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Spool's Out

Spool's Out: Cassette Reviews For November By Tristan Bath
Tristan Bath , November 19th, 2019 07:28

Present and past get blurred into oneiric soundscapes in your roundup of November’s best music released on cassette tape by Tristan Bath

The influence of the past on the present is in flux. It’s something the writer of a column for a zombie format has to keep in mind. Time is creasing all over the place. A photo posted way back can jump back into your day as a reminder that five years ago, you went for a burrito with a mate. Brand new albums of synthesizer music can drop, aping soundtrack work from decades prior almost perfectly. Family history, cultural history, and colonialism are more constant than ever in internally exploratory works of art. The connections between now and then have always overlapped, underlying a sense that what was, what is, and what we do all run in parallel. The chaotic element in all of this though, throwing the entire structure into aesthetically fruitful entropy, is living at the crossover point between the death of decay and the birth of the eternal digital record.

Several of the artists featured this month focus seem to yank inspiration from the jaws of decay, relishing the Instagram filters of unreliable narration and cuddly tape hiss. Kajsa Lindgren’s tape extracts matter from her family’s archival recordings in search of a shared inheritance, both blurring the past and unveiling a truth shared with her past in the process. Wobbly’s mind-blowing Hausu Mountain tape attempts to find a way to get iOS devices to sing along and join in with his improvisations, turning the filter of instant history into a compositional tool; while Canadian artist Brigitte Bardon’t gathers radio signals to create sonic portraits of a fleeting present in North America’s endless sprawl. The humble tape columnist knows well though, that it’s all just an illusion. Whether captured in analogue warmth or digital clarity, whether exhumed from the archive or live streamed directly to your smartphone, the present, the past, the truth, and the made-up all carry equal weight in modern music.

This tape created by Negativland member, Dieter Moebius collaborator, and multimedia artist Jon Leidecker (under his glitch-tastic Wobbly moniker) isn’t really a solo record. He goes out of his way to clarify the process in a piece of assisting text, describing it as music "for multiple mobile devices, each one running a pitch-tracking app and a synthesizer”. Signals get sent from one device to the next, cascading through a lattice of pitch-shifts and errors (prone to occur when presenting the devices with polyphony), yielding a response from a choir of devices tantamount to artificial intelligence. “Every audience I’ve played this piece in front of quickly realises they're not listening to a solo,” he says.

The effect of this process is possibly best heard on mid-album miniatures ‘Best Necessary’ or ‘Multiplet’. You can sense a keyboard improvisation getting chewed up and spat out by a rabid pack of device dogs, mutating single lines of melody into a creeping herd of woozy robots, imitating (or perhaps coming to) life. On the former, it conjures a jolly Studio Ghibli march of confused singing bots, on the latter, a bit-crushed gothic haunted house of synthetic spiderwebs. Elsewhere, Leidecker uses his keyboard and touchscreen setup to slot more beats and bass in under the choir of interlocuting electronics, like Willy Wonka tap dancing between confused Oompa Loompas. The title track is a slower crawl, but really seems to unfold as a ‘conversation’ between Wobbly and his devices. The verity of these machines truly playing along with Wobbly could be a stretch – in any case, the album sheds light on the ever-present ears we carry in our pockets now, and the psychedelic madness that might happen when they start to talk back.

Issued via long-running and aptly-named Richmond, Virgina imprint Anti-Everything, this tape sets aside 20 minutes apiece for Romanian outfit Somnoroase Păsărele and noisy Russian oddball, Womba. Both acts treat us to a bizarre montage of ambient noise and indescribable improv, both methodologies shrouded in mystery and impossible to extrapolate. Tape scene stalwarts Somnoroase Păsărele dub their side, ‘CLAR’ as a medley, though it’s perhaps more of an abstract stream-of-consciousness, with leering bassy synth lines stirring beneath a slow-moving gale of bit-crushed tones, segueing from organ-like clouds, to chaotic dissonance, and ultimately moving out the other side of a black hole where a massive drone swallows everything whole. Give yourself over to ‘CLAR’ and you will be engulfed and destroyed. It’s an electronic suite with the same primitive technological feel that makes early tape music so compelling, but woven through with a much more tangible sense of drama that makes it a breezy, and affecting, listen.

