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Spool's Out

Spools Out's Out: Tristan Bath's Top Tapes Of 2014
Tristan Bath , December 19th, 2014 14:50

Tristan Bath rewinds 2014 to look at the the increasing popularity and creativity of the cassette release, and picks his favourite label and a selection of essential releases. Plus a mix!

As the year comes to a close, the world’s dedicated sect of tapeheads can proudly pat itself on the back. The format’s somehow become a burgeoning force to be reckoned with. Well, nearly. Last month at London’s Independent Label Market in Spitalfields, I was pleased to be met with sight of dozens of noble tapes stacked alongside the heaps of hastily shifting vinyl, with heavyweight labels like Drag City offering high grade doses of plastic - including Bitchin’ Bajas’ monumental double cassette tape, nonetheless still priced under a tenner. And it’s not just indies. Disney - the world’s second biggest entertainment company - saw fit to put out their first cassette tape in over a decade this year in the form of that Guardians Of The Galaxy mixtape. Though more gimmick than sea change, it still represents a small, vital turning point.

Most importantly, cassette tape prices remain defiantly low. It’s still the cheapest option for budding musicians to release something physical, its helping the group of dedicated tape labels to grow perhaps more quickly than for any rival format. Pound for pound, there’s more love put into these limited run cassette tapes than can be found on most art gallery walls, and from the inside the whole subculture’s something truly beautiful to behold. This column’s soon approaching its first anniversary, and although I’ve waxed lyrical on this countlessly before, the sheer dedication and positivity of the interconnected tape community has been a real source of daily inspiration, particularly for a miserable stiff upper lipped cynic such as myself.

As for musical trends, they’re pretty darn tough to map in the relatively diffuse and varied cassette-sphere. The ominous Portlandian and Brooklynite plague of waves (‘chillwave’, ‘vaporwave’ [sic], etc.) seemed to have been on the wane this year, while the underground’s love affair with analogue and modular synths continues to thrive unabated. Bruised noisy interpretations of techno have hardly been in short supply either (with props due to the stellar Opal Tapes), and perhaps the only notable musical trend in the tapeverse has been something of a general growing confidence in its own worth.

There have been as always highlights from 2014 to mention them all. Unwrapping the The Unquiet Grave’s strikingly packaged tape of industrial folk, seemingly buried under decaying leaves and earth, was one. As was taking in the continued rustic antiquities of Jon Collin’s timber >Winebox Press cassette packages. The experience of putting out my very own cassette via the Toronto-based Power Moves Label was enlightening too. Seeing several younger tape labels in the UK thrive and put out some of the year’s most exciting music has to be up there as well, with the widely varied transmission of Blue Tapes, the increasingly far-reaching electronica of Reckno, and Gnod’s unsurprisingly mental Tesla Tapes all easily ranking alonside the best labels working in any format in 2014.

Label of the Year

Of special note is the Manchester-based Tombed Visions label. Though dating back to 2012, it’s in 2014 that this label run by David McLean (Gnod associate and Tesla Tapes alumnus under the name Punctum) has fired out five of the year’s most quietly potent tape releases, including a tape from McLean’s own ambient/jazz/gothic project Aging, one from the world’s most underrated improvisers, I Have Eaten the City, and recently climaxing for the year with a diptych of guitar-centric tapes, in the form of Ex-Easter Island Head’s Two Commissions For Cassette Tape (including a tape on an endless loop!) and Duke of Zuke’s emotionally wintery Apnoeic. In terms of quality, Tombed Visions just massively outranks the competition, offering pristine packages of impeccably chosen music, all recorded at the very forefront of deep sonic exploration without sacrificing emotional force. Astute curation is the one virtue so many cassette labels lack, firing out releases at top speed, but it’s also the reason legendarily deftly choosy labels like The Tapeworm thrive. For what it’s worth, Tombed Visions is this column’s Label of the Year, and undoubtedly one to keep an eye on in 2015.

