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Spool's Out: The Best Tapes Of 2022
Daryl Worthington , December 8th, 2022 06:27

Daryl Worthington rounds up the best tapes of 2022, and looks back on a golden year for the global cassette scene, where underground artists built worlds more immersive, more absurd and more ambitious than ever

Gloria Regular aka Trans Zimmer

Writing a column about a format is like herding cats. What does a drum virtuoso turned pop-anthem creator have to do with the most unconventional ends of the UK’s lo-fi underground, and how does that connect to someone slinging together tape loops in their kitchen in Argentina? Is the only thing they have in common the fact they happened to release their music on what we’re repeatedly told is an archaic format only used by hipsters and retro fetishists?

While there are many of us who are drawn to the audio idiosyncrasies of tapes, more important is their role as souvenirs of an underground in constant motion. They’re reminders of what’s existing in the margins: alternatives to a clearly failing system where all the rewards from music are increasingly bottled up for a few at the top.

If you follow the spools, you can glimpse something better. Approaches that evade hierarchies of traditional skill and material resources. Portals into exciting music scenes in parts of the world which really do not get talked about enough. More than ever, this year cassettes have felt like a window onto communities who are building alternatives to what’s been normalised. It doesn’t solve the structural problems that so clearly need fixing, but it does at least hint that there are other ways of doing things.

This year my ears have been drawn to releases that echo this sense of building something, the more absurd or immersive the better. Some artists, such as Sophie Sleigh-Johnson or Trans Zimmer & The DJs, have done both at once. By immersive, I mean self-contained worlds that invite you in. By absurd I mean throwing something illogical into the contemporary moment, disrupting accepted logic to make the rules that uphold it seem slightly less pervasive. It’s not always blatant, it’s there in the mirage-like music on Brazil’s Municipal K7 label and the high definition electronic explorations on Poland’s Pointless Geometry as much as in White Suns’ walls of punk dissonance.

But, you probably came here for a list, so let’s get to it. I’ll start with my favourite tape label of the year, move onto eight releases covered earlier this year, and seven which I missed the first time around.

Tape Label Of The Year: Mappa

Based in Slovakia, Mappa is a label releasing music perfectly suited to our strange times. Their tapes build worlds. Not by being escapist, but augmenting reality to explore how we engage with our surroundings. Kensho Nakamura’s Electric Rust’s ultra-vivid synthesis examines corrosion at the molecular level, inverting ideas of decay to capture a world of vibrant life and movement. CC Sorensen’s Phantom Rooms explores the peculiarity of homes through an endlessly unpredictable suite of mutant chamber-jazz compositions.

Tellingly, one of their most potent releases was one of the sparsest. Manja Ristić’s tape assembles field recordings taken on the Korčula Island in the Adriatic alongside swelling electronics. Every sound, from insect buzzes to the groan of a whale, carries weight, but her compositions feel as much about absence as presence, as though plotting the contours of an eerie quiet in a vast space.

The label has had a surge of productivity in the last quarter of the year, and I fully expect to spend the Christmas lull coming to grips with the latest batch. Mappa’s curation provides gravity in uncertain times. Their tapes celebrating the plurality of ways we experience the world and the powerful marks details leave on our pscyhes.

The Best Cassettes Of 2022

Pimpon – Pozdrawiam
(Pointless Geometry)

Pimpon’s Pozdrawiam converges auto-tuned pop, drum virtuosity and intricate sound design into triumphant freak-outs. An album of uncontainable ambition, it turns experimental music into something playful, and pop music into something fiercely experimental – a zone where the ridiculously catchy earworm of ‘balans’ sits alongside complex rhythmic experiments such as ‘maF8’ without ever seeming contradictory.

Bloodz Boi, Claire Rousay, More Eaze – a crying poem
(Orange Milk)

Music, voice and lyrics combine in tender exploration on this collaboration between Beijing-based vocalist Bloodz Boi and Texas-duo Claire Rousay and More Eaze. Bloodz Boi’s delivery is delicately balanced and gently insistent – lulling you into a comforting haze. Rousay and More Eaze’s production flits between widescreen and intimate, giving the impression this music is in a constant impasse between introversion and extroversion. But this album is more than a sonic object. Bloodz Boi is a lyricist and spending time exploring his verses (translations of which can be found here) adds even more poignancy. His words explore connection, our place in the world and the world’s place in us. Their scope becomes clear reading a translation of a verse of ‘Overcast’: “I got out of bed at six in the morning/Light a cigarette and lean against the window/I will wonder what you are doing far away/Are you watching like me?”

