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Spool's Out

Spool’s Out: The Best Releases On Tape Cassette This January
Tristan Bath , January 22nd, 2019 07:32

2019’s tape scene swerves into murky darkness with j.b. glazer, Jio, Howes, OV PAIN and Swoosh

The first episode of Spool’s Out Radio aired earlier this month featuring a weighty hour-long mix dedicated to raves and rinsed-out electronics put together by music journalist Eoin Murray, who’s written for DJ Mag, The Thin Air and, of course, tQ!

Head over to spools-out.com, 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.

After a quiet slew of tape and digital releases via their own murky Jannet Power INC imprint, strange London-based producer j.b. glazer. emerges with their first fully realised album, Compact Break. Similar to fellow Londoner Klein, j.b. glazer inhabits fertile new ground between the outer reaches of ambient composition and experimental pop. Compact Break segues between sections like a muddy mixtape; it’s a post-digital suite of patchworked ideas. The instrumental miniatures – such as luscious highlights ‘Moon Face’ and ‘A iii’, both full of software keyboard notes bobbing up against each other like drunks in a wave pool – come from a very familiar urban midnight world. It’s the place where vaporwave jams ooze from car radios, street lamps flicker above shady characters, and couples stumble home through the dark arm-in-arm. Elsewhere, proceedings get all the more abstract and alien. Such as on ‘Meritocracy’, where radio snippets quietly overlap in the hintergrund as ultra-minimal beats slot into a rhythm somewhere between the gentle buzzing of power cables and a Moritz Von Oswald track. The menacing ‘Gardener’ weaves in leering processed vocals, formulating a vision of trip-hop as imagined by Wolf Eyes. To call it a grab bag of styles wouldn’t do this tape justice though. The mood coalesces far too cohesively.

From his room in Queens, NYC, Jiovanni Nadal (aka J. Albert) pivots from techno to futuristic R&B under the new guise of Jio. There’s actually no small similarity to the above tape by j.b. glazer, with Jio’s debut TFW inhabiting an ultra-moody introvert’s world, seemingly stuck somewhere between his own long face and glow of his computer screen. Written “in the wake of a breakup, family trouble, and unemployment”, and without the crispness of high-end gear (guessing that essentially means ‘laptop microphone’), Jio’s music often finds itself contorting between the muddiness of its vocals and other real-world sounds captured in lo-fidelity and those crystalline software instruments. The repeated vocal lines on ‘But She Fine’ almost become a chant, sliding up against punchy trap clicks, thick bass ooze and distant digitally distorted pianos. The effect can almost feel like Jio’s DAW is jamming with the man’s moody musings, as if Alexa candidly picked him up singing in the shower and generated backdrops to suit the sadness.

It’s perhaps easy to be suspicious of the ‘post-modern melancholic lo-fi trip-hop’ subgenre. James Ferraro’s NYC, Hell 3:00 AM already tapped into the aesthetic way back in 2013, over-emphasising an affected soulfulness in his lonely singing voice into MacBook microphones, tracing simplistic wobbly melodies to meet R&B’s minimum requirements. But TFW is a compelling journey, filtering sadness through a digital prism to create a tape brimming with addictive, nocturnal, depressive and forward-thinking songs.

Mancunian musician John Howes continues to quietly wade into the unknown dubby waters last heard on his previous untitled solo full-length (reviewed by this column in 2017). Unlike his far dancier 12" releases, Cold Storage comprises ambient hardware jams, seemingly recorded relatively spontaneously and late at night. Howes sets his odd little sonic dioramas up, then pokes around like a kid with tweezers, tugging them in and out of shape. It’s a familiar MO in the home-synth scene, but Howes’ crystalline and otherworldly recordings are notably nuanced and refined.

The sonic palette here is a stark one, but it’s buoyed by unpredictable swirls of bass leering out of the void. The surface tension is barely present, the foreground populated by glitchy sonic dabs, filtered pads and dulled bleeps, but plunge deep into each piece and you’ll reap psychologically potent rewards. The first side closes finding bliss in claustrophobia, conjuring a creaking blend of slightly moaning percussive hits and haunted synths, giving way to a handful of sparse beats puncturing the tension. There’s a distinctive depth and internal logic to Howes’ music that makes it a place well worth revisiting.

This one actually dropped at the end of last November – but we’ll cheat and stick it in January’s column anyhoo. Jeremy Young’s yet another essential voice from Montreal’s ever-busy school of experimenters, deploying ‘reel and unreel tapes’ among other source material. His sonic weaponry is targeted firmly at crafting concrète experiences both compelling and disorienting, perhaps coming to something of a head here on the well-named Dizzy, Congested Musick. Young now turns his attention to vinyl records, slowing, stretching, and up-fucking them in a process he’s dubbed slow plunderphonics, “as the samples are often several minutes long and warped beyond recognition.” The result is a formidable musical narcotic, impossible to escape in its total strangeness and yet pretty damn user-friendly for something so entropic.