Cassette Tapes of Year

Now on to the business of this year’s best tapes. I narrowed down 2014’s very lengthy list of potentials to the very apt figure of fourteen releases, and took the additional measure of crafting Spool’s Out’s second mix for the occasion (found at the top of this article via Soundcloud). The final choices appear in no particular order, and were all chosen solely by me. Resultantly, there’s no ranking. I really couldn’t choose one single tape to represent 2014 anyway, and doing so would itself be perhaps unrepresentative of everything this is about.

Lily – Modern Malaise
(No Corner)

Lily's Modern Malaise is quite a departure [for No Corner], as it never hints at the UK underground, rather stemming from an imagined retrofuturist aesthetic with no real home besides sci-fi and videogame soundtracks. Littered with a handful of ambient interludes, and an extended prologue rife with Twin Peaks string sections and urban soundscapes, the beats abound across both sides of Modern Malaise, which plays like a mixtape lifted from the glovebox of Edward James Olmos' Blade Runner spinner. Largely analogue synths and snatched polyglot vocal samples are woven together impeccably across this tape, with Lily electing for constant forward motion at a speed as ready for the dancefloor as it is for future Tron soundtracks.

EQ Why - Chitokyo Mixtape
(Orange Milk)

Although hardly forgotten, Chicago's footwork phenomenon has been at the very least drowned out here in the UK by the sound of us falling back in love with our own club music (having perhaps neglected it for a while). Chitokyo Mixtape by EQ Why - put out by the fittingly brilliant Orange Milk label – is so blindingly good it's tough to argue against footwork being henceforth declared as the ultimate dance music and the hoards of British DJ/producers being ordered to simply give up and go home. Presenting the light-footed, insanely paced music as two gapless sidelong mixes adds to this music's stream-of-consciousness composition stunningly well, elevating the whole thing to inebriating heights if listened to en masse. On paper it amounts to little more than hundreds (or maybe thousands) of chopped up and looped samples sewn together with relentless MIDI percussion. In practice though, it's an unremitting maze, and appropriately a real minefield of non-sequiturs for dancers. While semblances of melody still lingered in some of the genre-defining works from last year by the likes of DJ Rashad and RP Boo, EQ Why's all but abandoned tunes in favour of sheer rhythmic attack here. Tracks like 'No Return' from RP Boo's Legacy (sections from which are in fact sampled on side B of this tape) prophesied a future where dancefloors never hear a melody when more beats will do the trick, and this tape takes blistering fast-paced footwork to its next logical extreme, and latest high watermark.

AyGeeTee - Eternity's Conceit

The London-based AyGeeTee already came to my attention last year via his excellent Fools full length on AMDISCS. That record's 17 tracks cut between preludes of atmospheric synthesized sweetness and bedroom techno workouts that pulled together disparate elements of collagic abstract construction and danceable disco - it was full of promise, albeit a tad of a slog all at once. Eternity's Conceit tightens up the producer's compelling mix of beats and aural detritus, into two single monolithic 18 minute slabs. The tape's closest cousin is perhaps Karen Gwyer's drawn out psychedelic techno, although AyGeeTee's stew is decidedly grungier and more chaotic than Gwyer's more learned compositions. Taking up side one is 'The Feed', which builds from anonymous concrete ambience to a foot stomping techno march that peaks and falls hypnotically for the entire duration. SIde two's 'Conceit' is far gentler, spending three quarters of its life gradually pulsating as it morphs from digital dream into nightmare, before ultimately collapsing into five final minutes of heavenly glitches. The familiar sound of the producer's own trackpad clicking away at the beginning of 'The Feed' reminds us of how unbelievably true it still is that such fully realised universes can come into being from little more than musician and laptop.

