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Spool's Out

Spool's Out: Cassette Reviews For September By Tristan Bath
Tristan Bath , September 11th, 2019 12:17

Willful obscurity, emotional precision, and noisy blowouts abound in September’s best tapes, chosen by Tristan Bath

Rojin Sharafi portrait by Hessam Samavatian

Despite being a multimedia artist, Laura Luna Castillo seems above all to deal in mood and emotion. Based out of Puebla, Mexico, Castillo has previously worked with virtual reality, sculpture, and much else in addition to music, but it’s all part of the same family of methods. The work is all aimed at communicating feelings while taking an audience on a rich sensory journey. Castillo’s skills are on top form on Folksonomies, which sees her crafting rich ambient instrumentals of bobbing synths and loops that shimmer effortlessly.

Case in point, ‘Without Dust And Shadow’ is a looped piano arpeggio firing off instant nostalgia, revolving below while synths and 8-bit crushed gurglings spill like mist over a mountainside. The track’s arguably just one long coda, elements sliding gradually in and out of the mix - but Castillo’s honed sensory curation means the slim selection of elements adds up to far more than the sum of its parts.

This method continues through various moods across the tape’s eight tracks, with electronic timbres buzzing and blooping and whirring into heavy atmospheric scenes. String instruments - be they VSTs or samples - play the roles of key protagonists too. A mellotron washes over beautifully sad opener ‘I See But Say Nothing’, and a pensive banjo and keyboard cello wander through ‘I Breathe Trust’. Interestingly, the music is described as having been “guided by Sasha Laskowsky’s complementary album artwork”, comprising a series of imagined ‘island inhabitants’ drawn in the vein of mythical Aztec or Incan figures. There’s one per track, all included in the foldout J-Card (check the photos of then on the bandcamp page).

Each track indeed feels like part of a set, like a gang of Commedia dell'arte masks standing in for facets of emotion. The eight-minute-long ‘I Smooth Claws’ gently floors us with a march at the tail of the tape, with buried drum machine tension and analogue bass synth lurching up toward but never quite breaching the surface. It’s a tense and dread-filled conclusion that surprisingly leaves the most lasting impression from a tape that’s far more beautiful than fearful.

The music of Rojin Sharafi is uniquely mangled by its own logic. The young musician (born in Tehran, currently based in Vienna) plays by no known rules and sculpts by no known methods. When I saw her play live last year, she was throwing ping pong balls across a table next to a malfunctioning tube television. Even with experimental sounds more rampant than ever in the modern musical diet, the truly unexpected seems harder to find. And there’s no better way to describe what Sharafi’s presenting on her debut tape for Sote’s brilliant Zabte Sote imprint (a label “focusing on experimental electronic music by Iranian composers”) than ‘the unexpected’.

The topography of the music on Urns Waiting To Be Fed comes from another world. It doesn’t simply loop; it certainly doesn’t sound as if it is built from verses, choruses, or even just ‘sections’; it doesn’t even feel like a guided improvisation. ‘Floating On The Stream’ on the first side spends ten minutes taking the path of most resistance through serrated electronic buzzes, rhythmic pounding slowing down and speeding up, 8-bit bloops that sound like Super Mario’s tripped himself up and fallen down a massive hill, and a huge variety of percussive hits from untraceable sources. The album’s text even details Sharafi’s use of “electronic produced elements which sound acoustic and acoustic elements, which sound electronic”. The artist has discussed her various approaches to time and narrative, citing convoluted storylines, flashback/flashforward, plus fluid, frozen, and solid time as key compositional tools in her arsenal. All of this isn’t to say that drama and crescendo don’t play their role – check out the battling peaks and troughs of ‘Sayonara’ or the Autechre-esque rush of beats on ‘The Last Urn Broke’ – but Sharafi’s skirting a place where such concepts have little role to play. This is one of the most ecstatic and fiercely original hours of music you’ll come across in 2019.

From the opening notes of ‘Rishi Stars’, it’s clear Natalie Rose LeBrecht set her innermost self on a collision course with the cosmos while recording this music. The vocalist/composer has been largely radio silent for a decade spent away from making music it would seem, with the origin story for this release stemming from the ten years spent focusing on meditation and, I kid you not, hypnosis. Her study of the latter sent LeBrecht mentally travelling to “extraordinary interdimensional spheres”, which she aims to channel into the music on Mandarava Rose. While the influence of Alice Coltrane’s ashram years is undeniable – the aforementioned ‘Rishi Stars’, replete with glissandi, is even dedicated to Turiyasangitananda herself – LeBrecht’s patience, focus, and piano playing is the key ingredient across this blessed piece of cassette music. Rolling waves of piano keys, floating organs, and shimmering woodwind create an almost aggressively peaceful backdrop for LeBrecht’s painfully intimate vocals. Getting lost in this one isn’t only highly recommended. It’s easy.

