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Spool’s Out: Top Tapes of 2017
Tristan Bath , December 21st, 2017 10:51

Tristan Bath heads rounds up the year’s best music released on cassette, and finds a parallel universe where people are calm, happy, and nice to each other.

In October I went to Budapest for UH Fest, a small but dedicated annual festival held in the Hungarian capital. It’s a particularly breathtaking city at that time of year, as bright and breezy days segue into clear and chilly nights, the streets still buzzing with busy restaurant tables as the leaves fall. During my stay, Gosheven (who I reviewed in April) invited me over to his flat for a cup of thoroughly black coffee. After a quick fiddle with his custom-built just-intonation guitar setup, we sat out on his balcony overlooking courtyard walls clad in reddening ivy, and started putting the world to rights. Later his girlfriend showed me her pottery, some of which was made as Gosheven merch, each piece uniquely misshapen with Dali-esque surrealism. Naturally I coughed up a few forints for one - a creamily glazed plate, emblazoned with lyrics from Gosheven’s Leaper cassette.

This warm, peaceful, personal experience was a microcosm for my year in tapes. While other tQ columnists pick their music based on genre or location, this one covers music issued via a format that was all but dead for many years; it’s not tied to any place, style or people so it’s inherently tough to map. Nonetheless, even more than in previous years, in 2017 the greatest joys of the international tape scene have been the camaraderie, the understanding and tolerance, the low low prices and ease of access, plus a continuing absence of delusions of grandeur from anybody involved. I’ve heard it characterised as a lack of ambition by some (which is in some cases no doubt true), but in the best examples I find it’s better described as ‘artistic focus’.

Releasing music on cassette is just like making mutant pottery. From the cottage industry manufacturing process to the often impractical nature of the final product, it’s about everything other than the capital, countable value. Why do these people make and sell these little chunks of plastic that few people like, that contain music that even fewer like? Why do they repeat these acts of loss-leading timewasting? In the case of this cassette tape underground, it’s this personal connection between the artists (or labels) and the listeners. It barely ever feels as intimate as when it’s done with tapes.

In terms of the actual musical tape trends I stumbled on, 2017 appears to have been the year that the masculinity and machismo that’s ruled supreme over noise, free-jazz and electronic music started to take a step back. It’s not just that it’s been easier to cover more women artists than ever in the column, but the music itself has become somewhat less aggressive and forceful across the board, leaning into more introverted and pensive moods. Monologue’s SPAZIO, the debut by Frankfurt-based Iku, or even Gosheven’s Leaper are prime examples, eschewing the standard requirements that soft or ambient music be ‘beautiful’ or that experimental music be ‘extreme’, sifting wide arrays of sound into oddball suites brimming with quiet ideas.

Not to say that it’s all gone soft and gentle in the tape scene. Kill Alters’ tape of heavy noise punk out via Hausu Mountain certainly can’t be described as quiet (though it does come from a place of delicate insecurity rather than anger). Similarly Reasons For Balloons - the tape debut by mysterious Hampshire-based artist Me, Claudius - approaches illogical constructions with almost childlike innocence. Perhaps it’s the times we live in, but I feel like we’ve had enough of being angry. Or perhaps more accurately, in 2017, being angry went mainstream - and the tapey folks naturally went the other way. For a scene birthed from decades of formulaic noise and ambient tapes, it’s certainly felt like a step forward in 2017. This article comprises the fifth end-of-year Spool’s Out missive, and more than any of the previous four years, the boundary lines between genres have blurred and the artistic ambitions of the artists issuing on tape have grown far beyond shock, awe or masturbation.

One final note. The contemporary press’s habit for repeatedly publishing articles about ‘The Return Of The Cassette Tape’ took an odd turn this year, with a handful of publications opting for weirder and weirder angles on the phenomenon. The Hot Take Time Machine threw up such treats as The Guardian’s Could these old cassette tapes be my cash in the attic?, The Verge’s Cassettes might be the new vinyl, or even The Independent's outright bizarre Just like Brexit, the resurgence of the cassette tape shows we’re all pining for a golden age that never existed. The secret to this odd trend lies in one simple fact: cassette sales doubled in 2017. Why? Because major labels finally switched onto the format’s kitsch factor and started issuing their own music on the format. A limited tape run of Kasabian’s unspeakably terrible Crying Out Loud sold through the band’s website reportedly sold over 1,000 copies. Anyway it barely matters. All of that clearly isn’t the scene this column is all about - but you already knew that.

