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Spool's Out

Spool's Out: July's Best Releases On Cassette
Tristan Bath , July 25th, 2018 07:57

There's no time for a summer break in the cassette underground - Tristan Bath rounds up July's best tape releases.

For a recent edition of the Spool's Out Radio show on Resonance FM, JC Leisure - a Liverpool artist who also runs the incredible Pale Master - recorded an exclusive live hybrid mix, nodding to the pirate stations of yore with scrambled jungle and drum 'n' bass tapes marbled into the sesh.

Head over to, 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.

Although this is music feels irrevocably for the countryside, I'd really recommend listening to Alison Cotton's All Is Quiet At The Ancient Theatre on your walkman while standing in the middle of a busy city centre. The power of this music is simply awe-inspiring. When Alison Cotton plays, the world stands still. For much of this tape, she overlaps the heart-wrenching creak of her viola, interweaving improvised melodies into drones that evoke fog-laden landscapes, stretching out further than the eye can see. If Cotton's known for anything it'll be her (somewhat) Fairport-esque duo The Left Outsides, based around good old singer-songwriting and poppier song forms, but these improvised music-scapes are quite something else altogether. Her similarly delicate collaboration with Michael Tanner released by Reckno in 2016 hinted at this direction, stretching things far over dales, glens, and valleys, with a deeply British feeling form of damp rural zen.

Cotton compounds her layered viola with smatterings of recorder, the odd jangle of bells, occasional distant rumbling drums, and a choir of piled Alisons, wordlessly calling out into the titular 'ancient theatre' (I'm gonna go ahead and interpret that as the vast open stage of nature). Melodically, the music moves and breathes too often to be described as truly 'minimal'. Indeed, mid-album highlight '36 Dramatic Situations' is a positively forlorn viola partita, impossibly free-formed by Cotton despite resembling the longest sculpted of melodies. Magnificent work, and it must be said, beautifully presented by the fantastic Bloxham Tapes (their entire back catalogue comes highly recommended).

Erstwhile member of Australian Warp signees PVT, Richard Pike utilises his D E E P L E A R N I N G solo project as an outlet for issuing waves of beatless instrumental beauty. The 8-part suite of Soft Confidence fits comfortably into the tradition of Vangelis at his seventies peak: lush and melodic new age compositions, seemingly telling a vague narrative and sewn together by a core concept. Pike himself cites the "the vast energy of the city - slowed down x 1000" as the album's key inspiration, and it's thoroughly believable considering the city in question is London. Koto-like keyboard plucks shimmer through birdsong on 'Emotion', 'Transit' has waves of woozy keyboard pass by like trees and building out of an overground window, opening track 'Earth' is teeming with hopeful notes (later deflated on the gentle 'Stasis'). The tracks only vaguely move forward, largely remaining static in distinct melodic moods similar in shape to the distant colourful backdrops for the dreamiest of Nintendo dreamworlds. Only the penultimate 'Freedom Of Things' seems to reach a bit of an actual climax, with sharper synth pulsations taking the place of that nebulous keyboard bed for a three minutes of cinematic drama bringing the album's tranquility to an uplifting close. Impeccably crafted, Deep Learning is the luscious background you deserve, scraping away the noise and junk to reveal the constant drift that ties everything together.

Following two compilations exploring underground scenes in China and Indonesia, End Of The Alphabet sets its sights on Yorkshire. Compiled by long-serving local experimentalist Neil Campbell (aka Astral Social Club), The Harrowing Of The North features tracks from thirteen active artists based in the county, demonstrating the scope and strength of its weirdo music underground. The lineup ranges from beloved legends Ashtray Navigations, who open the tape with an ecstatic burst of electronic squall and shredded axe fire, to relative newcomers in the region, such as tape collagist Stuart Chalmers. The tape seems to capture the scene in a state of flux, with old guard wig outs from not only Ashtray Navigations, but also the 20-year old Vibracathedral Orchestra who contribute a 15-minute live drone ceremony.

Besides bursts of noise from the likes of Guttersnipe (their contribution is at ‘You Suffer’ levels of sharpness) newer sounds generally drift towards more minimal arrangements in search of psychedelic ecstasy. Sophie Cooper (something of a regular to this column) contributes a hall of mirrors built from layers of backwards piano and blissed out vocals. Leeds-based duo Hawthonn deploy mellotron and ceremonial singing for a Coil-ian hymn evoking rolling moors. Mysterious outfit Soon The Light are in solid hippie heaven territory, softly singing and strumming lucious guitar chords over synths babbling like a brook and hand drumming. It reminds me of the two sides of seventies krautrock, where the heaviosity of Ash Ra Tempel or Guru Guru was always counterbalanced by new agey oddballs like Georg Deuter or Popol Vuh.

End Of The Alphabet even say themselves about the Yorkshire underground, "we might not be the first to trumpet it", but there's no better summary of the area's current scene. This one is compiled, sequenced, and packaged to perfection, embodying what unties the area's sundry artists: warmth and open-mindedness.

