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Spool's Out

Spool’s Out: Your Tape Releases For March
Tristan Bath , March 21st, 2018 07:55

This month’s roundup of cassette tapes is all thoroughly experimental solo and duo releases - Eve Essex, Byron Westbrook, Far Rainbow and more.

This month, we had a guest appearance from Byron Westbrook (also reviewed below) on Spool’s Out Radio. He creates electronic music influenced by architecture and visual elements, ebbing and shifting in patterns that flare up the mind’s eye. His latest set of textured drones, modular melodies, and synthetic thuds - Confluence Patterns - just came out via Umor Rex, and to celebrate he’s contributed a tape mix. Head over to spools-out.com, or the Resonance FM website to find out more about the show. This episode and others can still be streamed in full via the above, as well as via podcast.

Eve Essex - Here Appear

Developed over two years from an improvised live set into a blurrily boundaried song cycle, Here Appear is one hell of an idiosyncratic debut. Brooklynite multi-instrumentalist Eve Essex has a background performing in various duos, trios and groups, but Here Appear is her first solo release, and stays true to the core restraints imposed upon a solo artist. Essex sticks to playing the tracks as if live, using live loops to flesh things out but ultimately leaving behind sparse chambers of minimal musical ponderings. Her core arsenal is her alto sax, her synth and drum machine and her voice, but there’s all sorts of instrumental colouring along the way - piccolo, slide whistle, harmonica, organ, the list goes on. The shrill spiritual stab of the piccolo gliding over a bitcrushed Volca Beats crash cymbal on ‘Colorless Stone’ is really something to behold.

‘Satisfaction Theories’ is the archetypal Essex track, built around a simplistic plod and sketchy drum machine rhythm with her voice soaring far above, oddly akin to Peggy Lee singing ‘Fever’ in a cave. Organ chords, harpsichord notes and a backing choir of Essexes drift in over the course of the song, Essex expunging her emotions via a series of intensely sung statements ("I’ll show you how I feel!"). ‘Immediate Communicator’, the preceding track on side A, is similar in structure but the repeated elements and squeals of emotion come in the form of live looped saxophone lines, skronked into Zornian wheezing.

The tape’s a testament to the power solo artists have with modern gear. It’s neither a simple loop-stacking exercise nor a dull sample-triggering demonstration. Essex has composed these songs specifically for electrified multi-instrumental performance, and the necessary minimalism winds up being one of the music’s key strengths. The songs breathe and rest easy, unfolding with an oddly ambient spirit despite the jazzy instrumentation and folksy execution. Eve Essex is making some powerful new minimalism, right at the crossroads of improv and meditative songwriting.

Byron Westbrook - Confluence Patterns
& LogarDecay - FRGL (both Umor Rex)

Lately, I’ve found myself occasionally yawning in the face of electronic sonic muscle. Something about the synthesized simulacrum of brute force began to wear thin - possibly a few too many years on the European festival circuit are to blame, watching the same manbunned gents issue soundsystem music where heaviosity supersedes substance. The drama of electronic music, I told myself, isn’t physical or organic, and thus wears thin. This month, Confluence Patterns did a lot to shake me out of this cynical spiral. Byron Westbrook’s tools - "electronics, tape and software manipulation" - don’t stand out much in and of themselves but the reportedly key influence of architecture plus the fact Westbrook crafts his music in 3-D space (using more channels than ultimately make it to the final stereo mix) leads to some truly exceptional organised sound.

The listening experience isn’t body music for clubs, or drone music to drift off to, or noise music to sandblast your brain clean - it feels more like your gaze wandering over the details of a large brutalist structure, or trying to decode the colour and shape of a De Stijl painting. ‘A Continuous Slip’ opens the tape with pummeling and pulsating random synth notes, slipping and sliding over each other like beams of sunlight glinting off a passing train. The diptych ‘Drifting Well / Perception Depth’ segues from peaceful greyscale drones that resemble climbing a skyscraper to an epic blast of deep electronic riffage, perfectly described by the label as "Tony Conrad plays Black Sabbath".

Presumably the visual basis for much of this music has led to Westbrook composing in patterns. He bunches together notes like drips of paint or pencilled-in squares until they formulate miniature networks. At times he finds an organic equilibrium of rhythmic logic (‘Fractal Shift II’) while other tracks veil their logic behind shards of noisy entropy (‘Glorious Mess’). I don’t have synesthesia, but this is music I can see.

The biologically inspired music of Mexico City duo LogarDecay (Leslie García and Paloma López) holds many surprising similarities to Westbrook’s sonic sculptures (and is also released by that city’s Umor Rex label). Actually, to call their music organically inspired isn’t always entirely accurate, as their source material in the past has stemmed from experiments with musification of bacteria or signals from plants. They work using interfaces between source material and software they cleverly describe as ‘ontological machines’ (more info at interspecifics.cc). FRGL isn’t the harsh and off-putting sound art or random computer music you might expect to come from such a project. It’s a melodic and richly beautiful set of sparse peaceful instrumentals, veering at times right into abstract techno territory.