Womba’s sampledelic suite, ‘Festering Maps of Pilvialueella’, largely relies on Estonian and Latvian field recordings to create an oneiric dreamscape of memories. You don’t have to have been to the Baltic part of the world to have these murmurs, vibes, and chilly moods trigger something in your textural internal memory. It’s a relentless side of field recordings, similar to dropping a few tabs and having a wander around Riga Central Market. It achieves the dream goal of any field recordings collagist, and stirs up sense beyond merely sound – from the feel of cobbles beneath one’s feet, to the scent of pickles and fish, or the concrete greys and vibrant browns of architecture.

Hailing from Berdsk, a town just south of Novosibirsk in south Siberia, Egor Klochikhin is a musician who’s previously made a distinct point out of utilising ‘tape wobble’ to evoke a mixture of nostalgia and a purposefully oneiric tone to his folk-influenced home recordings. Four years after his gorgeous Diafilms tape for Moscow-based imprint Klammklang, Klochikhin brings his Foresteppe moniker back to the label for a vaster, deeper, and darker feeling work in the form of Karaul. The tape format itself as a device for capturing and shaping sound remains present, but fleshed out with a broad palette of industrial thuds, post-club bass whirrs, toy pianos, and horns.

The name of the set refers to mundane guard duty, and the recordings were purportedly made with Klochikhin’s mandatory military service with the Strategic Missile Forces in mind – “a rather traumatic experience commonly spread among many Russian young men”. The various emotions of such duty, from a lack of control over one’s destiny, to a sense of impending doom, to the sheer vast boredom and emptiness of guard duty, infects the music. Space and patience play a huge role in these abstract instrumentals, such as ‘lil one’, where a sampled pulse and tape-warbled noises tick away like a busily dripping faucet late at night. The emptiness is suddenly filled with power electronic noise at the halfway mark, evoking a nuclear explosion (the Hiroshima bomb was after all called Little Boy) or even just the inevitable outpouring of energy and emotion following boring ass guard duty. Crackling acoustic guitars periodically appear between the dreamy post-apocalyptic tapescapes too, notably beautifully on the title track, weighed down with a mixture of sorrow and hope as Klochikhin plucks away over an organ drone. Foresteppe is standing guard over some fresh ground between deconstructionist electronics and forlorn isolated folk here, and the result is a surprisingly potent experience that holds up on return trips.

Simple, hooky, minimal, synthy, and sung in German, this album by Stuttgart-based songwriter Luis Ake does a good job of aping the key ingredients of Neue Deutsche Welle into an intimate and low-key meisterwerk of emotional pop you can throw shapes too. Largely written in bursts behind just a sequencer and a synth or two (i.e. no computer), Ake’s tunes are no nonsense introverted synth pop channeling moments of private sadness into danceable hooks. The title track (‘Please Let Me Go’), is a soaring breakup anthem; ‘Zurück’ is a pulsing drum machine hymnal pleading with a partner to return; closing track ‘Deine Stimme’ is a bittersweet ballad replete with an orchestra of retro synth voices and a sax solo on the outro. This is barebones synth pop, achieved breezily, and executed wonderfully.

Ake is a hopeless romantic perhaps, and one imagines that most, if not all of the breakups and heartbreak documented in this song are made up. The shamelessly retro vibe though, that falsetto rejecting all masculine cliches, the simplistic pop melodies – they all conspire to get across a heartfelt depth of emotion.

So. We know nothing about whoever this is. Does it matter though? This is their first cassette for Opal Tapes (they dropped a vinyl last year, Berzerk), and it carries a promise of low-difficulty level electronic thuds to massage your brain. RYYTMA it cries, emblazoned across the spine of the cassette, a half-wrong, half-emphasised wording for the key ingredient at play.

