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Spool's Out

Spool's Out: Cassette Reviews For May By Tristan Bath
Tristan Bath , May 19th, 2020 08:29

Tristan Bath rounds up the best tape releases for May, taking some time out to focus on musicians already working with limitations and isolation

Mariam Rezaei

The ability – or perhaps tendency – of minimalist and ambient music alike to fill space has got me thinking a lot in recent months. My own inability to sit still, to be quiet, to shut down and shut off, has been drawn into sharp relief (just like, well, everything else in the world) due to this global pandemic thingy, and this absolutely includes filling every waking minute with background music.

Tapes, streaming, records, radios, podcasts all blare day and night either in my little flat or in my little headphones, and as work has now invaded the home too, this means the empty, the full, the busy, the lazy, work and relaxation have all intertwined.

As perhaps you might have guessed due to this column too, a huge chunk of this music is on tape too – and surely the squidgy endless loop of a cassette tape in a player with autoreverse is the ultimate way to listen in a disengaged manner?

This month’s tapes therefore have had a tendency to creep and crawl around behind me, only gradually demanding my attention. No better starting point then, than the Deep Space Duo...

Conceived out of a shared love for the vintage portable Acetone Top 5 Organ (you’ll know it from the work of Terry Riley and others), this meet up between Whitney Johnson & Matt Jencik arose while they were both touring as members of Circuit Des Yeux’s band. The very idea of ‘space’ in ambient and minimalist music seems contrary to me, well typified by this duo. The imagery and idea of floating in the cosmos is meant to be a freeing one, something that Sun Ra and Riley alike can attest to, yet it’s there’s also something engulfing and stultifying about the vastness of the void, and in turn, the musical drone. Johnson and Jencik fill space with duelling Acetones, murmuring musical ideas as they swap chords and lick melodies into delays and loopers, rounding off any edges in post with backward masking and subtle touches from Jencik. The sessions done initially straight to 4-track thrive on expanding small ideas into warm and cosy soundscapes that stretch out as far as the (inner) eye can see, also drawing no small amount of warmth and colour from their analog setting.

Riding with the Deep Space Duo has been a source of comfort, to be sure. Even the most subtle and sketchy moments like the half-finished ‘Outer Oort Cloud’ provide three minutes of mind-filling music. Distortion creeps in, or a right-hand wanders a bit more than before, but largely this tape is an aesthetic and not a collection of songs; it’s an idea explored and discovered by the players. There’s bliss to be found, but also angst and worry, like shining a torch into the canyons of your mind only to reveal the sheer scale of those cliff edges, and depths of those caves. Perhaps I’m projecting as I go stir crazy, weeks into isolation, but this music mirrors how I’ve spent my Spring – unable to breathe for the open air, a huge length of time stretching out before me to explore, filled in by the fog of constant thought.

Craig Pollard’s Competition is similarly choked by room to think on Repetitive Music, the name even simultaneously descriptive and critical in its formulation. Little snippets cycle behind Pollard’s subdued vocals, sing-speaking gently like the softest of voice memos done under bed covers, late at night. Each track is based around a loop – elegant strings on opener ‘Grow(n)’, titular arpeggiated string plucks on ‘guitar’, a slowed down line from another song entirely on ‘misery space’ – yet the idea that this music is ‘repetitive’ is something of a red herring. Well, any musical repetition is ultimately something of an illusion, but here Competition deftly picks the basic snippets behind each track to have some kind of elliptical or illusory nature, mutating before our very ears (even if they ain’t). The clattering on ‘Violins’ for example, doesn’t quite repeat, and trying to work out quite what the timbre stems from had me rewinding and listening again anyway.

Pollard’s thoughts put into words atop these loops are delicate in how they see the world. It’s unclear to what extent he fears or adores existence, finding beauty and poetry in moving out a flat on ‘Grow(n)’, but also full of angst at the idea of growing alone. A crunchy beat on ‘Really Really’ backs up some tunefully multi tracked murmuring, turning it into a skeletal pop tune, Competition embodying a kind of teenaged sense of confusion – ”Do you really really want me?” I get the feeling, that’s for sure. These simple little constructions from Competition are surprisingly rich and healing to experience, and well suited to create some thoughtful little structures for the introverted mind.

Mariam Rezaei makes music in such a bizarre and personal way, that initially it feels like there’s almost no mutual intelligibility between my world and hers. Yet deep in the belly of the sprawling 16-minute exploration of colliding voices ‘AGENCY’, a dense and strange structure reveals itself. The bleating sounds of a wordless moan stretch and skew back and forth and multiply and abstract into a strange quivering choir. The entire exercise is an indictment of language itself in many ways, exploring as this tape is “the semantics and etymology of language used around and by people identifying with multiple ethnicities”. Such identities instantly challenge all sorts of notions mirrored and compounded by the limitations of verbal language itself. Rezaei also takes aim at “racist right-wing politics in 2020 Britain”, along with the “nuances of white privilege coupled with regressive feminism found in everyday ‘lefty' online writing”. So… she’s aiming high here! But armed with a Technics turntable (a tool for the revolution if ever there was one), she utterly masks the roots of her sounds via all kinds of mental turntablist techniques, creating a desperate and wild headspace to sit with for two sides of breathtaking tape.

Every track on the album besides ‘AGENCY’ and harsh-noise closer ‘GASH’ features a collaborator from the UK underground, including Yol, Petronn Sphene, Sharon Gal and others you might’ve spotted in this column’s inches or radio hour in the past. Only allowing for one take per collaboration it seems, the shaking quivering acid-soaked way Mariam handles a limitation of just two voices at a time (two turntables at once is the limit it seems) seems to parody how our better instincts are being smushed (into xenophobia) by forces beyond the group’s control. On ‘FLESH’ two contributed solo-sax recordings from long-serving free-sax-head Tony Bevan battle it out under Rezaei’s nimble-fingered guidance, wildly mutating from lion roaring blasts into hyena-like cackling. On the surface this is a great mind-frying noise tape put together during COVID-19 lock-down – but Rezaei definitely has a hell of a lot to say with her art besides. I can only recommend listening.