Via the computer, their unspecified source material (perhaps coding, or even the background electricity of a plant - we don’t know on this release) manifests itself as wintery wisps of keyboard chords and crystalline noises rushing around gentle sketched out rhythms, cycling ghost-like onward for nine full minutes on ‘Things To Forget’. Next track ‘To Be Kind’ even features a warm and cosy fireside organ. Things get a tad darker for closing tracks ‘Remembrance’ and ‘Fragmented’, but ultimately FRGL leaves an uplifting impression on the listener. More insight into the duo’s intriguing methodology would be welcome, but this restful music stands in its own right as an impressively moody exercise in conceptual electronic minimalism. Both FRGL and Byron Westbrook’s Confluence Patterns operate like the work of a structural engineer as much as a composer, resulting in music that’s just as logically balanced and pleasingly designed as it is emotionally wrought and unpredictably executed.

Far Rainbow - A Disc of Rippling Mercury
& Steph Horak - threehundredandsixtysix (both Fractal Meat Cuts)

Graham Dunning’s Fractal Meat Cuts label has arguably become the best window onto London’s underground avant-garde. Its tape catalogue of sonic explorers, live coders, instrument builders, freewheeling improvisers and conceptual sound artists based (mostly) in the doomed British capital is unmatched, and shows no sign of slowing down. These two latest tapes show off two key modes for this music lately: in the form of a tiny low-key improvised gig, or over hours of private experimentation.

Far Rainbow is the duo of (tQ’s own) Bobby Barry and Emily Barnett, deploying a mad variety of objects in their performances that have included bubble wrap, plastic bags, sellotape, hair brush, electric toothbrush, various small motors, pencil sharpener, egg slicers and more alongside a conventional drum kit, all guided through myriad effects. Barnett remains largely on percussive duties, while Barry conjures up drones and crunchy noises. There’s an absurd element akin to John Cage watering plants on live TV for a performance inside these two sidelong improvisations, though the mood is stretched to cosmic extremes. Gradually the grainy soundscapes whirr and spiral in some kind of loosely perceivable patterns, and Barnett traces out distant rhythms with sparse stickwork and kick drum thuds behind the foreground of crunchy detritus sounds. Repetitive synth lines eventually creep in, ushering out both sides on buoyed blissful clouds. It’s a uniquely textured trip, the likes of which Far Rainbow have been issuing for a few years now (previous collaborators have included Colin Webster and even our own John Doran). There’s some dread, some beauty, and plenty of implied narratives - but above all A Disc of Rippling Mercury is about grasping the tangible sensations that emanate from the speakers.

Sadly this one by Steph Horak has already sold out on cassette - though digital copies are obviously still available (or you can harass the label for a second pressing). Horak’s a multidisciplinary artist, but her often vocal-based music tends to focus on creating systems rather than traditional compositions. For threehundredandsixtysix Horak recorded herself singing a note a day throughout 2016 (a leap year), and every month would quickly arrange a piece of music using all of the notes recorded plus some light EQ. The result is these 13 pieces of music, ranging from 50 seconds to four minutes - one per month plus a final piece where all 366 notes briefly play together.

The effect is often eerie and at times very beautiful. Horak’s human persona seems to me somewhat wiped away as she layers herself into stacks of brief oohs, urrs, and aahs. Left behind is a copy-and-pasted ghost of herself in each month, stuck in stasis during these brief moments-in-time every day. There’s a resemblance to Gyorgy Ligeti's dissonant choirs, and to wind chimes. The artist leaves the concept relatively open to our interpretations, but threehundredandsixtysix works well enough simply taken as pure peaceful ambience. The host of characters and experimentalists on Fractal Meat continues to fascinate.

Brianna Kelly / Sympathy Pain Split (Whited Sepulchre)

This third split from Cincinnati imprint Whited Sepulchre is sodden with lush sweeping beauty. Kelly’s side features four songs of ethereal drone pop buoyed by billowing hiss and bubble-wrapped in delay effects. Largely backed up by sparing keys and guitar strings, Kelly’s voice is a comforting, understated whisper-sing. The opening track is little more than a densely distorted guitar chord looping softly while Kelly repeated, "You will know it when you see it" - yet it’s a beautiful five minutes. ‘Bright Ass Sun - Big Ass Trees’ invokes images of natural landscapes as thick droplets of blurry notes spiral around Kelly, while ‘To Behold You’ takes a more straightforward Americana-on-peyote approach, extrapolating her songwriting around a simple strumming pattern. ‘Sanctus’ closes her side with nine minutes of indiscernible voice snippets and backwards masked self-sampling, edging into outright ambient territory. Kelly certainly wanders the same yearning folkscapes as Grouper, but she also drifts up into the Arctic like Michigan duo Windy & Carl, or gets stuck in looped Selected Ambient Work dream sequences.