Tape Label of the Year 2017: Genot Centre

Prague-based Genot Centre has been around in some form online since 2015 by my count, but 2017 is the year it really came into its own as a tape label. Their recent string of releases feels like the start of a distinct voice on the scene, marbling doses of the surreal into productions of ambient psychedelia and far-reaching sampling, defying logic at all costs.

Several voices from Central and Eastern Europe have been getting heard this year - thanks to projects like SHAPE and the Unsound festival to name a couple - but DIY labels like Genot Centre do a large chunk of the heavy lifting when it comes to exposing underground talent from Europe’s less visible areas and making connections across increasingly hard borders on the continent. Genot Centre’s not alone either. London-based ACR or Edinburgh-based czaszka (rec.) are tape labels run by a Slovak and Pole respectively, and they do plenty to expose such musicians to an international underground who are all too often obsessed with American, British, Scandinavian, German and Australian talent.

The nine tapes issued by Genot Centre in 2017 could actually have summarized my year in tapes all on their own. The shuddering beats by gifted Finnish producer Ecto Mist and the abstract soundscapes of Czech artist Enchanted Lands both signify electronic music and the ghost of 90s IDM finally getting exorcised for something new, all the while never reaching for dull aggression or long worn-out tropes. What’s more, the folks behind the label have been hosting night-long sleepover concerts in the Czech capital under the title Silent Night, including gigs from the likes of Kara-Lis Coverdale, Siavash Amini, Pye Corner Audio and Ipek Gorgun. Hopefully Genot Centre’s here to stay, filling a mysterious in-between space in the market and shading the areas between beauty and chaos…

Ten Tapes of 2017 (in no particular order)

Bredbeddle - Stackes (Fractal Meat Cuts)

Firstly extra props to Graham Dunning’s stunning Fractal Meat Cuts imprint. 2017 has been a vintage year for the label, plundering weirdo treasures in the form of noisy Polish techno aplenty, algorave excursions, Colin Webster parping sax over tape loops, obliterated field recordings, and much else. This tape of cut-and-paste montage music by Nottingham-based Rebecca Lee stands out though. The music on the tape was created during an artist’s residence back in January, where Lee applied compositional logic while using snippets and samples and loops culled from her entire record collection - in her own words “viola de gamba consorts, Harry Partch, Tanita Tikaram (teenage love), spoken word history LPs, minimalist improvisations and more” - and improvising lengthy pieces with the resultant chunks of choirs, flutes, stabs of noise, anonymous drones, not to mention a rainforest of other vinyl junk.

The woozy montage epics of Joseph Hammer and Nurse With Wound should be namechecked, but Bredbeddle’s improvisations flow differently. Lee audibly jams with herself, and feels her way with a narrative intensity more than the aforementioned artists’ willful abstraction and rejection of order. At the very least it’s narcotic music of the highest possible grade (seriously, listen to this in the bath with the lights out and you might well hallucinate), but it’s also an extrapolation and reassertion of some founding principles behind experimental, electronic and tape music, whereby the rules regarding pitch, rhythm and melody can all be jettisoned as a deeper structural logic is able to hold a piece of music together. Improvisation does not have to mean chaos, and neither does sampling require a sense of rhythmic order to be successful. “I was struck by how in some instances, the loops were a way for me to break/pull apart a sound,” says Lee in the album’s online notes. “I set them up so I could enjoy things again and again."

Gosheven - Leaper (Opal Tapes)

The solo project of Balint Szabo, Gosheven focuses on using just intonation, Pythagorean tuning, Koto tuning, Meantone temperament - "and other non-typical tuning systems" - on his guitar and keys to craft music outside the realms of standardised western practices. On paper, one might expect the Budapest resident’s music to sound either freakily energetic like Baltimore’s just intonated rock band Horse Lords, or perhaps delicate like a piece by Lamonte Young associate, Lou Harrison. The reality is utterly original and verging on indefinable, although emotionally it packs one hell of a punch despite sounding constantly somewhat out of tune to my ears.

Aside from the innately psychedelic effect of wonky non-standard tunings, Szabo interjects some voices and synth tones into several of the tracks. ‘Memory Failure’ feeds his instrumentation through fluttering delay to create an undulating soundscape. The likes of ‘Excluded And Abused’ and ‘Whisper Of The Valley Breeze’ add vocals to the mix too, including Szabo’s own tender spoken words performed intentionally genderlessly. ‘Sublime Fragility’ and ‘Waves Of Innocence’ both overlap various drones with some fragile (autotuned) singing, evoking an eccentric kind of paradise. Closing track ‘Unbalanced Holiness’ introduces organ keys and vocoder singing for a church-like epilogue.