Polish producer Zaumne has described the potent experience of listening to ambient music early in the morning after a night clubbing. Emo Dub does a damn good job of triggering the sense memory, feeling overloaded with emotion, tiredness, maybe a few substances, morning light drifting in through the curtains. The music is based around a multitude of snippets Zaumne nabbed from ASMR videos on YouTube, which has admittedly been something of a fad amongst electronic producers in recent years. Zaumne's treatment of the phenomenon is easily the best I've encountered though (sorry Holly Herndon), as he uses the exaggerated whispering voices as an emotive tool more than an aesthetic one. Over a chilly dub techno bed on 'Friends', an Aussie lady whispers, "it's like...the knowledge that he listens to me...You know there's a friend there waiting for you."

There's something so piercing about the naivety and honesty of ASMR'd emotions. The sheer longing, for human contact and acknowledgement, or even just to be held like Will Hunting and told everything's alright, it's impossible not to empathise. Zaumne (real name, Mateusz Olszewski) does the right thing and conjures an unobtrusive dub techno bed, comforting and warm, all sharp edges removed, ready for the comedown. Emo Dub is far more potent a listening experience than it should be frankly. ASMR never did anything for me, but this tape sure had me floating.

Irish collective Repeater gathered on the island of Inis Oírr off the Irish west coast to make the recordings featured on Athrá Titim Gach Rud. It's essentially an introductory mixtape to the collective, sewing together snippets of live recordings, beats, poetry, poppy song sections, ambient interludes, bassy rumblings, and all sorts. Besides a real sense of spontaneity in every section - presumably stemming from the group workshopping behind the tracks - the tape plays like a radio broadcast from a collective marooned, hanging out together and jamming beats and singing into echoing microphones until they lose track of the time. Photography in a zine accompanying the tape shows the island itself to be somewhat lost in time too; something between a grassy playground and a living museum.

It's never clear which of the listed members of Repeater are doing what at any given moment, but that's besides the point. The resultant music is for the most part playful and fun (and somewhat dreamy), and the mixtape remains engaging from top to tail. One can just imagine the group sitting on the floor in some stoney cottage overlooking the Atlantic, one manning a drum machine, another stabbing at an echo-laden keyboard, the other plugging in her microphone to join in - plus one naturally sorting out some cups of tea. I'm really looking forward to keeping an eye on what Repeater do next.

Marcia Custer is a musician/performance artist based in Cleveland, Ohio, and this is her recording debut. Musically, the tape uses wacky keyboard loops, lo-fi noises, and some odder electronics, but Custer's voice is definitely centre-stage. Across the tape, Custer plays a character by the name of Stacey, exaggerating elements of the white female American subconscious with chipmunk vocal effects, baby talk, irritating vocal fry, valley girl bullshit, and so on. To be clear, this is parodic attack on misogyny and "idiocy" as the label puts it, aiming to take 'em down.

On 'Meet Barb La Croix', Stacey seemingly has a conversation with a personified keyboard (called Barb La Croix of course), asking the keyboard questions only to have it reply with some tinkly notes. On 'How Ya Doin' Stacey goes on (quite annoyingly) in a thick valley girl drawl about how she's doing just fine, humming "alrrrriiiiiiight" over thudding kick beats. Much of Stacey's Spacey is similarly playful and quirky, but the centrepiece of the album is actually two witchcraft storm clouds of loop-stacked hums, "ooh"s and murmurs. The second one - 'Sick Set' is particularly effective, hitting almost unbearable noisey highs in its final moments of chipmunk squeal anguish. It's actually these dichotomies that Custer does well to eradicate, segueing fluidly between pain and playtime, seriousness and parody, noise and melody, comedy and horror. This is one real nutball of a debut - her live shows must be great.

This five piece from Minneapolis are making minimalism with the psych rock format. Across Pome, IE seem locked into deepest concentration, meditating over the peaceful rumble of tom drums and distant bass ostinati. It seems this is the group expanded from a three-piece into a five piece FYI, only now adding percussion and vocals to the songs.

The odd twang of guitar evokes dusty Americana, while interlocking chiming keys seem sent straight from the stars. 'Moon Shot' is an archetypal blissed out repetition, with a moody midnight saxophone swapping leads with a breathy female vocal. These must the most chill Minneapolitans in the city. All the pieces interlock so softly and sway so gently, it's tough to not close your eyes and drift off (definitely not recommended for listening while operating heavy machinery). One can hear all sorts of influences behind the cosmic fog - 'Gloam' could almost be a chilled out Mogwai tune - but IE do well to sound fresh. There's some real magic going on here, turning calm restraint into something ultimately massively powerful.

Montreal duo Bas Relief work with an intensely strange blend of vibes. There's vocals, guitar plucks, and pristine beats that belong to a deeply intelligent indie pop project, while sonic detritus and chopped up samples muddy the background like an underground noise oddball. As is the Quiet Time tapes project's wont, the mood is generally relaxed and dreamy; an apt soundtrack for rainy night in. The duo's production is so bizarre though, I find myself drawn into a deeply energetic listen whenever spinning QTT8. Second track 'Super Marché' starts off blending a sampled violin with guitar plucks and waves of soft hiss, dropping out for a mid-section utilising a penny whistle of all things, followed by a destructive tidal wave of glitching sounds for a finale. And all that in three minutes. Next track 'Cite Your Sources' reminds me of Aphex's 'Flim' too, swapping abstraction for a cosy melodic acid track backing up a poignant vocal performance. Pianos take the lead elsewhere, melodically grounding the duo to stir a vast array of expertly-picked surprises into the background. A warm, blissful, and fascinating project sitting at the crossroads of ambient experimentalism and indie pop songcraft.