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Spool's Out

Spool’s Out: Your Cassette Tape Roundup For September
Tristan Bath , October 4th, 2018 06:58

Tristan Bath reviews the month’s best new cassette tapes, including a vast compilation from the Iranian underground, some new directions in psychedelic guitar music, plus an experimental transmission from your favourite dystopian soul outfit, Algiers

Back on Resonance FM following a lengthy summer break, the Spool's Out Radio show started up the new season with a guest mix in honour of a new tape by Austrian sound artist Abby Lee Tee. Some other recent and upcoming highlights were played too - including fresh acid techno from TFT, nut job storytelling by duo Budokan Boys, and muddy beats from Klon Dump.

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.

Quite a bit has been said about electronic music made by Iranian artists in recent years. It's largely due to the emergence of some key well-spoken voices on the subject originating from the country (eg Siavash Amini and Ash Koosha, both of whom spoke to Mollie Zhang for this excellent tQ article), plus an increasing willingness and interest for international labels to give them a shot. Well, Girih - this vast four-tape compilation issued by the new Zabte Sote label - feels like a thoroughly empowering step for a scene finally able to assert itself on its own terms. Curated by Ata Ebtekar (best known for his own electronic project Sote), Girih assembles 42 tracks by Iranian musicians, adroitly dubbed 'sound artists' in the full title of the collection. So often these vast modern compilations can taste like thin soups, yet Sote's curation (several years in the works, purportedly) leaves little space for filler during a full four hours' music.

The whole thing opens with ‘Farewell, Warden.’, by SarrSew (aka Sara Bigdeli Shamloo), a stunning prayer-like tune, heart-stoppingly sung (in English) by Sara alongside sub-bass tones, distortion, and field-recorded nature. The treasure trove of electronic goods that follows over eight sides of tape is no less staggering, amounting to a formal introduction to an entire musical subcontinent. While the spectrum of drones, songs, and beats on display is vast, one running thread seems to be an innate appreciation for distortion and noise. For example, 'Selected Narratives' by Tehrani producer Tegh is largely wash of emotional keyboards gradually distorted into an earth-destroying blowout of distorted noise. Pan-tea's 'a čât in a basket' distorts and slashes at plucked string samples until they're practically unrecognisable. Bescolour's 'Simplexity' and Temp-Illusion's 'Macabre' are both essentially wonky techno tracks, albeit turned into fully experimental noise pieces via strategically fiddled-with distortion and attack.

Besides walking away with a list of some 40 new acts to dig into and follow (and honestly, you'll want to keep track of almost everybody here), the sheer unimportance of the 'Iranian-ness' of the musicians in this scene is probably what made the biggest impression on me. Of course, no music is made in a vacuum, but globalism and digitisation have bred new sorts of cultural creatures. SarrSew summarises it well in a supporting text for the release, describing the artists as “all exploring and experimenting while trying to keep our unique identities originated from our homeland, our experiences, our struggles and our principles.” Girih is a portrait of a community trying to be as productive and forward-facing as possible, battling against myriad prevailing winds. They're very much succeeding.

The extraordinary modus operandi of American guitarist Dustin Wong can be well characterised by the title of his new tape’s second track: ‘World Builder Imagines a City’. The man’s vast array of intermingling guitar loops, jostling octave pedalled tones, and sunny echo melodies has always conjured up something akin to an entire musical ecosystem. Five years since his last purely solo record, almost a decade on from his first debut album Seasons, and Wong's complementing his guitar here with a freer approach and expanded instrumentation including more synths, samplers and singing. The effects of Wong’s music are thus getting both more intricate and more poppy all the time. He’s certainly a perfect addition (not to mention quite the score) for the Hausu Mountain label, themselves seemingly on a constant search for that golden ratio of explosive pop colouring and fucked-up psychedelic chaos.