The artist describes how Gosheven is an attempt to detach from "the substantially distorted and unwholesome male ideal that he has been absorbing since he was born", going on to suggest Leaper documents “an important stage of this ‘caterpillar turning into butterfly’ metamorphosis.” The lightly sketched protagonist on the album is certainly no specific gender, and the music sits between enough times and geographies to fit its status as music for metamorphosis. This is strange and alien music, but above all else, it’s powerful.

Iku - Fugue: Some Temporal Patterns Other Than the Forward March (Genot Centre)

Out via Prague-based Genot Centre, Fugue is the debut by Frankfurt’s Iku. Approaching its theme of recursion as a means of loose structure and guideline for mood rather than musical tool per se, this is anything but minimal. A slow mass of myriad textures and sounds pass through your speakers, and the ambient tag does do it some justice. Such gentle floating tones and soft backmasked noises open side B on 'Trusting The Eyes Too Much', but then again 'They Call Me A Thief' isn’t quite furniture music. A guitar starts up, and some voices manipulated into becoming an introspective pocket choir appear, only to reappear later alongside more soulful autotune. ‘Original Song Plz Don't Be Mean Or Judge’ is again another take on richly textured abstraction, a tense mix of samples and icy synths hinting at some real horrors just out of sight. And then ‘Fall Down Never Get Back Up’ is different again, perhaps the best track on the tape, seamlessly drifting from Iku’s chipmunk vocal angels into a bitcrushed downtempo coda.

‘Your Ears Should Be Burning’ closes Fugue with the sudden appearance of hitherto submerged dream pop. Bubbling keyboards and delay-pedal bleeps get into a heavenly locked groove, and Iku starts singing with Inga Copeland levels of introversion - “I don't want to be your friend / I just want to be your lover.” Is that… Radiohead? She continues: “Forget about your house of cards / And I'll do mine.” It’s one hell of a nifty reframing of the In Rainbows track, nimbly hijacking Thom’s wonky intimacy. Working at an odd confluence between ambient music and pop, Fugue is a supremely promising debut that could lead the artist into any number of new directions.

Jeff T Byrd - Lamb Alley (Tombed Visions)

The first full-length album by American composer Jeff T Byrd takes its name from the street in Vienna on which he recorded the music: Lammgasse or, literally translated, Lamb Alley. Where the music was made is actually a pretty vital detail in this case. Diegetic sounds and incidental noises from around his flat - not to mention the idiosyncratic notes of its ageing upright piano - colour Byrd’s moody productions at every turn. Opener ‘Entry’ poises lush sparse piano keys against an odd cycle of background sounds, finally revealed in the closing moments of the song to be the spin cycle of his washing machine. ‘Lift’ appears to reassemble the dull thuds and yearnings of his building’s elevator into dark atmospherics, chains and pulleys wailing demonically. Perhaps most effective of all are the shrieks of a neighbouring baby, injected into the moody textures of ‘Cry’ to horrifying effect. As Tombed Visions put it, “There is a forensic level of detail in these recordings, with each track acting like a diary entry.”

And it certainly is like a diary - an introverted one full of plenty panic and worry alongside warmer moments and quirky humour. ‘Wood’ and ‘Spiders’ both stick out from the slower textures on the record, the former building a rhythmic race bashed out on wood around the flat, the latter tapping out almost vaudevillian tunes on piano and kitchenware like a gang of octopi. If there’s a Lynchian vibe going on in this apartment, it’s an Eraserhead one, where the banal and domestic be either dream or nightmare depending on what noise you’re focusing in on. Case in point: ‘Urchin’ takes a few pressed out ideas on the piano, snips them up, layers them, and ultimately cooks up an exciting burst of tension - all before quietly disappearing like so many millions of hours of piano players improvising alone in their apartments.

This music’s simply overflowing with ideas, but it sounds like this comes naturally to Byrd’s keen ear for detail. His background in sound design serves him well, shading and toning his sounds infinitesimally. The man fiddles with tempos and timbres, eradicating and accentuating hunks of clarity, decaying piano lines or highlighting piercing squeaks and deep rumbles of room noises.

For all its surface beauty and intrigue though, there’s a deeper story behind Lamb Alley, as the story of a musician from New Orleans uprooting his life and shifting to the Austrian capital, coming to terms with a new alien surrounding of voices heard through ancient walls during long grey winters. (I live in the same city, so very much appreciate how well its mood is captured here.) It’s a magnificent portrait of the experience of relocating oneself, and the dizziness and surprise round every corner. Nervousness and wonder creep in, and you can find yourself in a state where even the creak of a floorboard or echo of a distant door can seem imbued with mystery. Jeff T Byrd’s portrait of his life in Vienna is a surreal one, synthesizing together myriad tropes from ambient music, horror movie film scores, musique concrète, noise, theatre, and even the dreaded ‘neo-classical’ genre in the process. It’s a stunningly well-crafted journey around not only the innards of the flat on Lammgasse, but into the artist’s subconscious.

