip)

Slip’s co-founder Laurie Tompkins resembles a child-like demolition man. He calls upon random detritus (the rustle of IKEA bags, cracked pots, broken piping) and a mob of yelling cohorts to back him up as he cries meaningless bloody murder in nine tracks that resemble surreal playground games as much as they do compositions. On opener ‘Sweat’, ‘Heat’, and ‘War’, Tompkins’ vocalisations sit somewhere between Toshiro Mifune stepping on an upturned plug, and a violently angry toddler mid-tantrum. The sonic makeup of clatter and yelps is also partially supplemented by some fractured keyboard notes, and brief tracks ‘Law’ and ‘Implore’ see Tompkins summon some odd drones by vibrating his voice through something membranous, but most of the proceedings comprise percussive clatter and a mob of guttural yells lead by Tompkins himself. The closest cousin to this music is perhaps the odd chants and percussion smacks of Japanese ‘noh’, or at times the tinkled rituals of Balinese gamelan (see closing track ‘Regret’), but for the most part Tompkins sounds precisely like nothing else. Totally strange, and even more brilliant.

Preston Field Audio - Rhythm Tree Fell
(Concrète Tapes)

Conceived on a walk up Beacon Fell in Goosnargh, Lancashire ("every Preston kid’s favourite Saturday jaunt") Rhythm Tree Fell is a loving set of abstract sonic portraits made in tribute to the city of Preston. Side A compiles four different variations on a theme by Carl Brown (Preston Field Audio), the first of which is a gorgeous brass band version by the Leyland Band Ensemble. The perhaps ‘definitive’ version is the title track, where the theme plays out on layers of bowed and plucked electric guitars, parrying with cymbals and field recorded sounds from Beacon Fell before a small choir of Brown’s friends wordlessly sing out the theme. The closing track of the side has the tune again reinterpreted as a lovely solo piano piece, and there’s a murkier retooling of the theme (only in spirit rather than melody) as a montage of forest rustlings recordings titled ‘Profile Of A Forest’. It’s very much a two-part album, and the flip side of the record eschews the distinct melodic theme that made up side A and collect recorded sounds from around the city alongside synths and samples to create what Brown describes as "short sonic stories of our lovely old city". ‘Moon Kill Sun’ appears to stumble upon an urban drum circle in full swing, while ‘Songs Of Transport’ is audibly located in train and bus stations, and after some announcements the incidental rhythms of public transport lay a latent groove for Brown’s washes of foggy synths to unfurl atop. ‘Omeless’ spends six minutes alone on the side of the street with little but the footfalls of passers by and icy tones for company, and ‘Cafe Daydream’ seems to bring order to the sonic clatter and chaos of a cafe with sparing lo-fi keyboard notes and some deftly applied white noise. From the intensely personal melodic ghosts of the first side, to fly-on-the-wall portraits of Preston on side two, Rhythm Tree Fell is frankly stunning. It succeeds every step of the way in documenting the city Brown assures us "has such huge potential to be the most beautiful", and the balance between grey characterless concrète and synthetic melody is absolutely spot on.

Skyjelly - Blank Panthers / Priest, Expert, Or Wizard
(Doom Trip Records)

Boston’s Skyjelly are a band who appreciate how a bit of lo-fi entropy fits into their songs. This release assembles an EP and album by the band onto a translucent blue cassette, and opening track ‘Sixes’ is a pretty instant winner of multilayered psychedelia. Looped claps, drums, and shakers craft a fiery groove and rugged guitars interleave slyly. Echoed and barely intelligible vocals latch around the repetition for a while, then at three minutes a searing guitar solo melts your face right off. Think a Butthole Surfers’ wig out executed with William Onyeabor’s lo-fi funk aesthetic. The first side keeps the energy up, with the swampy and bass-heavy ‘Acosta’, or a garage rock jam led by a thumb-piano lick called ‘Seamagnet’. The gentler melody on ‘Krilltastica’ is nonetheless roughed up with lo-fidelity beats punching their way through. Side two is arguably more focused and somewhat less strange, concentrating more on the songs themselves than concocting a gravy of beat loops and fuzzy guitar solos. Acoustic guitars appear throughout, as do warm keyboard washes and more conventionally assembled rhythm tracks, but it’s still a sonic grab bag heading in a dozen directions. ‘Watch Out’ employs punkier energy and adds some killer shredding - and laughably moronic slide noodling. A heartfelt acoustic ditty quickly follows - ‘All Around Me’ - which is closer to Iron & Wine than any wig out music. For good measure this is then followed by a mess of tribal drum machines and Mark E Smith vocals. ‘That's Where the Modern Is’ is the climax of sorts, and Skyjelly puncture and deflate a sweetly sentimental slow number with an increasingly chaotic ocean of looped and layered vocal tracks. They spiral way out of control by the end, as if a 12" of 10cc’s "I’m Not In Love" were left out to warp in a September heat wave.