Wong fiddles around with myriad apparent influences here, clearly having learned a lot from half a decade producing as part of a duo with Japanese outsider popper Takako Minekawa. ‘はずかしがらないで (Don't Be Ashamed)’ is a clear highlight, reaching straight for Twin Peaks episode-closing heartstrings, Wong singing a more-than-slightly Julee Cruise-esque tune atop a signature knot of technicolor modulated guitar loops. Elsewhere that ‘World Builder Imagines a City’ track could almost be a tune from Frank Zappa’s 1986 album of pioneering Synclavier instrumentals Jazz From Hell; its core arpeggio shudders along while stuttering drum rolls and sample detritus weave in and out. ‘Dawn Thru the Marble Parthenon’ goes the other way, launching sparse guitar notes right into a drifting Grateful Dead ‘Space’ jam. The pulse remains a near-constant for Wong - whether it’s embedded in guitar loops, programmed into a bass synth, or spelled out via kick drum. Around the pulse though, the pop-possibilities and deep complexities of Wong’s music continue to evolve far beyond the reach of those humble guitar-and-pedal beginnings.

Also taking the guitar into new surprising new places is Chicagoan duo Crazy Bread. Manning a bank of tape-distorted synths, drum machines, and loopers is Maxwell Allison (aka Mukqs), one of the key figures behind both the Hausu Mountain label and improv trio Good Willsmith (perhaps not-so-coincidentally the latter released a collab LP with Dustin Wong earlier this year). Joining Maxwell though is Ryley Walker - Pitchfork-approved handsome devil and rambling experimental folk guitarist a la John Martyn. One might expect the meetup to gather its strength from the sheer contrast between the two - but that would be to misunderstand the modern musician. Despite his Nick Drake-ish singer-songwriter back catalogue, Walker’s background includes plenty of time spent with noisier improv and experimental outfits. Allison’s current status as a master of electronic entropy similarly doesn’t undo his roots in rock.

Opener ‘Feeling Proof-Plasmic’ is a triumphant intro to the duo, Allison summoning a bed of bitcrushed synth notes while Walker noodles around beautifully. Around halfway, Allison turns the ignition on a motorik drum machine rhythm and the duo speed off together like Harmonia reincarnate. It’s a fantastic start, but elsewhere the duo go in far more unpredictable directions. ‘Zero Sympathy For Satanists’ has them sparring concrète samples from heavy rock cassettes with atonal guitar shards. ‘Drug Facts’ has Walker assume a Derek Bailey-esque bag of noisily abusive six string tricks while Allison’s bank of electronic gear issues a chaotic blast of gritty keys and non-sequitur bleeps. Like Dustin Wong, these two are world-building with guitar and electronics, playing around in a space overloaded with ideas and possibilities, and reaping the psychedelic dividends on offer.

The third edition of Algiers’ music/zine series is exactly the kind of thing all jobbing rock bands should be doing. As I'm sure most tQ readers are well aware, the London-based ‘dystopian soul’ group (originally from Athens, Georgia) have been blending the hefty emotion of soul and gospel into searing industrial rock contexts for nigh on a decade now. While the sheer power of lead singer Franklin James Fisher has always been centre stage, the multi-instrumental, multi-textured contributions of Ryan Mahan and Lee Tesche are key to Algiers’ potently bleak backdrops. Named after the day the Algerian War of Independence started, 1st November 1954 opens with desperately dark 12-minute ambient cavern, ‘Knife Wounds In Grey’. Tesche and Mahan spar decayed loops of guitar scrapes and piano tinkling across a vast soundscape that stretches out with William Basinski-like sparsity. Needless to say, the difference from the group’s core work is vast. It’s like popping through a wormhole into a parallel universe and checking out what Algiers are up to. Side A finishes off playing with John Carpenter synth rhythms over three shorter tunes to dramatic effect.

The second side is entirely taken up with a 16-minute full-band improvisation recorded live at a show in Rock Island, Illinois. The group do a fine job of stirring up creepy moods, collating drones to a wonderfully dank degree until Franklin James Fisher stabs at his rhodes, signalling a McCoy Tyner-esque turn into jazzy melody. It ultimately evolves into a bleaker, mistier, slower, midnight mood again, and a saxophone (I think played by the group’s sound guy) enters. This tape’s a play area for Algiers’ (even) darker side, flexing their muscles into some surprisingly potent experiments.