JESSOP&CO. - A PERFECT EXAMPLE OF DISLODGING (czaszka (rec.))

Edinburgh based czaszka (rec.) is becoming one of the most reliable tape labels in the UK, consistently getting the tone just right in terms of roster, design, and music. The target aesthetic appears to be a mix of cold monochrome and gnarled industrial entropy, pretty thoroughly embodied by this latest release.

The abstract soundscapes of Anupal Adhikary and Subho S Sharma are infinitely more challenging. The duo from Calcutta manipulate tapes and interleave field recordings with unidentifiable tones, dislodged from reality into epid long form wig outs of confusion. There’s no small amount of Nurse With Wound style dadaism here - if you’ve ever wondered what Homotopy to Marie would have sounded like if made by a couple of Calcuttans armed with tape players, this could just about be your answer. The album seems to grow increasingly dark and dislodged from the real world, opening with layers of ritual music street recordings, disappearing down a rabbit hole into deeper and deeper territory where human fingerprints soon fade into memory. By the penultimate ten minute piece, the music is moulded into little more than lumbering bass tones and fiddled clicks. The finale then introduces some mutated voices once more, a spaghettified take on those streets that opened the tape. A momentous statement from JESSOP&CO., and most definitely a perfect example of dislodging.

Kill Alters - No Self Help (Hausu Mountain)

Noise rock therapy actually sounds like the best possible way to deal with your issues. The genre pretty much opens the floodgates to all the aggression, childish behaviour, and roleplay required. Aptly then, Bonnie Baxter - the leader and central figure in Brooklyn-based Kill Alters - seems to have rediscovered and reinvented herself through the medium. A few years ago, Baxter began shedding her old skin as an electronic producer under the name of Shadowbox, with a live Boiler Room set and RBMA tenure in the bag no less, and launched Kill Alters in its wake. The project originally stemmed from Baxter stumbling over her mother’s homemade audio tapes while working on some Shadowbox material. As Baxter explained to Red Bull at the time, “It kind of put Shadowbox on the back burner, it just needed my attention.”

The first Kill Alters release, self-issued on tape and digital, utilised the recordings made by Baxter’s mother (who suffers from severe OCD and Tourette’s), including all sorts of jokes, arguments, odd stream-of-consciousness vocalisations, and playtime with the young Bonnie, and turned them into industrial beat jams showered with yappy vocals. The second release by the project, No Self Help, sees Kill Alters grown to a trio with Nicos Kennedy contributing electronics and Hisham A. Bharoocha (formerly of Black Dice) behind a drum kit. Resultantly they sound more like a band, particularly on beat-heavy tunes like ‘Ego Swim’. I guess this music does for me what Death Grips does for people who don’t mind all that swaggering machismo bullshit: heavy, hard, and weird tunes fronted by a manic vocalist. The Black Dice connection actually seems to manifest itself on a few moments, like on ‘The Holder’ where Bharoocha’s furious tom work lays the groundwork for the tune, Baxter’s voice squeezed through a chain of pitch shifters and echo effects. The original home-taped sounds are still present in the form of four interludes of baby Bonnie singing to herself, and the closing track ‘Wart Therapy’, is actually just a sort of surreal role play by Baxter and her mum in a faux therapy session, somehow ending in a manic exorcism. It’s a fitting end to a record joining the dots between America’s basement noise rock heritage and the postmodern strands of its Adult Swim id. I really can’t wait to see these guys live.

Max Eilbacher - Dual Monologues in Parallel

This brand new Warsaw-based comes to you from the folks who ran the fantastic Wounded Knife imprint. Commencing activities on the imprint comes this batch of two solo tapes by American musicians pushing out at the boundaries of their respective fields. This column already glowingly reviewed one recent release by Horse Lords bassist/modular synth genius Max Eilbacher, but it must be said that Dual Monologues in Parallel is more approachable and perhaps all the better for it. Lengthy opening piece ‘Unnamed (For Guitar and Tape)’ takes Eilbacher’s previously explored ideas of generative computer music, and feeds in guitar harmonics and drum samples to massively rewarding results. The piece continually fleshes itself out, starting as a simple set of thuds and plucks, ultimately turning into a beat-heavy wig out. Second long piece ‘The Ecstatic Movement of a Broken Arm’ is a far more minimal exploration of "the magic of chance and circumstance via stream-of-conscious production and editing", essentially amounting to a slowly unfurling drift of tones growing increasingly jagged until shapelessness gives way to stalactites of MIDI strings, narration, and random noises. This is Eilbacher’s most approachable solo work yet, presenting complex avant-garde ideas in user-friendly packages.