TALsounds - Lifter + Lighter
(Hausu Mountain)

The only artist to be on both this and last year’s list is Natalie Chami, aka TALsounds. On Lifter + Lighter, the live synths, loops, and vocals project is easily at its most focused to date, yet Chami continues to record these songs live without any overdubs. Perhaps that’s the secret to the focused energy and emotion. Her empyrean chord sequences here are littered with keyboard jabs, and then overlaid with her own cherubic vocals. She harmonises with herself via pedals, forming miniature choirs in the process. A few tracks do twist her practice in weird ways, such as the woozy voltage sapped synths and trip-hoppy beats on ‘I’m Just Around’, or the maniacally interleaving maze of vocal snippets on ‘I Am Why’; a travel version of Katie Gately’s meticulous vocal epics. Much like the record that came before it, this is a set of songs you’ll want to come back to with increasing returns, and the melodies and are only getting stronger with each passing year.

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mark e smith
Dec 14, 2016 1:55pm

Now everything! can be like Mark E Smith vocals! even when it doesn't sound like it!

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Tape of Naples
Dec 15, 2016 1:07am

amazing list....... bokeh is such a tight label, Aine oDwyer, just discovered talsounds+ skyjelly.

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He Can Jog
Dec 24, 2016 5:14am

Thanks for the great listening suggestions.

"So for many of us lot in tapeland, the worst part of Brexit and Trump is probably little more than the inevitable bump in postage they’ll have to start coughing up."

This is a common narrative RE art and music now. Consider that it reinforces a label of otherness for those in "tapeland" who don't have the luxury to ignore the daily violence of white supremacy.

Art doesn't exist in a vacuum.

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James H
Dec 29, 2016 12:47pm

Good analysis of an equally inspiring and baffling phenomena as ever. I’ve spent the last couple of years dabbling a fair bit with various tape labels, with mostly brilliant outcomes. I still bought quite a few in 2016 but now mainly stick to a small number of reliable labels; I tend to buy most stuff on Opal Tapes and Where To Now, for example, and you’re right that it’s generally chin-stroking, daunting electronica that is perhaps the clichéd stock-in-trade of the bedroom label tape genre but hey, it’s really great stuff so why not?

I wonder if you have a take on the continued limited runs of these things. I understand that most of the labels are small bedroom affairs with their runs determined by limited budgets (and demand) but it seems there are a few labels who still put out 100-odd runs even though they could sell loads more. Umor Rex is a case in point – I’m fairly on the ball with their releases but they sell in a flash and I’ve so far managed only to buy 1 tape of theirs (and 2 of their vinyls, which are also beautiful and tend to be in slightly larger runs). Do you think that they and a few others are falling into a bit of a specialist collector trap rather than just mirroring demand and getting the product out there? Personally I resent having to d/l their stuff and want to buy the tapes (and vinyls) but too often can’t. It’s not really a “collector” thing but just wanting them in a physical format (and particularly liking the aesthetic design of their tapes). Basically do you envisage a point where tapes might if not match vinyl’s resurgent wave at least ride the crest of a decent sized one and become more prominent? I’m not sure it’s likely but it isn’t totally implausible either. I’d love to see them back in indie record shops personally. Just wondering what your take is on that as someone with more of a direct connection with the label dudes. Cheers.

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