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Spool's Out

Spool's Out: Cassette Reviews For June By Tristan Bath
Tristan Bath , June 23rd, 2020 08:44

Tristan Bath peruses and picks June’s best new releases on cassette tape, showing new strategies in noise pervading the heart of 2020

White Boy Scream by Marisa Martinez

The act of ‘reclaiming the diva’ seems to be the fire fuelling White Boy Scream, aiming as LA-based soprano Micaela Tobin does, to bring her powerful operatic voice out of the concert halls and into the real damn world. It’s pretty tragic when you think about it, how the learned abilities of operatic singing have been detained in one of the deader and more rigid areas of music-making in the 21st century. Matana Roberts used an opera singer to striking effect on Coin Coin Chapter Two: Mississippi actually, but beyond that all I can picture right now when it comes to opera singers outside of opera is Pavarotti singing 'Perfect Day' with Lou Reed back in 2002. [shudders] Anyway, I digress.

This new tape by Tobin’s White Boy Scream project expands upon what she started on 2018’s Remains, kicking off with the 18-minute title track, named after a serpentine titan from Philippine mythology. Tobin slides her way through a slow aria atop atonal piano chiming, eventually ascending some six-minutes into the piece over gamelan clanging, her voice disappearing from a crystal-clear opera hall to distorted backyard screaming. Shimmering passages of drones and Tobin’s breathtaking wordless vocalisations continue through the piece’s second half, resolving with a wash of Merzbowian distortion. It’s an experience every bit as crushing as the natural disasters mythology would have Bakunawa instigate. The rest of the tape is no less challenging, comprising a suite of five further pieces, with Tobin leaving no stone unturned. ‘Mirrors’ is a meditative crescendo of vocal loops, building on the phrase, “We are mirrors, facing toward the sun”. ‘Bituing’ actually unleashes the sheer dynamic scope of her voice over an gentle electric guitar in something of a delicate spiralling lullabye. ‘Apolaki’ ushers us out with streams of distorted rumblings and walls of total noise alongside a chorus of Tobins. Bakunawa is a dense web of mish-mashed traditions; it’s a reclamation of a western classical practice, an interleaving of Filipino mythology, a post-industrial blast of noise, and a heartfelt burst of energy from an artist continuing to explore and unschackle her abilities.

Now deep into a second decade of activity documented almost exclusively on cassette tape, Wether is the open-ended experimental project of Wilmington, Delaware’s Mike Haley. Wether’s electronic explorations range far and wide, dipping into blackest possible evil noise, or sojourning into uplifting ambient squall. This very worthy EP-sized session named in honour of a basketball-playing doggy, comprises of noisy trips through bubbly synths and found sounds on tape. The modular textures tend to resemble a malfunctioning computer from Look Around You, like a school science project that's been left alone for too long. The ‘found sounds’ are a great foil for the synth textures too, with impenetrable voice samples, distant orchestras and choirs, maniacal laughter, chiming shopping tills, echoing duck quacks, and much other sampled tape junk mumbling alongside Haley’s squelchy sounds. Side two gets far sparser, exchanging the bubbling with leering drones and punishingly noisy knob-twiddling. It’s a testament to Haley’s long-nurtured skill that this humble excursion pairing Delaware thrift store tape findings with whirring synthesizers is as rich an experience as it is.

Under her Strict Nurse guise, Hague-based noise artist Leilani Trowell-De Turck descends into the true depths here. She has crafted slowly asphyxiating drones that cycle around and engulf the listener, improving on the strength of her 2017 debut tape, Erratic even. The title of C O U R A G E Be Brave is perhaps oddly against the grain for an artist with a name like Strict Nurse too – even more unlikely considering the NWW-ian title of the epic sidelength opening track is ‘A Creaking Clock of Bone & Sinew’ – but the album title’s hopeful message fits well into a 21st century tradition of noisy positivity. The music is no less heavy mind, with that vast opener spending 11 minutes treading softly through a greying meadow of distant synth breezes and muted whispering before launching into a distorted heavy assault that sounds like your mate left their industrial techno demos out in the sun for too long (but refuses to play them any quieter). Even so, shafts of light creep quickly in, and this Struct Nurse is clearly handling us with careful assertiveness. And my word do we need it here in 2021 too. The twenty minutes of ‘Creaking Clock’ are painful for sure, but they heal just as much – it’s a descendant from the ‘Persuasion’ school of slow-moving TG noise, rubbing you the wrong way for full effect, slowly but surely rather than quickly and aggressively.

The rest of the tape lives up to the distorted post-noise dub-ambient rumblings of side one. ‘Serodiscordant‘ presents a stumbling cosmic pulse; ‘Blossom To Bone’ hisses and echoes like turning the ignition on for a vast ocean liner. For closing track ‘Bitchcraft’, Strict Nurse’s singing voice is clearer than before, hovering above epic bass-y synth notes and amassing cricket-esque beats. The piece slowly works its way to a ritualistic climax of call-and-reply delay pedals, echo effects spiralling almost out of control, and the edges of the tape almost bursting with muffled low-end. In terms of aesthetic, Strict Nurse’s melodic beams of light veiled behind dark noisy storm clouds captures both the sense of wide-eyed horror with the society we are all sharing today, but also the comfort and warmth our peers provide us with every single day; a piercing smile amid crowds of demonic leers.

