Spool’s Out: The Best Tapes Of 2021

Daryl Worthington looks back the year in cassettes, and finds the underground in buoyant, triumphant, monolith smashing health

Stice by Walter Wlodarczyk

In a strange twist, after starting 2021 frustratedly stuck at home in lockdown, I’m now rounding out the year bouncing between temporary accommodation, frustratedly unsettled between permanent addresses. It’s brought to clarity just how much music shifts with context. And 2021 has had a lot of context. Many of the tapes highlighted here either continued to feel relevant through 2021’s ups and downs, or took on new meaning as the year meandered along.

The three big lessons on cassette this year are that experimental music (whatever that actually means) can be fun, pop music can be fiercely experimental, and that the stream of amazing new music feels better than ever.

Max Syedtollan And Plus-Minus Ensemble’s Four Assignments (& Other Pieces) stresses the first point. If experimental means working in radically new and innovative style, this tape does it with a flamboyant swagger. Bending narratives both musical and textual, the way it bounces along its absurd path is its greatest triumph.

Earlier in the year came Perkins & Federwisch’s One Dazzling Moment. Dubbed contemporary schlager, underneath these bizarre ballads on woodland creatures and sports bars is a form busting soundtrack of bizarre electronics. Sometimes these bleeps and flurries make you crease up, but that doesn’t bely their grand ambition.

From the poppier side, Namoro’s chorus of “Sex is good but have you ever fucked the system?” from their EP XTRA CAXXIA is the ear worm most persistently lodged in my head this year. Similarities to Special Interest permeate these four tracks of hi-nrg cyber filth and swooning laments. But most striking is the diversity of sounds they employ. US duo Stice pull a similar trick on Stice’s Satyricon. The whole album rides a wave of nervous hyperactivity, twisting manic states into euphoric release. There have been countless miracles captured in the spools this year which this column could only ever cover a small fraction of, bringing me onto the last point.

There’s always been a dribble of edgelord thought complaining that music being made now is either all based on something from the past, or for some reason just not as good as what’s already happened. As well as lacking both nuance and an understanding of why new voices working in existing forms is just as vital as some ever-deferred future novelty, it seems to embrace a view of the world in which culture is some fixed, centralised monolith, the way forward somehow one-directional.

The monolithic culture industry, its entertainment subdivision at least, is kind of like Tinker Bell, it only affects you if you believe in it. So much goes on around the edges of whatever the mainstream is, that the mainstream starts to seem increasingly untenable as an idea. Diving down the cassette rabbit hole is just one way to quickly realise there are whole universes of parallel culture vastly outnumbering whatever’s in the middle. Perhaps the shock twist of the Zeitgeist is that there is no Zeitgeist?

Death Is Not The End’s stunning trawls sideways and backwards through the archives have resulted in releases which question both how we got here and what exactly here is. UK no-audience underground stalwarts like Steep Gloss and Crow Versus Crow have shifted experimental music firmly out of the academy into a place more Dadaistic, and more down to earth. The likes of Falt, Mappa, Tsss and Warm Winters continue delving into sound’s beautiful intricacies – releasing music which though subtle, deserves a place at the centre of attention. The underground is pushing the boundaries and keeping music evolving and developing in a zillion different directions. All I can ask from 2022 is more of the same.

Tape Label Of The Year: Klammklang

Care and attention to detail in both sound and presentation make Klammklang’s releases stand out. The tapes tend to come packaged in ziplocked bags, and occasionally include visual additions such as sticker packs or zines intricately connected to the music. That music is consistently exceptional – sitting in a zone somewhere between the magical and the material. Their releases this year take in everything from traditional Armenian folk and industrial (Lusia Kazaryan-Topchan’s Obkhod) to Katz Mulk’s volatile song forms, using these as launch pads to trace paths of strange associations and resonances, moulding them into elegant new shapes instead of simply collaging the parts together.

Nikita Bugaev’s music is more purely rooted in electronic textures, at least at the surface, on oo Flips. But the way these pieces are arranged blurs the lines between organic and synthetic, composed and accidental. The playful placement of sonic events brings to mind Beatriz Ferreyra, and as the nights get colder Bugaev’s intricate world feels ever more alluring. A headspace of surreal relations of cause and effect that spiral out and gently take over your subconscious.

The Spool’s Out 12 Favourite Tapes Of 2021

Asemix – Asemix

(Warm Winters Ltd.)

There’s a tendency when writing about experimental electronics to make comparisons to other art forms. But for Asemix’s self-titled debut it makes more sense to stick with sound on its own terms. Both parts of this duo, Mari Maurice (aka More Eaze) and Nick Zanca have released vital tapes on their own this year, but Asemix stretches out the sensitivity to sound in their work towards a game of sonic cat’s cradle. The morse code like pulses give the air of a hidden gem unearthed from the GRM studio. At other points come radio transmissions from a land of different physics, while flickers of naked guitar and vocals feel like you’ve stumbled on someone’s cache of heartbroken Garage Band demos. What’s most effective is the album seems driven by an acute awareness of audio as a thing in itself. Sounds carry histories, they hold poignancy, and when played alongside each other new meanings emerge. Comparing it to another art form can be insightful, but what those comparisons can’t convey is exactly the zone in which Asemix excel.