Sophie Sleigh-Johnson – Nuncio Ref!
(Crow Versus Crow)

A collage of several centuries of cultural debris? A collision of the occult and the mundane somehow picked up over the airwaves? Nuncio Ref! builds and obliterates its own self-contained mythology in front of your ears. Creating a flash of something truly parallel which vanishes the moment the tape stops. Pace is the key to the tape’s immersive effect. Sleigh-Johnson keeps all these strands in constant motion, never settling and never allowing your attention to slip out of the exhilarating world she weaves together.

Adios Adios – El Milagro
(Drowned By Locals)

El Milagro sits in a similar multimedia paranormal zone to Nuncio Ref! Spooky plunderphonics evoke a possessed wi-fi connection, as if the smooth data stream is being ruptured by the interventions of a mischievous poltergeist. The manic ear worm of ‘Strange Feeling in the Air’ completes the ominous malaise Adios Adios assembles. Less frantic than Sophie Sleigh-Johnson’s album, it’s just as effective at capturing something unfamiliar in fragments of the familiar.

Trans Zimmer & The DJs – Trans Zimmer & The DJs

The back-story to this tape is that Trans Zimmer created a series of midi classical and chamber arrangements which The DJs mangled through a palette of drum and effects samples, transforming the source material into the hyperreal dreamworld captured here. It’s a whirl of fractalized symphonics, widescreen pop and beats glitching in every possible direction. Trans Zimmer and the DJs dive headfirst into garishness, owning the extremes rather than shying away from them.

Somaticae – Kleis
(Gin & Platonic)

The release notes say Kleis is an examination of the disturbing nature of dichotomy. It veers into extreme sonics for sure, jagged rhythms, doomy dissonances, and sharp-edges emerging among the colourful bleepy polyrhythms. Yet it manifests into something triumphant. The dichotomy in Somaticae’s music perhaps being in how they turn rogue components into a delirious whole. An audible celebration of square pegs into round cosmic dancefloor holes.

Clare Archibald & Kinbrae – Birl Of Unmap
(Full Spectrum/The Dark Outside)

Birl of Unmap saw poet and writer Clare Archibald team up with Scottish duo Kinbrae to excavate the history of St Ninians, West Fife. Over a brooding orchestral and electronic backdrop, Archibald and other speakers elegantly trace how a location’s meaning, how a space becomes a place, shifts through time and the perspectives of the people inhabiting it. There’s a sense of mindfulness to Birl Of Unmap, finding beauty in keeping an inquisitive eye open to the complexities of the world around us.

Moth Cock – Whipped Stream And Other Earthly Delights
(Hausu Mountain)

Whipped Stream And Other Earthly Delights raises the bar of what’s possible for a noise-jam band. A triple cassette opus which flies from creaking ambience into hyperactive glitches and rocket-propelled drum machine freakouts. Moth Cock mix prog-scope with DIY experimentation in a way that’s over the top but never self-indulgent. They construct a sonic carnival, a space where rules are altered to normalise the ridiculous and the absurd.

Fordmastiff – Counterfeit
(Municipal K7)

Counterfit by Fordmastiff, aka Rio de Janeiro-based Lucas Stamford, gets more unstable every time I listen to it. It’s mirage music, smudged house dissipating into shoegaze-y soul and echo drenched mantras. The album is inspired by Rio’s carnivals, and they seem to be a world of endless possibility for Stamford. His sonics are celebratory, but faded and subject to interference. It mimics trying to remember every moment of a celebration the morning after, struggling to hold the memories together as new information enters and starts to knock them out of focus. Memories of the carnival become growing blocks in Fordmastiff’s hands, expanding and folding over each other so every sensation and possibility can be latched onto.

