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Spool's Out: The Best Cassette Releases of 2018
Tristan Bath , December 20th, 2018 14:35

The cassette tape underground is alive and well, says Tristan Bath, as he presents his label of the year, and the format's finest releases of 2018

Halfway through piecing together this (as always) very personal reflection on another year exploring the so-called ‘cassette tape underground’, I realised this is the sixth year of Spool’s Out. This column’s lifespan now outstrips my longest relationship. So, surely the idea that the ‘tape resurgence’ was an ill-fated fad has been well and truly debunked?

It bears repeating that the format’s strengths go deeper than its cheap production and shipping costs. In an age where undeserved privilege and prejudice of all stripes is under fire, it seems fitting that the most maligned of music technologies would be so celebrated by a loving few. These little hunks of plastic and magnetic tape say one thing loudest of all, and that’s a guttural, “why the fuck not?” Musically, their content has reflected the same sentiment in 2018 even more than previously.

Some of the stars of my top tapes (listed, as always, in no particular order) could only emerge from a society as cursed as the one we inhabited this year. AJA’s queer fury is the perfect avatar for an enraged common subconscious. Polish artist Wrong Dials spent a full cassette disseminating the noise of chaos into something beautiful. Berlin duo Aemong make future pop from a universe where all cultures are conjoined at the waist and blurred into an amorphous whole - rather than divided across artificial border lines. In short, cassette-tape-country remains the fruitful playground it unexpectedly became, and that at the most uninspired of mainstream cultural moments.

Tape Label Of The Year 2018: Chinabot

The importance of the record label as a curator is rarely higher than when it comes to cassettes. The label project can be merely a trusted overseer, or it can be an artwork unto itself. It can be a meeting point for artists to swap ideas, a safe space for new ideas to get heard, or even a support network for the struggling musician. Thus the continued existence of the basic record label structure at a time when one can post whatever one wants online, and printing and self-releasing tapes is within the meagrest of pay grades, is far from miraculous.

With all the above in mind, selecting a ‘Tape Label Of The Year’ since 2013 has always meant looking to give the seal of approval to a promising project, while also rewarding supportiveness and originality. It must be said that the well-regarded likes of Orange Milk and Opal Tapes continue to do the Lord’s work when it comes to issuing kick-ass cassettes. London-based Chinabot however, is presenting an entirely fresh and reinvigorated version of global culture. Not bad for a humble tape imprint, eh?

Working from a non-Western, Asia-centric viewpoint, Chinabot is focusing on artists from myriad Asian backgrounds. Nine albums and two compilations in, the label’s roster already stretches from Manila to Leeds and onward, colliding digital madness, traditional folk musics, and high-energy performative drama into a compelling futurist vision more suited to a world where some 60% of the total population live on the Asian continent.

2018’s Top Cassette Tapes

I saw Aja Ireland perform in Vienna earlier this year, done up in a strange octopussian costume of her own creation, and seemingly intent on destroying all of our eardrums while grinding on the floor between the audience’s legs. Not all that surprising for a one-time Perc collaborator, I suppose. Her debut, now simply as AJA, is aptly sonically punishing. It’s perhaps even a simple model, with hefty drum machine thuds and leering bass looping in the foreground while AJA litters the stereo field with groaning noises, dread-filled synth notes, and above all her distorted utterances and squeals.

I’m definitely wary of applauding mere heviosity, but AJA’s economy with sounds is brilliant. It’s a brutally brilliant debut, dark and danceable, but taken to marked heights. It’s one thing to be confrontational and noisy, but to make it as engaging as AJA does is something else.

Hailing from the Gorzów Wielkopolski in western Poland, Mateusz Rosinski issues music as Wrong Dials. He’s dabbled in plenty of electronic sounds, but Hello Brightness My New Sex Friend (surely the best-named tape of the year?) goes extra deep and long and weird, right down into deconstructing some thoroughly abstract noise music into a uniquely strange and beautiful trip. Rosinski gradually disseminates raw shards of static and glitchy interruptions, taking half the album to regroup and reformulate the sounds into an emergent lush dreamscape of looping samples. The first half is truly challenging noise, punctured with ear-piercing tones and rough grumbles - but Rosinski slowly pulls the wool from off our eyes to reveal a shimmering landscape of granular tones and ecstatic loops.

This new outing released via Yerevan Tapes sees Sugai Ken's sound palette mutating towards increasingly abnormal frontiers. If it's expanding like anything, it's the Ikea catalogue, with Ken weaving in all manner of domestic and mundane everyday objects alongside deep percussion and moody distant atmospherics. The title translates to something along the lines of ‘Remarks On Rock’ or ‘Rock Thinking’, and the artist claims the pieces are narratives and the protagonists rocks. Well, if anthropomorphised rocks did think, it would most likely sound something like the mental sounds on this tape.

Tracks leer with mid-energy synth crackles and digital snippets quietly jostling for space, occasionally falling into place like something resembling a rhythm. The structures are utterly illogical however, and Ken happily drops in the most confusing hit of sound design - such as the phone vibrations that close out 'YONAKI KOBOSHI'. It's both blissful and unnerving - like dropping a few tabs and sitting for 25 minutes in one's own private rock garden.

Aemong embody all the best aspects of today’s ramshackle international underground, all on their own. Comprising Henrique Uba and Yu-Ching Huang - originally from Brazil and Taiwan respectively - Aemong’s sound is indebted to everything under the sun. 1000 is a shady industrial-pop amalgam ripping cliches to pieces with endless juxtapositions. By way of example, right at the heart of the album, ‘After The Fire’ is a rough beatless minisuite featuring chorus guitars and bass licks encircling bassy synth arpeggio with tranquility. Yu-Ching Huang sings celestial Kim Gordon-isms and Henrique Uba replies with oddball singspeak and random samples that resemble processed birdsong and distant car crashes. Some duos are about finding compromise and balance, but Aemong seem to just allow the ideas to flow in from all sides.