Me, Claudius - Reasons For Balloons (Dinzu Artefacts)

Anonymous Hampshire-based sound artist Me, Claudius is both the jewel in the crown and the black sheep in the family thus far for Dinzu Artefacts. It sounds like a sort of abstract hip-hop on side A’s ‘Heartbreaking Shuffle And Statuesque’, as wobbly looped flute groove cut ups go up against a guest vocalist rapping out Me, Claudius’ Joycian abstract poetry ("2 o'clock at the eternity pig / You with the disaster pig"). It’s in fact a blend of various recordings made in a car, including a CD-skipping, and car noises plus wind and rain. The result is rhythmic, oddly melodic (there’s a constant bassline throughout), and kind of like some epic concrète jam session in its own way. Above all, it’s pretty funny. Check out side two, where clowny honking noises go up against chin scratching free jazz drums (presumably another skipping CD) and maddening water drips. Even in the manic lunatic fringe hinterland of Dinzu, she sticks out as a particularly wonderful weirdo.

Monologue - SPAZIO (Hylé Tapes)

Delicate is truly the only way to describe this set of compositions by Monologue (one of the noms de plume of Florence-based artist Marie e le Rose). Her music sounds like well-lit empty rooms, wide open gallery spaces, pleasantly cool city apartments; full of well planned voids and climate controlled air flows. Monologue’s ability to well organise physical expanses is even cited in the name of the album, named after the Italian word for ‘space’. The depth of her sound design is uniformly lush and spirited, most songs comprising minimal numbers of voices but exploring moods to their deepest most depths. It’s all certainly done with far too much compositional intent to deserve that ‘furniture music’ ambient tag, although it does admittedly drift and float around you, free of bars and staves like musical incense.

11-minute opener ‘NOMADE’ is a warm and soft sonic blanket, ready for you to sprawl across it in your back garden or on your living room floor. A single shimmering tone hangs in the air while a breezy pad slowly traces hints of a chord movement drifting from left to right in the stereo field, and some glitchy glacial imperfections gradually come into view. ‘OSSESSIONE’ follows with some sparse keyboard melodies pin pricking a night sky, later met with some deeply thoughtful electric guitar. Musically it’s a natural cousin to Loscil’s most minimal work, every track playing with a relatively basic handful of textural and musical ideas within the confines of its dreamy 5-11 minute window. ‘RIVA’ breaks from the rest of the record to close out the tape with five-and-a-half minutes of chiming happy synth chords pulsing, but it’s a fitting end to an album about empty space, like stumbling blind through the dark until your fingers finally come into contact with some warm, familiar texture to make you feel safe on solid ground again.

Nate Scheible - Fairfax (ACR)

Named in honour of the town in northern Virginia where Nate Scheible found a tape in a thrift store sampled heavily throughout the album, Fairfax is a work of gentle genius. On said tape, an anonymous woman keeps an audio diary telling her deepest thoughts with a distant lover, and Schieble soundtracks chosen snippets to formulate a moving narrative of longing for a distant lover, and the ups-and-downs of human relations. Scheible’s woozy pallette of tape-manipulations and decaying loops is augmented by his own wordless singing and keys, not to mention various guest instrumentalists adding dabs of vibraphone, euphonium, sax, and double bass.

Our leading lady’s attempts to connect with this seemingly distant lover - whether she’s reading motivational quotes from a book of ‘daily meditations’, telling him about letters that have come in the post, or about getting soaked through to the skin during a heavy rainfall - it’s all a reminder of how deeply meaningful the banal moments in life are to us. The smallest responses from another human being can be so huge in making us feel meaningful in the colder moments. Scheible and his ensemble seem to musically muse on the recordings, such as the wordless vocal duet that mirrors the first moment our lady mentions her lover not having replied to her correspondence for a while, or the moody bass and wisps of keyboard that prelude her most heartbreaking confession: "I sure would like to be made to feel special…"

There are so many moments when the story seems almost too sad for words, but our anonymous lover’s deep honesty and candid emotion is utterly heartwrenching to hear, augmented impeccably by Scheible’s sensitive blend of textured synthetic ambience, decaying tapes, and acoustic instrumental melodies. “I can dream about tomorrow,” she says, halfway through the final track. “There’s nothing that says I cannot dream.”

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