Mark Dicker - Talk of the University
(Bunkland Records)

"All tracks created using a variety of synthesizers, feedback loops and field recordings of London" declares the sleeve of this menacing tape of stirring oddball drones from Mark Dicker. He provided Casio and vocals with grindcore heroes Trencher, but this record couldn't be further from that band's noisy assault (which landed them support slots alongside The Locust and Some Girls). Dicker focuses on sparsity and minimalism, instrumentally limiting the music to only the very bare necessity. The experiment works and then some, the sonic scarcity coming across as hauntingly phantomic, while the interjection of warped vocals and metropolitan field recordings hint at some semblance of narrative; as if the tape is a sermon or broadcast from some observing alien consciousness. '...Hell Is A Grammar School To This' opens side one, emerging with the gristly rumble of synthetic bass tones, and eventually bursting into light as it grows to a luminescent stereoscopic overture of unwinding chords and whirring synth bass. 'Dies Saturni' comes next, travelling at a snail's pace through looped synth detritus, building a quivering chamber of menacing sparse drones and muddy sounds of the city, until Dicker's voice begins intoning an ice-cold whisper-sung tune over the top. The second side's sole 12-minute track - 'Love Me, Love My Dog' - traverses its ground with similarly languid lethargy, as whirring drones flit slowly up and down, and Dicker chants the song's title in a manner that seems initially meditative before soon morphing into worrying insane asylum ramblings. As his intonations are steadily pitch shifted more and more unrecognisably, additional keyboard lines get added to a droney mass that ominously wills itself onward to a climax. With signposts of narrative, and a strictly limited sonic palette, this tape gets a hell of a lot from its unique minimal dialect.

(Mark Dicker was also interviewed by Luke Turner on tQ, where you can read him discussing his methods and reasoning in discussion about the tape )

Various Artists – La Psicotropia
(Was Ist Das? / Pakapi Records)

Homespun South American psychedelia has truly gone from burgeoning to thriving. Ahead of the World Cup, several papers wrote up Mais Um Discos' Rolê: New Sounds Of Brazil compilation, which - although relatively innocuous - was most notably almost uniformly imbued with a psychedelic edge to every song, no matter how poppy, dubby or funky. Elsewhere Soundway have put out music from two Colombian acts - danceable psychedelic pop from Bomba Estéreo, and indefinably weird psych-cumbia by the Meridian Brothers. Put together by Pakapi Records in Buenos Aires, and released on tape by the Hebden Bridge-based Was Ist Das? label tape, the La Psicotropia compilation goes a step deeper into the continent's psychedelic underground, including cuts from mysterious figures like False Sir Nicholas (from Chile) Ø+yn (from Argentina) and Brayan (usually member of the elusive Montibus Communitas from Peru).

By its end, La Psicotropia seems like something of an actual landmark compilation; a real coming together of this hugely appealing, thriving and undersung scene. Perhaps most vitally, these South American experimentalists aren't afraid to commit to both danceability and psychedelic musical anarchy, and the results are pretty damn special.

Threes and Will & Huerequeque - Blue Thirteen
(Blue Tapes)

Estonia's a country renowned for its natural beauty and picturesque cityscapes, and yet Threes and Will & Huerequeque capture the all-encompassing encroachment of the drab city, playing looping metropolitan mantras that gratingly struggle to overpower the monotony of their surroundings, over which they're powerless. 'Ikh Khüree' (an old name for Ulan Bator) explodes from whispering echo effects and emergent drones in to a doomy head banging drone fest with a psychedelic twist in the phasing guitars. The opening solo track from Huerequeque, 'Homöopaatiline epopöa' (homeopathic epic), lives up to its title with spiralling layers of noisy healing vibes, hovering above a monstrous monolithic drum chug, reflecting the ten minute closing solo track from Threes & Will, which unravels a perverted guitar noise jam over a mid-tempo drum beat. Blue Tapes rightfully name check Skullflower in their description of Blue Thirteen, as the bountifully theatrical noise rock of Matt Bower's guitar tempests and Stuart Dennison's epic percussive clatter are close aesthetic relatives. Skullflower's music dealt with terrestrial terrors though, and there's something of the celestial in Blue Thirteen's colossal noise.  The colour-tinted psychedelic touches to Threes and Will & Huerequeque's noise thrust open the doors to the astral plane, like the pained ecstasy of an ancient Chinese torture victim, kept conscious by intravenously adminsistered opium. Unlucky for some? Not by any stretch of the imagination.