Skirting outlying zones of minimal techno and house, this anonymity of presentation is perhaps a bit of a red herring. It’s an area of music where artists, labels, and even tracks are often tough for the untrained eye to differentiate at all. The constant thud of a kick drum, soft-edged and muffled like a heavy heartbeat, is the constant throughout this tape, along with perhaps a compressed roof of hiss that gives the entire set the feel of a dodgy late night radio signal or imperfect soundsystem macheteing its way down into bass tones. Each track toys with extra bits of stuff – the title track adds digi-bongos, ‘TRAWOI AAK’ inserts hellish arpeggiated synth keys underneath, opener ‘BBBALAGAN’ is an ass-shaker of almost pure kick worship, sitting on little else for much of its five minutes and suffering nothing from omission.

There will, perhaps, always be a place for this kind of release. The digital versions can slide into the Traktor libraries of a thousand DJ sets seamlessly, the tapes themselves can wind on endlessly adding energy to car rides and home parties. This doof doof doof will never quite lose its appeal, and when the deft hands of whoever this is gets the ingredients just right, I find it hard to argue that I’m not happy about that.

Torontonian multimedia artist Brigitte Bardon’t (aka Kristel Jax) makes music in a variety of ways, from haunting noise pop to drone improv. Her debut tape dives headfirst into concrète radio signal collage, taking inspiration from cut-uppers and recording radio signals picked up at a single time and place per track. Recorded over the course of five years in twelve different cities, these Radio Songs manage to truly capture something of their time and place. The methodology varies throughout too, with Jax sometimes recording in one shot, other times mixing radio bits and field sounds together after the fact, or, as on the epic opening track ‘Is That All There Is?’ recorded Winnipeg, layering and processing bits and pieces into an entirely new dream gumbo of radio snippets.

With the fuzz of car radios and incidental noises from planet earth creeping in, the KLF’s Chill Out springs to mind. That album, put together three decades back as a trippy ambient sample-filled countryside drive, even sampled the haunted voice of Elvis crooning ‘In The Ghetto’ as Jax does here (the King’s voice here heard on ‘Young And Beautiful’, recorded in Bergamo, Italy). Brigitte Bardon’t however, operates closer to something like a documentarian – or perhaps more accurately an unreliable reporter, twisting reality through the fuzz of a radio and warmth of cassette tape into a deconstructed emotional haze.

Bergamo’s airwaves seem somehow chaotic and melodramatic. By comparison, the town of Schenectady, NY (located between NYC and Montreal) appears intensely stilted and held back, the track comprising little more than a boring ass Prairie Home Companion snippet. The most hands-off moments of the album however – i.e. when Brigitte Bardon’t essentially surfs through the dial – are easily the most surprising. Analogue radio (like analogue tape) might seem like an outdated format, but the ephemeral and spontaneous nature of the medium says so much about these places, and it’s easy for young city folk like myself to forget billions of people a day drive around in cars blaring AM and FM radio signals, just as we did decades back. Sevierville, Tennessee; Cobourg, Ontario; Durham, North Carolina; these are the kinds of places where most Americans live frankly, and this is how they largely sound and feel. It’s perhaps far from Brigitte Bardon’t’s goal, but her Radio Songs tell the truth in a way few modern musicians do.

Her parents’ archival recordings, stumbled upon in a basement, form the basis of Kajsa Lindgren’s Everyone Is Here. Framed as a meditation on “themes of inheritance, family and closeness,” the album takes various approaches to extrapolating, adapting, and reinterpreting the content found in the parental archives. ‘Trio for cello, piano and violin’ features Kajsa's mother, uncle and grandfather playing on Swedish radio in the 1970's. ‘1991’ pairs birds cooing against Lindgren’s inky synth droplets. ‘Melodies’ nearer the end of the album is a churchy piece featuring Lindgren singing atop field sounds and other ambience, blurring the lines between old and new entirely.

The twenty tracks bleed into and over each other, and the time travel effect of diving into archival sounds is swapped out for a criss-crossing and tangled genealogy. Old and new interleave, like flipping through a family photo album that got dropped on the floor, photographs spilling all over, then thrown together in a new and beautiful order that’s anything but chronological.

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