The Quietus - A new rock music and pop culture website

Spool's Out

Spool's Out With Tristan Bath: Tape Reviews For November
Tristan Bath , December 2nd, 2014 12:35

Master of the Tapes Tristan Bath is back with a look at all of the essential recent releases on cassette

Empty Taxi - IRIZAJN

French/Northern-Irish producer and vocalist Zoë McPherson, aka Empty Taxi, seems to have emerged as a fully-fledged genius producer of impeccably put together, atmospheric avant-pop. Although the modern female vocalist/producer in a largely synthetic setting quickly invokes many similar names like The Knife, or recent Quietus favourite Gazelle Twin, Empty Taxi's not as murky, gothic, or gender-obsessed, sharing more common ground with the more soulful (or at least vaguely 'upbeat') likes of Laurel Halo or Neneh Cherry.

The detail within and execution of Empty Taxi's productions is really something to behold. Opener 'Eskimo' comes across as a breathy chunk of midtempo neo-R&B before we realise McPherson's singing about needing a fish. Groovily tinkling ride cymbals open up the centre of the track before her voice starts to soar over a grinding organ figure and jazzy flute and saxophone solos close out the track. McPherson witholds her voice from 'Efé Forest', which fuses dreamy vocals and percussive samples with sci-fi organs and beats with similar deft simplicity to the likes of DJ /rupture's Minesweeper Suite. 'Brainsculpt' returns to the midtempo R&B blocks and finger snaps, with soaring vocals and a broad selection of interlocking arpeggiated synths and pads. McPherson's quavering voice slowly spews intense stream-of-consciousness: "Today it snowed in Cairo/ apparently I'm not the poor/ swimming up a waterfall." Penultimate offering, 'Bending' is more urgently techno-influenced with a kick heavy beat, on to which McPherson lays her most intensely devilish singing. 'Bars In Ljubljana Castle' returns to the instrumental Arabic-informed atmospherics of 'Efé Forest', assuming a minimal approach as trickling beats and hand percussion reservedly jam it out for eight minutes like so many classic Muslimgauze tracks. A wash of keyboards and distant wordless vocals slowly takes the song towards its meditative ceremonial finale.

IRIZAJN could hardly be a better introduction for Empty Taxi. It demonstrates McPherson's deft and already highly intriguing songwriting. Her knack for swooning poppy choruses doesn't stand in the way of that innate feel for atmospherics, instantly yanking us into her compellingly pensive dreamstate throughout. It's a late addition, but IRIZAJN deserves to be up there with the best tapes - and most instantly lovable debuts - of 2014.

TCR - Study 1: SNAZ
(Slip Discs)

In the first of several 'studies' of works by contemporary electronic producers, TCR (aka young English composer, Tom Rose) first seeks out Micachu (aka Mica Levi) for inspiration, remixing two of her tracks at either end of this EP. Rose poses the questions as to what precisely it is that comprises the fingerprint of the modern electronic composer. We're lost in an abundance of highly similar productions these days, with producers often winding up trapped inside the confines of genre or style - unless they wish to write up a storm about the artistic intent behind the vaguest stylistic change. A certain bpm, or a supposedly meaningful sample, or a few too many breakbeats can send writers into overdrive analysing a new work, identifying influences and origins, finding signposts to messages that may or may not be there. TCR opens with his remix of MIcachu's 'Go' from 2011's Kwesachu mixtape with Kwake Bass. The original track's a high-paced pristine workout in crystalline grime beats and bass, with mutant vocals buried in the background. TCR slows it down, stretching Micachu's skeletal production open wide and stuffing wads of meaty additional beats, fuzzy glitches and recalculated vocal manipulations. TCR's three originals take the same battering approach, lifting the strictly danceable beats found at the core of Micachu's productions and fleshing them out with grinding added fuzz. 'Leaves' meshes a stuttering syncopated beat with clipping bass tones, while 'Vixen' conducts an unrecognisable mulch of whirring tones into something resembling a beat before punctuating the maddening noise with snappy beats. 'Peach' is a more recognisable mesh of syncopated instrumental hip hop with almost outright noise, at times reminiscent of Merzbow's infamously confusing Merzbeat. The proceedings are rounded off with a remix of Micachu & Tirzah's mega groovy 'I'm Not Dancing', adding swathes of whirring electronics and additional layers of trippy glitched vocal samples, turning the original's grime-infected minimal neo-soul into something resembling a club-ready Residents track.

It's an interesting experiment, taking on the modus operandi of so many in the electronic music aristocracy, and toeing the lines between remix, tribute and originality. Vitally though, it's important not to get too caught up in the academic meta-noise, we could end up in a hellish dance music journalism paradox with this tape. TCR makes it clear that besides the analytical intent of the study, he wishes to "[remain] true to the music's dancefloor function" - something which, in its own fucked up way, SNAZ massively achieves.