Mushroom Grandpa – Mushroom Wonderland
(Black Casket Records)

Mushroom Grandpa is one of several projects of Ukrainian artist Angr, who is also the curator of the Black Casket label. The dungeon synth-adjacent sonics are influenced as much by childhood trips mushroom hunting in forests as mushrooms’ place in folkloric history and their associations with the underground and the cryptic. The third release from the project, Mushroom Wonderland’s magic comes in the lysergic textures of the synths, which float like snowflakes falling to the ground or lock into chiming, shimmering arpeggios. Beyond the beautiful ambiences, these tracks are filled with drama. Layers of melody tangle, chord changes evacuate the room of gravity. On ‘Dancing Sparkles’ a hypnagogic waltz teeters between beautiful and foreboding. A sense of suspense and relief, reminiscent in some ways of Hitoshi Sakimoto’s Vagrant Story soundtrack, permeates this whole release, preventing its glowing warmth from ever becoming too sweet.

White Suns – Dead Time
(Orange Milk)

White Suns’ Dead Time is synth-punk as sinister metallurgy, the New York band’s music sounding like metal and electricity violently fusing before your ears. ‘Palermo Catacombs’ is underpinned by a charivari of frantic percussion. On ‘Night Pours In’ a drum machine desperately apes hardcore propulsion. Throughout, guitars sound like they’re being projected by industrial machinery rather than amplifiers, while the vocalist unravels in desperation before your ears. Sitting in a thrilling middle ground between Flipper, Einstürzende Neubauten and Suicide, White Suns’ music bottles violent energy into something productive. Aggression and frustration harnessed into abrasive ecstasy.

Bardo Todol Y Sus Aves Sin Nido – Le Trompeta Morse Walrus Concreta
(Workingman Laydown)

A cassette tape with two side length, long-form pieces is a design classic, and Salsipuedes, Argentina-based Pablo Picco is an expert with the form with his Bardo Todol project. Le Trompeta Morse Walrus Concreta, marks a moving highpoint in his prolific output. Pocket trumpet toots rasp through rainy field recordings and throbbing cassette hum to create soggy fanfares. Picco’s tapes tend to have surreal collages for artwork, while his music is more of a montage, events put side-by-side instead of on top of each other to create a sense of narrative. Here, it gives the impression that a parping ecosystem is sprouting up around your ears.

Carnivorous Aerie – Murmuration of Dust
(Liquid Library)

Extended vocal techniques meet celestial ornithology on Carnivorous Aerie’s Murmuration of Dust. The release notes say the trio: Owen Chambers, The Doll and Toxic Chicken (aka Kai Nobuko) made nearly all the sounds using human voice, and the result is something equal parts bamboozling and intimate. Tapestries of bird calls slip into cathedral reverbed laments, monosyllabic chants and distorted screams. On closer ‘Wishbone Spectres’ the trio is augmented by a choir of growls, groans and feral rants from guest vocalists, hitting a babbling crescendo somewhere between a Charlie Morrow composition and an early Grouper track. It’s never completely clear who or what is making the sounds on this tape but the cumulative effect is magical.

DJ Strawberry – Cycles

Istanbul-based producer DJ Strawberry, aka Emre Öztürk, works in a zone between minimal techno and footwork on Cycles, the austere production of the former affords the latter’s percussive dexterity greater clarity. Rigid bass pulses are overlayed by shifting rhythms that burrow down to find additional space between the beats. Drum patterns constantly flip, switch and fluctuate within gridded structures to create intricate, carefully sculpted kinesis. Öztürk dissecting time and finding ever more microscopic grooves in the intervals.

Maeda Yasuyuki & Li Song – Two Laptops
(Karma Detonation Tapes)

These two pieces were recorded outside and barely amplified, Li Song using a laptop’s built-in speakers, Maeda Yasuyuki using a laptop and portable Bluetooth speakers. Recorded at two sites in north-east London, the tracks document situations rather than performances. On the first side the electronics are barely present, sneaking through the sounds of aircraft, passers-by and wildlife. They’re more pronounced on the second side, which opens with bird song sounding like its being filtered through an eerie electrical shimmer. The result parallels background music but with a hacker’s intent, the duo sneaking interventions into their surroundings and altering their sonic DNA.