Recorded in Lyttleton, New Zealand Rituals Volume One captures a spontaneous meet-up between two Kiwi improvisers. Saxophonist/clarinettist Reuben Derrick goes up against Misha Marks, who plays baritone horn plus latarra, a homemade electric guitar he constructed "out of an old metallic first-aid box”. The primordial rumble and restless plucks of Marks’ latarra lay a moody foundation through the opening section of the first side-long piece, ‘Elixir From The Hills’. He lazily plucks and slides around the bottom of the spectrum while Derrick parps and flails quickly upwards, driving the duo into a breathtaking ascent into haphazard heights of strumming and gasping. The final half of the track is more playful and childlike, with the pair testing out various extended techniques on the latarra and how Derrick’s reeds can play off them.

‘9PR8+82 Lyttelton’ on side two has Marks switch to baritone horn, and they mutate into a pair of duelling ducks, honking at each other. Derrick’s busy fingers ultimately win out with some nimble and lightning fast Evan Parker-inspired screeching (not that it’s a competition of course). This is an inherently valuable document due to the unusual nature of the instrumental pairings. Marks’ latarra and baritone horn playing make a fresh foil for the mind-blowing squall of Reuben Derrick’s reeds, and across two tracks lasting precisely 20 minutes and 20 seconds apiece, they explore a titanic swathe of invigorating sonic possibilities.

Freeform Brighton collective The Vitamin B12 have been around since the tail-end of the 1980s, and are responsible for a hefty array of recordings of limited availability. Always revolving around core member Alasdair Willis, Vitamin B12 releases range from lengthy amorphous freeform sessions, to near-krauty beats and rhythmic workouts, to surf-rock tinged rock & roll. One notable three-year period between 2009 and 2011 saw Alasdair Willis produce a series of purely solo records, and it is these that form the basis of this unusual tape of ‘songs within songs’. Erstwhile on/off Vitamin B12 member Nicholas Langley takes the liberty of turning recordings from that period into nine new re-recordings/ re-arrangements/ re-mixes. The result is an off-kilter set of instrumentals that intoxicatingly augment an already maddeningly strange legacy.

Take ‘FORMATION 13’, based on a track from The Vitamin B12’s Rock Formations. The original is a flailing motorik miniature of guitar plucks rippling through delay hypnotically. Langley’s reinterpretation swaps guitar delay for synth pulses and keyboard chimes, instantly swapping cosmic rock darkness for a heavenly synth paradise. Langley does well to cover at least some of the vast stylistic breadth of The Vitamin B12, including some twanging surf rock, but mostly his own fingerprints are always apparent, where electronics bubble rather than buzz, and technicolor consistently overcomes monochrome. Obviously this is all an epic act of willful obscurity… but leaning into it and using Nicholas Langley Plays The Vitamin B12 as a freaky diving board into the eternally confusing B12 discography is a rum music experience I highly recommend.

The 160+ BPM productions of Pittsburgh-based W00dy make for an exhilarating listen. They mash up genres to the point that it becomes somewhat pointless trying to cite them, with gabber, jungle, and juke sequences often sitting right next to each other in the same track. Snipped up vocals and heaps of fast-paced energy are the running theme, alluding perhaps to something more jittery and uncertain than the simple bacchanal pleasure of the dancefloor. ‘Like What U Do’ takes the unusual route of slicing the double time BPM suggested in its opening crawl in half with kick drum placement, then switching the experience back the other way right thereafter. Besides moving extra fast and slicing up voices and jungle drum breaks into a rush of a collage, W00dy’s unique ability is to yank and mould rhythms in all manner of unexpected directions. Footwork it ain’t, but the challenge to dancers is gonna be similar.

This self-released EP/mini-album/whatever purports to grapple with “coming of age, coping with mental illness, grief, and feeling a sense of belonging.” Such stuff ain’t normally put to thrusting club beats, but My Diary shows how dealing with such feelings of weakness and conflicting emotion is perhaps best served by losing oneself on the dancefloor.

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