H.U.M. - We Are One

After a lengthy hiatus (their last release was back in late 2012 by my count), Bristolian noise merchant Bumtapes is up and running once again - and what a return! This tape from pan European occult electronics band H.U.M. synthesizes devotional kosmische with tribal drumming and lo fi percussive punches, turning cramped rehearsal rooms and studios into colossal cosmic chambers. Fuzzy, echo-laden male spoken word is in a constant state of spew, intoning prayer-speak and psychedelic gibberish in French and English as if channeling the late Bob Calvert, or even Arthur Brown circa Klaus Schulze's epochal Dune: "From times eternal and since it all began, we are all as one, we breathe as one." The instrumentation is mostly twisted nearly out of recognition via dubby effects and distortion, save some ritualistic percussion and the odd droning keyboard. 'Mysteria Mystica Maxima' swirls every atonal element together, concocting an almost poisonous brew in the process, while 'Fête Mûmûse' eliminates almost all but the muddily distended sound of the voice. The opening 'Thōout' sees H.U.M. at their most overtly tribalesque, bashing out mystic rhythms in a devilish invocation. The ritual reaches its apex on the maddeningly good nine-minute closer, 'Eté Eternelle'. For the first six minutes, the trio build a demonic drum circle rhythm and droning keyboards, before the crescendo cuts early, and the final minutes of the tape see melodic French chanting over a two chord drone go head to head with zapping sound effects via hijacked delay pedals.

This one can be downloaded via bandcamp as above, but tapes are ordered directly from bumtapes.

Morkebla - Pisces Sun, Capricorn Rising

Having already put out some fine tapes, Morkebla - aka north Italian producer, Alberto Rosso - calls Pisces Sun, Capricorn Rising his first 'proper album'. Reckno makes a fine home too, having cemented itself as one of the UK's best and most varied outlets for murky bedroom electronica - which, when you're up against the likes of the mighty Opal Tapes, is no mean feat. And it is indeed some of Opal Tapes' master craftsmen that makeup Rosso's closest musical relatives, as Pisces Sun, Capricorn Rising very gradually takes shape across mid-tempo rhythmic soundscapes, with Rosso constructing the beats incredibly slowly in real-time, adding a kick drum there, or a hi-hat hit at a snail's pace. The eight minute 'See-Through Beings' takes roughly half its track time to reach full-speed, constructing its sparse rhythm over washes of Badalamenti synth chords. The blend of drum machines and retro synths isn't groundbreaking, but Rosso's languid take on analogue ambient techno is refreshingly restrained, making certain climactic moments such as the four-to-the-floor pounding kick drums on 'Great Expectations' all the more of a release. Chopped up vocal samples crop up throughout the record, fulfilling a rhythmic role more than anything else, although at times suggesting some dormant semblance of Ferraro-esque narrative intent. At the tail of the record we're treated to three remixes, including one from currently relatively dormant producer, 1991 (aka Axel Backman), who twists Morkebla's eerily slow synthetic march into a hissy lo-fi bedroom rave.

Joe Bastardo & Howard Stelzer - At Ease
(905 Tapes)

It was an impressive month of outstanding leftfield wackiness from 905 Tapes, but this epic tape of slow-burning dadaism has proved the sleeper stunner. Both players have released plentiful amounts of cassette tape weirdness in the past, but At Ease represents an unexpected high point. Field recordings seem to decompose before your very ears as they battle it out with white noise and stereo-swapping sound effects. Occasional distant rumblings hint at more musical elements, but they soon dissolve into memory as the constantly shifting mass of each 28-minute side of the tape melts into its next phase. As hinted at in the name, At Ease isn't an aggressive record - it's a release whose power takes you over in waves, slowly dragging you in until you can't remember where you were when you started listening, or how it came to take over every one of your senses. As well as the pulling power of a black hole, At Ease is also extremely dense in its composition, piling layer upon layer of meticulous randomness to the point where an indeterminate narrative seems to simmer just out of sight. It's an intensely varied and utterly nuts collection of noise, with the opening minutes of side B reaching ear-splitting levels via chaotic bass pulses. Conversely other sections almost caress us with motherly (albeit very lo-fi) sweetness. This sort of feature-length montaged weirdness never fails to evoke the spirit of Nurse with Wound.

Frond - The Second Continent

Blissful synthetic textures blend with lush field recordings on The Second Continent, from British producer/phonographer Frond, on the first cassette tape by Dutch label, esc.rec. Eleven relatively brief and shimmering drones populate The Second Continent; it is a hazy landscape, occasionally punctuated with nostalgic instrumental visions (such as the wistful piano of 'No Fate', or 'Still Burning's organ). The integration of field recordings is what makes this tape stand out as an ambient work though. 'No Fate' duets music with the tinkling metallic clink of yacht rigging recorded in a port on the south coast of Cyprus. 'Purple Overcast' makes use of a hissing campfire recorded near Dartmoor, and 'Apharia' opens with whistling wind from an old cottage in Shropshire, ending with the epic crack of a gunshot and fleeing birds from Kent's Oare marshes.