Oddly enough, the debut by American duo Budokan Boys comprises live recordings made in Germany and Austria, 2017. Maybe it fits though, as pretty much everything about this duo’s music is odd. A duo of composer Jeff T Byrd (previously featured solo in this column's Best Tapes of 2017 list) and writer Michael Jeffrey Lee, Budokan Boys’ music is a madcap mashup of darkly comic surreal tales from modern America, sungspoke by Lee, and backed up by Byrd triggering knowingly garish beats, synths, and sax. The title of the tape’s lifted straight from a line in side A closer, ‘Clown’, wherein Lee matter-of-factly describes an absurd meeting with a clown during 2017's spate of clown attacks... over a Midi honky-tonk rhythm. ‘Message 2 Me’ is even stranger, with a chipmunk-voiced Lee and Byrd’s pitch-shifted sax swapping oddball dialogue and licks. ‘Good Time Street’ closes the tape with a slow-burning 10-minute trip into a very certain kind of American dream (read: nightmare), with intoxicants and active shooters running wild around the titular location, ruining a ‘good time’. The synth tones get more finely textured here, cruising the record out on a somewhat more serious note. The duo’s delivery though, is always somehow tongue-in-cheek. They’re sending up society’s inherent weirdness and tragedy by chucking on a cheeky smile, playing a digi-honky-tonk, and wielding rubber knives in gun country. Now that’s how you become a clown.

This group appears to comprise members from both Athens and Glasgow, recording their music in both locations, and releasing this debut via Glasgow’s excellent GLARC (Greater Lanarkshire Auricular Research Council). Like GLARC’s equally wonderful group Still House Plants, this is angular and rough post-punk for poets. The amps are far from heavy, the drums unimpressively miked, the vocals at times muddy, the guitar strings in need of a tune even - but it all works beautifully. The rough rock tunes leap between stanzas illogically, but not complicatedly - it's like math rock for those who failed their maths GCSE. The guitar stabs and laggard vocals on ‘Tooth Garden’ somehow combine to be raucous and dark and childlike. ‘The Great New Thing’ veers into more performative territory, the singer repeating “I was born” throughout the opening minutes while a simple drum and guitar lick loop faster and faster, eventually crashing like waves on a seashore ushering in a second half of woozy noodling. Elsewhere, the direct influence of Greek folk melodies and language are woven seamlessly into proceedings (notably on closer ‘αςερφε moν’).

Like its pencil-drawn album artwork, Bamya’s debut is certainly not amateurish, but it’s also actively avoiding any modicum of slick musical trappings, and embracing its imperfections. Rough and tumble post-punk hasn't been this bleak and charming all at once since Half Japanese.

Straddling the line between sonic topography, break-up album, and club-noise record, this album by CynthLab is a real chimera of emotions. It’s produced by British musician Richard Cunliffe while living in the Southeastern Spanish port city of Alicante, and Cunliffe describes Adeo, Adiós, Goodbye as a “break-up album of sorts to the city of Alicante, where I lived for four years from 2014 to 2018 before moving back to the UK."

We’ve had our fair share of topographical musics produced in recent years, from Richard Skelton’s minimal reflections on the English countryside to an entire subculture of field recording enthusiasts. The common denominator has most often been a sense of either scientific seriousness or spiritual romance, yet CynthLab does Alicante justice by reflecting on it with music that’s as fun and colourful as it is fantastical or methodical. Acid techno or house beats heavily form the muscle of the album, smashing the foreground to shreds while the backdrop is a blend of oceanic noises, noisy Valencian cafes and Spanish street ambience. Cunliffe is explicit in his wish to capture both the rough and the smooth of the city, conceding that the sheer noise (as with any Spanish city) cannot be ignored.

Capturing the character of a place - like a person - is never as simple as a click of the record button or camera shutter. It’s why a track like the joyously childish proto-techno of ‘La Ruta del Tardeo’ is just as vital as café field-recordings collage ‘Mousse de chocolate’ for painting a portrait of the artist's time in Alicante. Elsewhere, Spanish street murmurs are woven into a backing bed, as on gnarled banger ‘Fideua’. The centrepiece of the album is the beatless ‘Barrio Obrero’, a creaky seven-and-a-half minute blend of naturalistic sounds and snipped up field-captured samples of pianos and guitars alongside coffee nattering. It’s an erratic experience, veering between noisy analogue beats, lo-fi technoisms, and spiritually hefty field recordings - but it’s an effective portrait of time and place, documenting a manic Spanish town and the artist’s own implacable range of feelings. "On reflection," he says, "I probably should have just recorded a reggaeton track."

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