Superficially, this is a woozy album of topsy-turvy noises, dismantled snippets of melody, and a bottomless tabletop orchestra of vinyl hiss. The familiar source material though – movie scores, old sitar albums, stabs of jazz orchestras – are just a cosy doormat on the way into Jeremy Young’s murky auditorium. Here cast as an ‘experimental turntablist’, Young doesn’t cosily fit alongside established figures like Philip Jeck, Christian Marclay, or Maria Chavez; his techniques are far more tangible and physical, edging closer to scratchmaster Kid Koala. Check out the second track here, ‘For Trumpet and Guitar’, featuring a trumpet slowed down and sped up to mind-numbing effect. ‘Rangoon Tape Dance’ splits into two sections, an intro of stuttering sitar licks atop a lush ambient bed and an outro of peaced-out guitar over space-age whirrs and record hiss. Young’s is a maddening world of sampled sounds that manages to speak volumes while defying logic.

Like the yacht rock daddies of yesteryear, Adrian Knight is here to take you away for a while. The Brooklyn-based Knight dropped this one just before the new year, drifting out of the shitshow of 2018 with a well-tailored grace matched only by Lewis Baloue, piña colada in hand, all fucks firmly ungiven. The Van Goghian waiting room portrayed on the cover, idyllic beach blaring up the wall over a dimly greying carpet, does well to summarise the music on Vacation Man. This is music cut from the most tasteless, tawdry and tacky of tools. And it’s somehow all the more blissful for it.

The irony isn’t ladled on as heavily as one might expect for an album of postmodern soft pop issued by a Brooklyn tape label. Tunes like the six-minute ‘Looking For My Love’ trace jazzy melodic routes around oddly complex structures, replete with flute licks and sax accents behind Knight and backing singer, resting happily on the song’s genuinely hooky refrain.

The main effects of the tape (to my ear) are two-fold. Firstly, deploying vintage yuppie syntax in an era when it holds no currency has a strange allure. Listening to this, I’m essentially enjoying the sickly sweet taste of commercialism without any of its moral drawbacks. Secondly, the sheer inoffensiveness of these tunes is some warm relief from the cold cynicism and evils of new modernity. Simply put, the synth bounce, rich vocal harmonies, BBC Radio 2 vibes, silky smooth guitar twangs, and root-note basslines of this are utterly undemanding. There’s arguably also a veiled melancholy behind everything here: the very idea of the proverbial ‘vacation man’ is kind of downbeat – a troubled man in need of shelter and relief from the world outside. But taken in earnest, Vacation Man is as rich, relaxing and sunny as a Floridian beach trip, that is to say, thoroughly imperfect.

This album by Kiwi improv duo OV PAIN caught me off-guard. Halfway through side A’s brooding beats ‘DISCARNATE’, I found myself staring blankly at the wall, visual senses utterly unresponsive while ears, mind and spirit were well and truly out for the count. The duo of Renée Barrance and Tim Player – both Dunedinites now living Melbourne – had managed to uncannily pull me in out of nowhere, dragging me from my desk and right into a black hole. Barrance spends both sides of this tape manning menacing drones issued from MS-20 and Minilogue synths, scurrying around the room like darkness closing in as the lamp oil runs out. The bass squall and serrated whirring eventually give way to some busier (and warmer) melodies on the closing crawl of side B’s ‘FOR EUGENIA’, but Barrance sits mostly calmly and zen-like behind the controls allowing the darkness to wash over him and his cohort for motionless minutes at a time.

Sax player Tim Player is by far the busier of the two, restlessly screeching around his colleague’s doomy ambience. His reed undergoes some gentle abuse, and his fingers just can’t keep still, spiralling endlessly around as if they’re locked inside a small dark room, feeling for escape routes to no avail. Either way, the world outside tends to disappear when this tape’s playing. It’s all down to OV PAIN’s total willingness to engage with the darkness. This one firmly sits on those ironically sunless crossroads between Sunn O))) and Sun Ra.

Swoosh, a distinctly loose free-rock outfit from Berlin, wear the tags on their Bandcamp page like the colours on a garish tie dye shirt. Firstly, ‘rock’. Well with three electric guitarists they certainly do plenty of that. (Besides them the band comprises a drummer and saxophonist). 13-minute opener ‘Hey, Kain’ has the core guitar trio swapping busily overlapping riffage and wah-wah solos like drunks in a sloppy fist fight. It’s an unashamed wig-out session, yes, but there ain’t no bass in this crew! The way this session punches has some of that ghostly frailty dropping the bass can have: in place of warm or sludgy bass you’ve got the damp and dust of a rehearsal room – surely a more truthful reflection of rock band reality anyway?

Which takes us to the ‘ambient’, and ‘drone’ tags. The lack of bass and intermingling of three noodling guitarists, plus reverbed sax notes, coalesce into a rock-band trellis, glued together by expressionistic broad strokes akin to drones and wonky ambience. The largely drumless ‘Song Of The Earth’ sits in purgatory for several minutes, guitar amps quietly buzzing with half-stroked strings. It’s way far out there, flying alongside the most abstract of Grateful Dead Space jams. Nice Things isn’t some grandiose opening full-length statement from the group – that goes against their very nature. Even that title seems to suggest a certain tongue in cheek-ness to these loose-limbed free-rockers. For groups like this though, the potential is always bottomless.

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