Death Register - Phonaesthesia (Invisible City Records)

Put out via Gateshead's Invisible City Records, drones don't often come as deep, ominous or unexpectedly beautiful as these. Details are scarce regarding the artist (the tape's been tagged differingly with 'UK' and 'Poland'), and the tools used in the creation of Phonaesthesia remain pretty mysterious throughout. When in full swing, Death Register's swirling drones are at times reminiscent of Wolfgang Voigt's seminal ambient project, Gas, yet Death Register's move in a monstrously different way. Opening ten-minuter, 'P', sees jutting distant hills of fuzz amass and slowly crescendo atop an endless minor chord, while second track, 'Q' has distorted tones which dance over a monotonous rhythmic tape loop. Again, you'll be wondering if your tape deck's playing up, as the final 18-minute offering, 'R' comes to life over a hissy skipping locked groove rhythm, scattering the echoed sound of plucked harp strings into a cavernous abyss, and slowly coalescing with fuzzy passages of lingering mutant tones. It's a truly hypnotic recording, and as suggested by the stellar album artwork, makes music from the monochromatic emotions of an isolated individual, dogged by the buzzing of bees in their subconscious fear centres.

B£AMS - Unforthcoming Self (Sonic Router)

Brixton-based producer B£AMS taps into the same palette of colourful instrumental hip hop perfected by the late J Dilla, and recently reshaped into a kaleidoscopic open-ended new psychedelic form by the likes of Nosaj Thing and Flying Lotus. It's a sound that's launched thousands of soundcloud accounts into overdrive with attempts at replication, but B£AMS' tops the lot, at times even matching his peers while incorporating higher-paced club music into his arsenal. Opener 'I Can't' and 'Lies In '85' are archetypal meshes of time-shifted samples, fat synths, and fatter beats, but it's the collaborations that really shine. Featuring Hello Skinny (aka drummer Tom Skinner of Sons Of Kemet and Owiny Sigoma Band, amongst others) 'Revolutions' shifts submerged jazzy key chords and messy vocal samples around a much quicker house beat, eventually riding off over the horizon after a good few minutes of grooving. B£AMS continues with a more distorted house vibe on 'Do Away With Your Unforthcoming Self' and the climactic 'Brush Phenotype', while 'Garbadine' - featuring the wispy voice of London producer, Adam Oko - detours into beatless smooth-surfaced digital atmospherics for a serene respite halfway through the album. The modern producer has a hell of a lot to compete with, but B£AMS quickly stands out as one well worth keeping an eye on.

Sculpture - Video Plot
(Software Recording Co.)

The second volume in a series of mixtapes - cleverly titled Mixware, and put out on the Oneohtrix Point Never-curated Software Recording Co. - sees the British-Kiwi duo of Sculpture compile an utterly atypical set. Each 20-minute side runs as one seamless patchwork of reassembled recordings, all plundered from live performances in March of this year. It's a relentless rush of blips, bleeps and retro sound effects, occasionally veering away from manic pulsations and into much more melody and beat-heavy territory, making for big payoffs amid beguilingly strange analogue atmospheres. Sculpture take electronic music back to its monochromatic early years, the oddly worn rumblings of David Vorhaus' White Noise project from the late-60s, or Louis and Bebe Barron's Forbidden Planet soundtrack back in the 50s. The whole thing is strewn together with jutting beats and drum machines, and in total makes an exhilarating listen whose primordial rumblings exist in the starkest possible contrast to more recent Software alumni like the digital futurist pop of Suicideyear.

Oddgrad - Hardcore Plastic Surgery
(Haunter Records)

Italy's Haunter Records has had a pretty consistent year exploring club music's murky undergrowth. This EP from Turin-based producer Francesco Coiam, aka Oddgrad, seeks to apply a plastic surgeon's knife to his industrial abstraction and have the results resemble house and hip hop. As evidenced by the monstrously buxom figure on the cover though, surgical alteration rarely produces a true replica, instead creating what the label describes as an "aesthetic battlefield" from the body. Over two Oddgrad originals and three remixes from Haunter Records associates, the augmented copies of copies transform from foggy beatless atmospheric noise, into gothic deep techno, muddy house and eventually dense pixelated noise. Oddgrad's seven minute 'HPS 1' opens with blurry distant sampled speech mumblings and ends with a consuming wash of industrial atmospherics before 'HPS 2' adds distorted subterranean beats which get reassembled into moody overcast beatscapes a la Actress' Ghettoville on remixes from Heith and Haf Haf (the latter of which is particularly meaty). The final remix from the mysterious newcomer III eschews beats in favour of blasts of throbbing, and cathartic, static. The experiment works, as four different aesthetic approaches push four artists to view Oddgrad's source material totally differently, and one man's monstrous deformity is another's alluring beauty.