Based some 1,600 miles west of Whited Sepulchre and Brianna Kelly’s home in Cincinnati, Sympathy Pain is a project by Salt Lake City musician Skyler Hitchcox. Here Hitchcox crafts two vast trembling masses of quivering guitar plucking and background drones of keyboard (provided by guest Casey Hansen, of hardcore outfit Cult Leader). The music’s texture is going to be familiar to any post-rock fans out there, as will the gradual and slight crescendos the music reaches - but above all this is lo-fi minimalism. Like Kelly, Hitchcox wears his emotions unabashedly on his sleeve throughout his lush musical meditations.

Kyle & Wilbur - Springtime Comes To Every Household (Third Kind Records)

This phenomenal flute-and-electronics meetup is somehow totally fresh - which seems odd to me considering what an absurdly simple proposal the meshing of the two instruments is. Kyle & Wilbur are in fact Brighton artists Nicholas Langley (Third Kind founder) and Will Baby, the latter of whom spends the duration of Springtime… on flute while Langley summons his idiosyncratic brand of electronics via largely keyboardless noise-producing little gizmos (plus the odd dab of violin and zither).

The lyrical flute-playing makes for a key central voice here, but Langley’s oddball brand of electronics steals the show for me. His is an odd blend of gentle distortion, keyboard washes and primal bleeps, more closely related to the rough childlike experimentation of the Radiophonic Workshop than the clean digital sheen of contemporary synth music. Pulse plays little role, though cycled snippets of sampled goodness-knows-what (birdsong? tuba samples?) leer in the darkness on ‘Song Of Distant Earth’. Langley’s lazily plucked zither loops sets a similarly eerie tone on ‘The Third Treasure’, and a violin ushers in a sudden emotional crescendo on 'Kostas Skenderis' (named after the eminent Greek physicist based in Southampton).

The duo are thoroughly disciplined in retaining open space across both sides of the tape. It’s a habit of the digital era to fill up the stereo field unnecessarily, or hyperedit every element into significance, while many improvisers can be downright impatient. Not these two. Kyle & Wilbur take their time and seem to constantly pause for thought. Most of the material seems to have come from improvisations, one imagines late at night deep in-country in a tiny ramshackle lodge. The music rambles through nighttime forests under bleak new moons, peering anxiously over its shoulder as it goes.

The tape’s jolly natural artwork and hopeful title are pure deception in my opinion. Sure there’s some peace in the duo’s patience, an element of rural idyll to the textures, and no small amount of meditation to be appreciated amid their clairvoyant interactions - but this music is filled with dread. Baby’s flute isn’t a bird with an olive branch appearing out of the shroud of night, it’s our own foolish naivety as we totter into jaws of doom.

Myako - White Tiger (Nona)

Released by Czech imprint Nona, this EP by Paris-based DJ-producer Myako explores new strands of synthetic tension. It’s an expertly produced mix of body music - such as colourful groovy techno tune ‘Spider Monkey’, featuring the sound of the eponymous primate - and experiments with sketchy rhythms and atmospheric electronic dabs (the fractured distortion of ‘Huyana Potosi’). The breadth of sounds over four tracks is impressive, with Myako even reaching for some glitched foreground notes above majestic shuddering ambience on the closing title track. It’s a minor work in size, but Myako’s ability to craft deeply compelling tracks with minimal elements seems more fleshed out than previous work under the pseudonym. It’s perhaps indicative of her roots DJing techno, but the pulse-pulse release of these tunes is their biggest strength. ‘Spider Monkey’ is pretty much some jungle sounds, a single keyboard note, and some sweet hi-hat and synth rolls - but its path is plotted out just right to stir something up deep in your chest.

Tom Carter and Eric Arn - Pohyb-zvuk-prostor: Žive v Opave (Sloow Tapes)

Recorded live in Czechia, this meetup between two Yankee guitar wranglers seems blessed. Old comrades Carter and Arn play electrics here, gently plucking and wiggling their axes into lush near-feedback drones, and soft plucks dripping like melting icicles. The first side cycles restfully through some tentative interactions between the two, like sleeping giants waking up together (hungover and perhaps a little surprised). A wave of tremolo flutters rises and crashes from their amps, and the rest of the first side stirs and rises and falls like an uneasy ocean. Neither partner whips out any shredding or strong leading melodic lines, both opting rather to paint in broad textural strokes with the odd dab of rhythm, periodically allowing certain notes to poke their head above the surface.

The second half of the show on side two heads into raga rock territory, then out into rock rock territory. The duo strum and scurry over each other like conversing pandits, breaking into a couple of solos wailing enough to get those heads bobbing. They get more liberal with the pedals towards the end, and morph their guitars into a miniature Rhys Chatham orchestra for a final blast of blissful heavy strumming. Fans of either Arn’s precise and strange solo guitar records, or Tom Carter’s legendary Charalambides outfit should find plenty of joy in here. This is freeform folk music, electrified and shattered by old sparring partners.

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