Matt Atkins – Totem


It’s an oversight on my part that I haven’t covered the work of Matt Atkins yet this year, his music finding rare warmth in the electro-acoustic and sound art terrain. Totem makes generous use of a shruti box alongside gong and bell-like percussion, forging homemade Gagaku which sways and lulls with courtly serenity. Atkins excels at harnessing a bed of discrete and discreet sounds, these tracks becoming environments unto themselves. Finely arranged and carefully laid out spaces which gently dislodge your mind from the tumult. It’s contemplative music, an immersive picture of a reality beneath the daily noise and churn.

Leon Duncan – Fuck A Rosetta Stone For My Brainwaves
(Hakuna Kulala)

I missed this in the summer, but Leon Duncan’s Fuck A Rosetta Stone For My Brainwaves is a speaker cracking riot at a sound clash, with the Nairobi-raised artist’s debut hurling familiar rhythms into strange shapes. His bio says he began experimenting with music in his high school’s computer lab, and from there it’s taken him to collaborations with Martin Kanja (now of Duma) in metal band Lust Of A Dying Breed, and eviction from his apartment for noise reasons. This tape feels propelled by the nervous energy of the walls-closing in around the home studio. Opener ‘A.I Took Err Jobs’ has beats flipping over each other into a shaken up aquatic groove. ‘Nintendo Dub’ sounds exactly as the name suggests, a digi-dub beat turned doomy through the smacked bassline and razor-edged key stabs. These tracks are expertly crafted but filtered through a chain of ragged effects and cranky AI until they trigger an instinctive unpredictability from the machine rhythms.

EP/64 & Ben Vince – 57

(Avon Terror Corps)

A live set recorded just before the first lockdown started, and released on tape this February, it’s easy to link 57 to the pandemic. But the way this freewheeling protest of burning sax, effects scattered vocals and pounding drums escapes context is what makes it remain vital as the year draws to a close. EP/64 & Ben Vince unleash a torrent of fire-breathing skronk which feels like it’s trying to pry open any apparatus that keeps us apart. A volatile flash of pure, reactive energy, a visceral example of improvised music’s ability to rip rage from the ether and channel it into something creative. ‘57’s’ euphoria burns with communality, a trigger to remember that others are feeling, have felt and maybe always will feel the same agitation.

Kheta Hotem – Shaman Jazz


Another one filed in the things I missed pile, Shaman Jazz’s title summarises a big chunk of what Finnish five piece Kheta Hotem conjure on this tape. Recorded back in 2009, and only released in 2021, the decade plus delay adds to the sense this is music unrestrained by tedious things like a calendar. The tape’s first half is dictated by immense restraint, as growls, synths, percussion and what sound like for more esoteric instruments build to tense ritual. The second half loosens up, hi-hats start to shuffle, basslines start to walk and things start to skronk as it tips into a set of jazzy freakouts. Quite how the nine tracks get so seamlessly from where they start to their conclusion is beyond me, but it never fails to work.

Lucy Liyou – Practice

(Full Spectrum)

Lucy Liyou’s sophomore album Practice was created while their family faced the cruelty of the pandemic, their mother stuck in quarantine for two weeks en route to visit an unwell grandmother in Korea. Liyou doesn’t hide anything in Practice’s text-to-speech narratives, the computerised voice conveying the arguments, the existential crises, and the fraught neuroses over widescreen dramas of piano and electronics. A document for processing the trauma, Practice dives into that strange knack a lot of humans have for being cruelest to the ones they love most, the constant low-level fear, and the care which can appear in the most unlikely forms, challenging us all to think through how we connect, pandemic or not.

Espen Lund – ÆTONAL


Espen Lund‘s Aetonal was like a breath of scorched air when released in April, the Norway based composer playing trumpet like he wanted to rip open a hole in the space time continuum. Lund’s process involves playing in front of a wall of amplifiers, sculpting the waves of feedback into immense slabs of noise that feel like they’re blocking out the light through sheer sonic mass. The closest point of comparison I can think of is to Kevin Drumm, Lund having a similar knack for using overwhelming intensity to amplify nuance rather than obliterate it. This might all sound oppressive, but it’s not. Eight months on it’s clearer than ever there’s a relentless movement in these compositions, flickers of bright, tentative optimism in the smothering dirge.

Vica Pacheco – Fibre-Fusion

(Wabi Sabi Tapes)

The sheer volume of sound present in Vica Pacheco’s Fibre-Fusion is a big part of what makes it seem like it’s still evolving six months after its release. Fibre-Fusion is porous, so vocals, electronics and instruments seep into each other and leave an overall form with no rigid outline. It means that even on ‘Guateque’, one of the most solidly rhythmic tracks, there’s a sense of intersecting lines crossing and tangling rather than the whole thing riding on a single vector. This tape depicts a world with no dominant telos, tracing the interactions and connections rather than offering an explanation. It’s the sound of electro-acoustic music, ritual and biorhythm colliding in a single moment, seeping across each other’s boundaries and painting a beautifully fluid landscape.

Prolaps – