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Spool's Out

Spool's Out: 2013's Best Tapes Reviewed
Tristan Bath , December 16th, 2013 08:40

Tristan Bath looks back over the best cassettes released this year, from Eccentronic Research Council, Demdike Stare, The Heads, Katie Gately, Cream Juice

In our beautiful and enlightened, utopian digital age, the consistently rocky and progressively confused relationship with relics from the recent past is one of the strangest things to happen. From one day to the next we are surrounded with growing tonnes of out-dated detritus, rendered obsolete by the relentless march into the netherworld of a weightless society. Public transport is littered with once-prized newspapers that are now mere gratis pulp, and millions of corded telephones sit left to decay in living room corners next to their usurper – that all important wireless router. While the beckoning of obsolescence implies a ghost town future existence free from the burden of palpable goods, fate - or rather an innate desire to feed the corporeal senses - is in fact fetishizing that which we can hold in our hands. In any case we’re talking about music here, so the rules of logic need not apply to the masses and our erratic behaviour. Inevitably, the most photogenic, nostalgic and the original pop music medium has seen the greatest upturn, with vinyl sales very glamorously doubling in 2013. But I’m here to discuss the unexpected return of vinyl’s redundant heir and that most filthy dirty of formats: the cassette tape.

Susceptible to decay like few other formats, locked into a single dimension (forward or backwards - no skipping tracks), and with mere inches for artwork, the emergent home recorder’s best friend was the sworn enemy of music industry bods almost from day one, and never quite managed to usurp its groovy black circular forebear before compact discs (all but) killed the pair both off in the nineties. Commonplace home recording and dubbing is undoubtedly the tape’s most lingering legacy, bleeding over well into the age of CD-Rs and onward to almost ubiquitous online file ‘sharing’. The ability to simply press that red button and commit to tape whatever comes to mind is an unexciting everyday privilege by this point, but back then shocked and inspired furious underground activity, for the first time recording the sounds of the cultural public-at-large en masse. Daniel Johnston’s infantile guerrilla tactics and homemade albums are perhaps the most famed (certainly beloved) example, but exponents like Thurston Moore (and his book, Mix Tape: The Art Of Cassette Culture) or the beguiling legacy of a brother’s home tape scrawling documented on the jaktapes blog, give us snapshots into a wider tape sphere, and how it did - and does it continue to - blur the lines between recording artist, designer, listener and performer.

Even alongside other DIY movements, the realm of tapes and tape labels is an inspiringly active one. Hundreds of excellent labels have sprung up over the past few years around the world, and many more artists opt to home dub and self-release their work. Although manifold and homogenous as all musical cultures and subcultures are, the uniting feature of the tape in its current incarnation is the way in which it seems to befit if not encourage home-grown experiments with sound like no other. The ambiguous borders between collage, mixtape and composition often spring to mind, with the necessary tools for audio editing that made early Nurse With Wound trips like The Sylvie And Babs HiFi Companion such achievements now household items. Unbound to audiophiles’ professional standards, and further unconcerned with how their tape’s going to sound on those £200 AKGs, artists and their sonic explorations feel somehow unhinged like nowhere else right now on tape.

So I present this all too brief prospectus covering a handful of the year’s “best” tape releases. As it’s still a proverbial phoenix rising from ashes, there are only a mere handful of similar lists on the subject, and barely any real source for information on the diffuse format and its crowning releases. Props are due to Tabs Out, an American trio whose tape-music-only podcast and varied online presence (they also did the excellent Noise Park) has become the best source of info on new tape releases, in addition to Brad Rose whose Foxy Digitalis online mag (now unfortunately defunct having gone the way of The Stool Pigeon in January) and Digitalis Recordings label were and are similarly essential.

It’s a world of long-distance postal orders, lengthy bandcamp hunts and wildly limited editions. Sound quality varies wildly (sometimes from minute to minute), and package design ranges from the utterly sublime to the painfully absurd. There are no hype machines, and barely any consensus against which to measure, and as such I can never expect this to be anything more than a very personal list of this year’s tapes; the few that I found best for whatever reason. Reminders about any of the hundreds of tapes from 2013 that are missing, and indeed all recommended listening shall be welcomed in the comments.

All I can really implore is that you take those precious pounds you were ready to throw at the latest vanity project or unwarranted documentary on Kickstarter and hunt down some new tape releases to chuck in that rusty boom box in your garage. It’ll all decay one day anyway, whether you use it or not.

Motion Sickness Of Time Travel – Oust
(Sic Sic)

Rachel Evans (aka Motion Sickness of Time Travel) is an incredibly prolific artist. She’s released dozens of tapes in the last four years, and garnered a pretty dedicated following in the process. 2013 saw her fire out a trio of album length single track CD-Rs in addition to several remixes, more cassettes and the usual set of bandcamp albums. This tape stands out as one of Evans’ most subdued offerings, focusing on minimal glitch hiss, radiant synthesizer ambience and the whispered ghost of vocals. Tracks like ‘Closer’ demonstrate Evans’ ability to stretch out and explore the outer reaches of space-age ambience with the sort of good humour that was beyond even Emeralds (the lack of which perhaps leading to their confused swansong), while ‘In Two Parts’ is perhaps the year’s quietest storm – organ drones and electronic pulsations gradually engulf the listener and threaten to unbearably peak, only to pass by and gracefully disappear with the murmurs of Evans’ voice dance around almost out of earshot. Released by Sic Sic – a German label that never fails to package tapes beautifully – this was mostly made using just synthesizer, voice and electronics. The collection unfurls slowly, and while it’s always been the subtleties that have made Motion Sickness of Time Travel such a calmly forceful listen, Oust takes it up (or rather down) to another level. 2013’s definitive tape for solitary late night listening.

Katie Gately - Pipes
(Blue Tapes)

This tape of is one that has actually gathered a considerable amount of heat (or at least as much heat as a cassette tape release limited to 200 editions can be). From the outset it’s pretty blindingly obvious why, as Pipes is simply exploding with inspiration and fires on all cylinders for almost the entirety of the 14-minute track’s runtime. UK-based label, Blue Tapes (three guesses what colour the tape is) put this one out, and oddly enough, the release is a double-sided single (same song on either side), with a second track available as a bonus via download.

Sonically, it’s unlike anything else out there. While the likes of Julianna Barwick have spent the year spinning soppier and increasingly Enya-like one-woman choirs, Pipes presents us with the sheer antithesis. Made up entirely from Gately’s own snipped, processed and layered vocal lines, it’s explosive. The opening hums quickly develop into a loudening dissonance, suddenly snapping into a series of surreal marches and chants littered with tick-tock rhythms, and saturated with a nightmarish peril. Perhaps it’s her experiences with video editing, but Pipes is the year’s best example of mind-numbing aural extrapolation, and Katie Gately’s destined for further greatness. Let’s hope she doesn’t jump on the inevitable plane to Reykjavik to start pumping out ethereal new age bullshit.

Demdike Stare - Post Collapse

The Manchester collagists had a pretty busy year with their Test Pressing series and a BFI commission to boot, but this self-released tape’s been a constant over the year for me. The pair’s knack for hunting down obscurities is at its very best on this mixtape, with each side delivering half an hour of mysteriously sourced film soundtracks, library sound effects & noises, cheesy jazz obscurities and pounding psychedelic jams. The beauty of no track divisions, titles or credits is in the goose chase it can send the listener on. No other release this year better demonstrates the sheer breadth and unmappable spectrum of all the recorded music we’ll never share, and what’s more presents it with such calculated cool furtiveness.

gut Nose - eaT biskiT

Christ knows where this one really comes from. For starters, the artwork’s stellar - beautifully assembled 8-bit imagery spouting some charming nonsense about biscuits. The eight brief tracks that lie therein however, reveal themselves to be the most accessible marriage of noise and beats since Merzbeat. The malfunctioning beats and hissing melodic backdrop all suggest some kind of murky robotic disco, and the entire affair’s been oddly addictive since emerging way back in January.

Pimmon / Deep Magic - Contrasts

Sydney-based label, Preservations dropped a trio of cassettes earlier this year in a series aimed at pairing old veterans of a style with a younger comrade, each artist given a side each to effuse. Barn Owl’s Evan Caminiti shared a tape with ambient vet, JD Emmanuel, while solo electric explorer Chris Forsyth was split with the godfather of improvised guitar ambience, Loren Connors. However, perhaps the best in the Contrasts series was this effort from laptop composers Pimmon and Deep Magic. The LA-based Deep Magic explores a wide range of epic ambiance on his side, ranging from pulsating sound effects to white noise, but it’s Sydneysider Pimmon’s ‘Two Spirals in One’ that truly mesmerizes across 25 minutes of ebbing and flowing, gently equalling perhaps even the dense atmospherics of fellow laptopist, Tim Hecker.

Matchess – Seraphastra

Connected to the Chicago rock scene via a Disappears side project, this tape combines pulsating rhythms with an assortment of sprawling noisy stringed instrumental solos in the vein of Tony Conrad channelling Kawabata Makoto, but it’s the murky analogue atmospherics that grant Matchess her allure. Its tone is most immediately reminiscent of White Noise (the pioneering electronic group that included Radiophonic Workshop alumni), but Whitney Johnson’s understated compositions are imbued with her remarkably original personality. Bubbly synths and veiled vocal tunes propel the songs along, while feedback-addled tempestuous guitar passages send things into overdrive. This is perhaps the first truly gothic retrofuturist record – and certainly the best – as apparent from the Tron-meets-Philip K Dick-meets-Sega cover art.

Circuit Rider - Unit Holds
(Jehu and Chinaman)

The fantastic Nottinghamshire based label, Jehu and Chinaman has put out several killer tapes this year, (including the brilliantly meditative Terma by Bird People, reminiscent of fluxus era ambiance like Takehisa Kosugi) but the finest was this set of consistently curious compositions that defies generalisation. Rhythms sometimes feature in the form of arpeggiated synths, but are for the most part left to languidly muse in the background while elegiac organs and grating dissonance pervade the foreground.

It's an improvised set from Lee Noble - whose own work is often more in the vaporous vein of Grouper's vocal music - and Derek Rogers - a purveyor of more drawn out amorphous concrète. The meeting of the two as Circuit Rider sees the pair's disparate peak strengths emerging, and leads to the sort of balance between synthetic beauty and fuzzy sluggish atmospheres that makes for a fulfilling listen like few in the field. It's a sometimes challenging, but more often than not jarringly beautiful piece of tape.

The Eccentronic Research Council - The Dreamcatcher Tapes
(Desolate Spools)

(NB – the above is a bonus track that doesn’t actually appear on the tape)

"I dreamt that I was getting chased by a blue plastic werewolf with no legs…"

And so opens this extraordinary tape birthed from the gothic world of The Eccentronic Research Council in that most terrifying month of October. Marrying some of the dark fairy-tale universe of Angela Carter with decidedly Twilight Zone aesthetics, The Dreamcatcher Tapes is as much theatre as it is music. Varied colourful characters tell tales lifted from their own dreams, ranging from the childishly laughable to the terrifying, and all scored with a Argento-esque blend of library sound effects, 70s midnight movie tropes and the odd passage of imitation synth-pop. Each side of the tape blends into one long track, flowing like a never-ending Twilight Zone intro sequence.

The variety of voices, dreams and surreal episodes covered therein make this a such a gratifying listen, while the very British take on the horror soundtrack (currently being revised elsewhere by The Focus Group, Pye Corner Audio and others) is the perfect musical foil. The score and characters interact ceaselessly, making a very filmic listening experience like no other in recent memory.

The Heads - Everybody Knows We Got Nowhere
(Rooster Rock)

Worthy of note not just as 2013's best celebratory cassette tape day release (yes there's on of those now too), but more importantly as a nod to perhaps the Bristolians' finest moment. The Heads were certainly a few years early to the 21st Century's muddy, speaker-bursting acid rock scene, and the semblances of glitzy nineties rock are even audible on a handful of tracks, but the generally rough and play first, think later recording process makes this a rough-edges masterpiece. It's often really, really fucking loud, and when it's not the time's taken up with oddities, preludes and jam snippets. The tape treatment befits all of the above, eliminating track gaps and adding much needed fuzz to render an all-round trippier listen and gristle up the less amped (almost 'poppier') moments such as 'Thumbs'.

A nod is definitely due to the other noteworthy drawn out and kraut-beat heavy psychedelic rock tape of the 2013: Cave's Threace. The Heads still manage to more or less destroy any potential rivals though, rocking harder, longer and weirder than almost anyone before or since.

Cream Juice - Man feelings
(Orange Milk)

Orange Milk records from Dayton, Ohio represents perhaps the current apex in the contemporary tape label scene. Every little package house truly strange music and a equally alien designs, seemingly fired out from some schizophrenic cosmic dreamland inhabited by both Henry Darger and Xavier: Renegade Angel. Almost every album under the imprint explodes with bizarre creativity, but this year’s meeting between label founder Seth Graham and Keith Rankin (aka Giant Claw) – the pair’s second release under the tasty ‘Cream Juice’ moniker – is the most calculated, exhaustive and breakneck piece of abstract montage lunacy yet put out.

It’s almost ironic that Man Feelings is the kind of record that could only really have come into existence with the assistance of digital technology. The Dadaist collagic music that trailblazed this path back in the days when cutting and pasting was a much more physical activity now seem almost childishly sluggish in comparison. Perhaps the finest track on Man Feelings, ‘So Smooth’, opens with a variety of bleeps and stock sound effects, before a funky sample is ushered in only to be cut up and dismissed almost as quickly before a simulated speedy trip up and down the radio dial takes place and the track’s key hi-hat sprint rhythm emerges. And that’s just the first 25 seconds. The tape’s covers more ground in one minute than most artists can traverse in a year, and though this may be electronic sleight of hand it makes Man Feelings’ half hour one of the most perplexing of the year. Beyond dissection and beyond belief, it’s pointless to try and understand so best to just hit play.