So many these days espouse cultural juxtapositions and myriad surprising influences. Aemong seem like the real deal. Their world is scuffed around the edges and mired in countless grim imperfections, yet it’s utterly out of time and place - not to mention totally addictive. With any luck our future is gonna be filled with more of this.

Although it sounds like a Welsh NGO dedicated to helping single men, a barycenter is actually the central gravitational point between two celestial bodies orbiting each other. So there's some pretty heavy forces at play at a barycenter, attempting to tear two objects apart, while forcibly holding them irrevocably interwoven. The many sides of Bary Center - an American electronic musician from Appalachia - work similarly, keeping his steadily growing discography in balance. Previous releases have dived into textured explorations, more ambient beats, some exotica-tinged instrumentals, and a whole lot more. This time though, something's got Bary Center peed off, and Betrayal is thus his most brutal and fearsome outing yet.

There are some fast-and-heavy gabber speeds on the tape - it's tough to find it outright aggressive though. Behind those beats that feel like you're getting your head kicked in, Bary Center's conjured a minimal setting of dissonant drones and voices. The result is more filled with dread and sadness than bacchanal energy or aggressive release….Whoever screwed over Bary Center (I'm gonna go ahead and make that assumption - check out that title) really hit something deep in the artist. His fantastic and mild-mannered previous work is here mired in darkness, fuelled by a thoroughly banging energy only uncontrollable dark emotions can summon.

This one punts basically all other freeform outings from 2018 way out of the water. It’s the first co-release between American improvised music imprint Astral Spirits and the freshly christened God In The Music label run by Kiwi noise-head Noel Meek - the latter also playing his signature whirr of joyous electronic noise on the tape. Meek plays live in Seattle on the tape alongside Arrington de Dionyso blasting sax and Rodrigo Rico pummeling drums. The trio careen peerlessly forward, spiralling woodwind parps and tribal punches around Noel Meek’s manic whirring. It’s that rarest of performances which above all energises the listener.

Details are muddy surrounding Japanese artist Sofheso, although First Terrace Records make it clear that the “prolific yet unsung noise-maker” has been making music for “at least the last decade”. This two-tape retrospective culled from the artist’s reportedly extensive archive isn’t a cohesive album statement – it’s massively unwieldy and chaotic, as universe-building is wont to be. 28 tracks, spanning more than two hours, show off a vast array of approaches to electronic music. Beats wash in and out of the picture, themselves ranging from four-to-the-floor techno pulses and banging jungle, to dull abstract thuds and deconstructed concrète bashes.

Sofheso’s all-encompassing approach to modern electronica does away with all sorts of key genre signifiers across its monolithic length, ironically by touching upon them all. The second track has chopped-and-screwed snare hits straight from some Drukqs outtake; the ninth track (they’re all just numbered) focuses polyrhythmic dissected samples in the vein of indefinable producers like Giuseppe Ielasi; the seventh track on the second tape adds heavily distorted breakbeats to the arsenal.

The disparate sounds just keep on flowing, rather like with Lee Gamble, dissecting Sofheso’s constructions like architectural works yields massive fascination. The musical building blocks are often right there on display – such as the short-circuiting eighth track on the second tape – its respective pieces audibly fucked on their own but miraculously danceable when rightly aligned. This is a staggering introduction to a mysterious talent, and it instantly get you wondering what else lurks in the artist’s archive. Sofheso has the makings of Japan’s own Aphex Twin.

Steph Horak’s a multidisciplinary artist, but her often vocal-based music tends to focus on creating systems rather than traditional compositions. For threehundredandsixtysix Horak recorded herself singing a note a day throughout 2016 (a leap year), and every month would quickly arrange a piece of music using all of the notes recorded. The result is these 13 pieces of music, ranging from 50 seconds to four minutes - one per month plus a final piece where all 366 notes briefly play together.

The effect is often eerie and at times very beautiful. Horak’s human persona seems to me somewhat wiped away as she layers herself into stacks of brief oohs, urrs, and aahs. Left behind is a copy-and-pasted ghost of herself in each month, stuck in stasis during these brief moments-in-time every day. There’s a resemblance to Gyorgy Ligeti's dissonant choirs, and to wind chimes. The artist leaves the concept relatively open to our interpretations, but threehundredandsixtysix works well enough simply taken as pure peaceful ambience.

Developed over two years from an improvised live set into a blurrily-boundaried song cycle, Here Appear is one hell of an idiosyncratic debut. Brooklynite multi-instrumentalist Eve Essex has a background performing in various duos, trios and groups, but Here Appear is her first solo release, and stays true to the core restraints imposed upon a solo artist. Essex sticks to playing the tracks as if live, using live loops to flesh things out but ultimately leaving behind sparse chambers of minimal musical ponderings. Her core arsenal is her alto sax, her synth and drum machine and her voice, but there’s all sorts of instrumental colouring along the way - piccolo, slide whistle, harmonica, organ, the list goes on. The shrill spiritual stab of the piccolo gliding over a bitcrushed Volca Beats crash cymbal on ‘Colorless Stone’ is really something to behold.

The tape’s a testament to the power solo artists have with modern gear. It’s neither a simple loop-stacking exercise nor a dull sample-triggering demonstration. Essex has composed these songs specifically for electrified multi-instrumental performance, and the necessary minimalism winds up being one of the music’s key strengths. The songs breathe and rest easy, unfolding with an oddly ambient spirit despite the jazzy instrumentation and folksy execution. Eve Essex is making some powerful new minimalism, right at the crossroads of improv and meditative songwriting.

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 (!!) of music.

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.