Operating from up in the North East of England, in some form or other at least since the early 1990s, BigRoadBreaker (aka brb>voicecoil) is based around the work of musician, Kevin Wilkinson. Alongside a slew of newer work drip feeding out of the Bandcamp pages arrives this tape of lost master tapes from the mid-90s, "re-discovered during COVID-19 lock-down". It’s an eye-opening set of recordings, seeing BigRoadBreaker in 95 and 96 operating as the trio of Wilkinson with Rob Meek and Steve Chahley, improvising in-studio with an array of field recordings, "stolen sounds", keyboards and other "gadgets". It’s only slightly rough around the edges, and the sounds are largely far-from dated – in fact, it’s pretty spellbinding how comfortably this quarter-century old session fits in alongside modern-day electro-improv groups in terms of digital-squall.

Squelchy old-skool keyboard tones obviously play their part in these rhythmic jammers, as does no small amount of analogue hissy and amplifier feedback, but for the most part the doom-laden freeform mood is intensely well controlled and feels impressively considered. What I’m getting at: these recordings don’t sound like some lo-fi cellar-tape hurled out onto the proverbial car boot sale heap of the internet. It’s practically a forgotten paragraph in the history of British freeform electronics, which all too often leapfrogs from the industrial powered noises of the 80s to the unknowable blogosphere of the 00s. I’ve got some homework to do.

Easily pronounceable but firmly anti-SEO, the twelve instances of the letter m in the name of Boston-based artist Adammmmmmmmmmmm symbolise both a dizzying short circuiting runtime error, and the warmth of human contact. "Mmmm" I think to myself as I sip a nice cuppa tea. There’s humanity of course in every error, it’s one of the most human parts of computer code, operating as we do on our failures and nonsensical instincts, comparable to our own biological computer errors. It adds all the colour here, with Adammmmmmmmmmmm’s music roping in a vast slew of musical vibes to create energetic, frenetic, composites. They veer between danceable tropes of bouncy arpeggios launching into anthemic spiralling melodies and just as readily descending into an entropy of overlapping electronic music ideas. Track 4 – ’I…’ – does just that, including bitcrushed clarinets, Ibiza chorus swooping, and crunchy noises of battering and digital drilling.

Ok Im Real I Think conjoins the complexities of hyperrealist pop tropes spouted by the likes of Scottish producer Sophie, with the generative world of computer art where thermodynamics are about as likely to lead a piece of music as human emotion. Above all though, the good news, there are some true bangers that lie herein. The precisely eight-minute long ‘NOTHING’ repeatedly works its way up to and clambers down from gabber-like heights of energetic club heaven. The Prague-based Genot Centre really know how to pick ‘em, and Adammmmmmmmmmmm is again an artist I’m going to want to spend some time getting to know. Theirs is a musical world governed as much by chaos as emotion, which feels particularly relevant and worthy of consideration.

Similarly unshackled from the confines of form, expectation, and order as several of these month’s other tape releases, this collection of experimental MIDI piano sketches by Suren Seneviratne boldly leans into entropy as an agent for musical invention. Better known under his pseudonym My Panda Shall Fly, Seneviratne circuit bends and sequences some strange assemblages of MIDI blobs here, with the help of a Korg SQ1 sequencer and Yamaha MU-15 tone generator, which he was “circuit-bending in real-time.” The resultant illogical and uncanny virtual sonatas have piano notes hanging for an impossibly long time, and melodies appearing from thin air like an AI-generated copy of your favourite Bach track. The music’s all straight-to-tape single takes, and manages to retain its sense of spontaneity and the joy of discovery.

As the cassette progresses, order disappears well over the horizon, with other voices and strange sonic leftovers coming into play at the behest of the tone generator’s input into the process. The attack and decay applied to piano notes inverts and mutates them into organ drones and faulty buzzers. The result is far more meditative than one might imagine, and almost a complete deconstruction of the musical confines Western classical music places upon itself via piano keys. Under Suren Seneviratne’s guidance, these machines are let loose across the virtual MIDI keyboard, and the findings capture a kind of spiritual snapshot of the instrument – ironically only by having smashed it to shreds along the way.

At first, I thought the lead voice on ‘Parallax Error’ was a saxophone. It was, however, not. The rich and earthy tones on the opener from Cloud Diameter’s new self-titled tape are rather a perfectly distorted and delicately processed virtual keyboard of some kind. My own initial confusion between the fleshy metal of the sax and the wash of synthesized tones is perhaps the best way to summarise the experience of Cloud Diameter 2. It’s a humble little tape, and is doing little to play the games expected of the modern day underground experimentalists, coming with nothing in the way of concept nor imagery. Hell, even the artwork is just a square of neon green. Sonically it’s far from adventurous too, comprising purely VSTs and virtual amplifiers and so on, doing nothing to play along with the high conceptronica expectations of personal storytelling, social relevance, or instrumental invention. Who the hell does this person think they are?

Like that hovering sax-like tone near the beginning though, the music unfolds as a haunting assemblage of virtual timbres, squishing keyboard presets into new alien musical instruments, guiding them through amplifiers and effects to make a hovering pocket orchestra of digital chamber pieces. Think low-budget Ryuichi Sakamoto perhaps? Either way, the result is a comforting mass of playful digital instrumentals utilising the basic possibilities of the digital recording studio to maximum effect in their composition, blending tone and playing with the blank musical canvas before the artist in a way that’s never unpleasant, and bares up surprisingly well to repeat listens.