Red Sprite represents the first released recordings by Sheffield-based saxophonist Helen Papaioannou’s sax-tronics project, Kar Pouzi. Her oceanic baritone goes up against a broad church of electronic beeps and noises, often in an overlapping, imperceivable and confusing manner. The bedrock of the music is a skeletal kind of bleep and glitch, taking left turns into dense drones or powerful bassy thudding. The first of the three self-titled tracks could almost represent a test card for Kar Pouzi’s methodology, pairing long single-note parps of sax with synth tones running in parallel, bit-by-bit unfurling into a one-woman battle with her sax as electronics whirr, parrying back and forth, settling into a fight music rhythm. I honestly waited for a kick drum to drop in – but it didn’t need to anyway. The other self-titled tracks usher Papaioannou’s simple sharp and heavy saxophone over glitchy marches that wander around the stereo field. The eight-minute-plus ‘Red Sprite III’ feels the logical peak of the tape, with hushed laptop rhythms mutating into hushed drones, and finally emerging as hefty noisy baritone blasts threatening to blow your tape deck wide open. Closing track ‘Gabbazanzara’ is almost a coda, shorter in length, and using the previous tracks roaring close-miked sax as a launchpad for descending bass drops and pulsating industrial techno thuds. An intense and unique half-hour from an artist I hope to see playing some intensely loud sets in some dark busy rooms once this is over.

The extraordinary journey of San Antonio, Texas improviser Claire Rousay continues to capture an indefinable form of bliss. A couple of years ago, you could find her (then under her previous name, Dane Rousay) scrabbling around behind her drum kit in an attempt to free percussion’s role from chains of masculinity and rhythm. This mutated into a utilisation of everyday objects as oddball percussion, segueing seamlessly into increasingly prevalent elements of montage and collage. Now Rousay’s own voice and a bottomless pile of footsteps, as well as domestic sound have entered the spectrum to make a kind of post-rhythm, post-melody sound palette full of signifiers and words and whispered ASMR sensations.

A Heavenly Touch – released in April – is perhaps Rousay’s most successful experiment with her drum kit-free form of fractured percussion concrète, introducing (I think for the first time) her own keyboard sounds too. Seven relatively short tracks assemble everyday sounds besides the dull hum of domestic life, wandering dream like from moment to moment: a text arrives, TV channels are surfed through, a cacophony of lo-fi whispering Rousay’s surrounds us, an electric piano version of The Paris Sisters’ 'I Love How You Love Me' plays. Nine-minute closer ‘Last Date’ includes recordings sent in from fans and friends on social media telling the story of their last date they went on before lockdown. This tape (second edition might I add) is now sold out, but there’s a new one that appeared at the start of May via a Texan tape imprint:

Unlike the warm caress and constant domestic drone of A Heavenly Touch, I'll Give You All Of My Love is full of empty space, comprising two long pieces which include distant drum hits and plenty of repetition. Besides feeling more full of angst and uncertainty than its immediate predecessor – which was clearly an act of outward warmth during a global pandemic – this album feels more intensely inward. Rousay’s musical transition has mirrored her own gender transition since around the start of 2019, and along the way, self-care and contemplation seem to have bled into both transitions, taking her expansion of percussion’s role in sound-making down unexpected routes.

Along the way during the utterly compelling collage of ‘October 3rd’, a doomy vibe of machine drones creeps along in the background as Rousay comes to the microphone herself: “Today’s my mum’s birthday. It’s also the day that I made up my mind probably 85%, that I don’t wanna do music any more.”

She goes on to explain how she’s delaying telling her mum – also a musician – the news, as it will be “hard to hear”. Hopefully, this is all theatre. Rousay’s making some of the most emotionally-affecting experimental music in the USA right now (well, most certainly in terms of what this column’s been covering). Her message of self-care and introspection is built using chunks of the world around us too, footsteps on carpets, a shower switching on, cars passing on the street and so on. I find myself actually switching off the music for once and listening to the dull crappy sounds that surround me in my flight or out the window – thinking what they mean to me, or perhaps even what I am to them.

As conceptual concrète goes, The End Of Music by Morusque – aka Montpellier-based artist Yann van der Cruyssen – is about as fun, beautiful, and listenable as you can get. Comprising solely the final notes of recordings, it’s a self-dubbed “reconstruction of the signifier”, using teeny samples as foundational building blocks for all kinds of maddened musical mishaps. The final note of a song is perhaps a particularly good choice for this project too, as it’s normally a moment (necessarily so) made of pure drama and tension. Morusque chops and slices the pieces into grooves and soundscapes that rival the best in the game – Andy Votel, Vicki Bennett’s People LIke Us, John Oswald, early Amon Tobin – reviving these tiny snippets into something entirely new. Clearly in the age of the DAW we can all agree basically anything can be a source of sound, and can be turned into almost anything. The magic of Matmos’ Ultimate Care II clearly didn’t need to come from a washing machine – with enough ingenuity they could have used anything to make that music digitally. But The End Of Music most certainly has something to say about teetering at the end of all these hundreds of pieces of music, taking the final death rattle of little bits of art, and stretching them out, spaghettified over an event horizon and coming out the other end with something this melodic, bouncy, and warm. Even if there’s no life after death, it’s fun to imagine it.