Jefre Cantu-Ledesma - Songs Of Forgiveness
(BARO Records)

Songs Of Forgiveness nods to the forlorn wintry guitar instrumental approach of The Durutti Column, stretching it to the furthest possible extent. The two twenty minute cuts on Songs Of Forgiveness unwind throughout their duration with gradual dreamlike resignation. Both sides are spellbindingly powerful, soaking wet with nostalgia, and remaining largely, and irresistibly immobile in places. Both sides essentially play out one spiralling theme to its fullest possible extent for the first ten minutes before jump cutting to another for the second, and the first three quarters of the record are tear-jerking instrumental reveries; music for staring through rainy window panes to. The final ten minutes integrates some of the harsher noises and stranger echo effects teased on Songs Of Remembrance, with buzzing whirring analogue fuzz macheteing the stunning beauty of the last forty minutes to mercilessly dormant shreds on the floor. Tapes don't often come as breathtaking as this.

Marreck - Thirteen Losses
(Bomb Shop)

The Teeside master of musical static has swapped the underlying tone of malevolence heard on his last release as Marreck for something far more bacchanal. Not that it's going to be filling out many dancefloors anytime soon, but the pounding submersible beats at the heart of 'Beautiful K' or the wobbly bass line around which closer 'False Martyr' takes shape, both retain semblances of crazed club music. Pulsating noises shimmer throughout, while phasing effects are put to dizzying effect across the record too, squeezing the hints of rhythm and melody to their furthest possible psychedelic point. The four lengthy offerings don't really let-up, ostensibly starting off harsh and getting harsher towards a noisy crescendo each time. Halfway through the eleven minute colossus of pulsating noise, 'Black Water', I begin to feel almost physically sick, hypnotised and dizzy - but such is the weighty power of Thirteen Losses. The package comes with an accompanying booklet of murky, pixellated stills from Marreck's live show, which along with the HEAVY storm of monstrous recurrent electronics on the magnetic tape, serves to cement a real brutalist truth:  that helplessness amidst such unassailable, repetitive power can feel pretty ecstatic for the submissive listener. This one's definitely essential for noise heads - although be advised it's not to be listened to while operating heavy machinery or driving on public roads. The thing should come with a fucking health warning!

Sayet Nova Project - Kazbek: Field Recordings from the Caucasus 2012-2014
(Winebox Press)

For those who missed it, the Mountains of Tongues compilation released earlier this year was a true eye opener for anybody with even the slightest interest in the music of Europe and Asia. It demonstrated the region's unique position as a crossroads between East and West, as a home for dozens of barely understood musics, and above all as a hermetically sealed time capsule. This box set of four beautifully presented tapes from Jon Collin's phenomenal Winebox Press, manages somehow  to improve upon what seemed like a flawless collection.

The entirety of the 'Instrumental Strings' tape's second side though, is devoted to one single twenty-minute performance of the lethargic, near-idle noodling of Amirani Nekerauli from Zemo Alvani, Georgia. Snatches of the same theme consistently arise throughout, although he often pauses for applause and conversation with a small gathered audience. It's not really even a performance, or some deep meditation - it's just a continuation of life, and another reason to keep breathing. For the musicians in the Caucasus captured on these recordings - which despite sounding so primordial were made as recently as this year, music simply works in a different way, comprising not the colour of life, but the actual fabric of it. The earthy handmade wooden packaging, and accompanying snapshots - including a one of men gathered on horseback, right next to the word "Field recordings from the Caucasus 2012-2014" compound to the feeling that this self-proclaimed "bootleg companion piece" to Mountains Of Tongues is in fact the very physical embodiment of another time and place, and perhaps the most brilliant package of the entire year.

Joseph Curwen - Shunned House
(Invisible City Records)

These four 22 minute compositions from North-East Englander Joseph Curwen are some of the most dauntingly colossal sounding bits of music I've come across in a while. Consistently on the brink of clipping, Curwen's towering monolithic waves of mutated ambience wash over and over us, riding a never-ending percussive pulse. The stereo field is constantly awash with misshapen synths, harsh static and invisible choirs, occasionally coalescing into one great big punchy slab of monstrous noise. There's an immense feeling of staggering size and scope to this unrelenting music, travelling through distant unknown barren landscapes, trapped on a Lovecraftian nightmare trip into mountains of madness. It loops on and on and on, never resting or receding, journeying us further and further from home. The influence of HP Lovecraft over the artist is clear (the nom de plume Joseph Curwen comes from Lovecraft's own Case Of Charles Dexter Ward, and the musician and author undoubtedly share nightmarish visions of gigantic apocalyptic beings. This is dance music for Cthulhu if I ever heard it.

Marcus Whale & Tom Smith - Localities
(A Guide to Saints)

Four often rhythmic collages makeup the tape, with 'Lugarno' awaking as from hibernation amidst unfurling distant synths and chiming Tibetan bells before a heartbeat-mimicking bass drum evolves into an ass-kicking mesh of danceable drum patterns, perfectly weaved together by the two artists. It's one of best bits of beat along you'll hear all year, eventually returning to the dreamy depths it emerged from after ten blistering minutes. Later 'Panania' similarly takes glitchy vocal samples and beats them into a pulp with the help of some mega harsh crunchy drum smashes. The two shorter tracks - 'Edensor' and 'Kynemagh' - both feature soaring washes of gorgeous synths, with former clipping and fuzzing at almost aggressive levels, while the latter closes out the album with lingering, ghostly prettiness. Few tapes are as immediately gratifying, and as the album only really comprises an EP's worth of ideas, we're left hoping the pair keep it up and deliver a long player of their pretty much flawless beaty experiments.

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.

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.

I Have Eaten the City - Secret Paths
(Tombed Visions)

On this tape released in June, this Toronto trio of psychedelic improvisers showcase their incredible ability to assemble compellingly odd soundscapes from very non-standard instrumentation. The instrument list includes West African balafon, harmonica, cello, drum machines, saxophone and the music is equally as frontierless. The 17-minute 'Eyot' incorporates twisted sound effects and warped spacey guitar ramblings alongside trudging drum machine rhythms and fluttering flutes, while the chiming thumb pianos, balafon and cello on 'Ipê' converse amid billowing notes and ultimately reach cyclical melodies as captivating as any of American composer Lou Harrison's experiments to mesh Western classical tropes with Javanese gamelan. The structures become so fully intact so quickly, it's almost impossible to believe the music's all made up on the spot. I Have Eaten The City are simply astonishingly good at what they do, and they blend unexpected instrument combinations with unwavering, acultural conviction. Anybody with even a passing interest in improvised music should get this tape immediately, and hopefully somebody can get these guys on a plane to the UK as quickly too - sounds like one hell of a performance.

Various Artists - Federally Administered Tribal Folk And Pathan Pop From Peshawar To Kabul
(Pirate Modernity)

Bringing together music on tape originating from the unstable regions between Pakistan and Afghanistan, Pirate Modernity is a brand new project put together by Pakistani musicians Abeera Arif-Bashir and Tahir Al-Quddus, and English journalist, Timothy P.A. Cooper. Having united over tape music they'd stumbled across in the region, the trio explain how they "became fascinated by the labyrinthine media markets of the Rainbow centre in Karachi and Nistrabad in Peshawar, and started to build a substantial collection of cassettes from Peshawar". The music itself is a raw, energetic and lo-fi update of tribal folk forms from the region, filled with the sort of frontier creativity that's been recently well documented in music from MENA countries further west from the Indian subcontinent, and incorporating whatever bits of modern music tech these musicians have available to them - be it the bash of digital dhol drums in the Farzana's qawwali-like rhythm on the opening 'Satr Kai Rava Rai Wa Khmar Woray' or singer Nazia Iqbal's extensive use of slippery cybernetic auto-tune.

There are blinding moments aplenty throughout Federally Administered Tribal Folk And Pathan Pop From Peshawar To Kabul, including some face melting string shredding on Feroz Kondozi's solo acoustic 'Qantaki', and the wonderfully jaunty MIDI backing that approaches near-dancehall rhythms via Tajiky Gulchin Nazneen. If there need be any evidence that music is as vital and powerful today than it's ever been, spreading hope in the face of adversity, this tape is it.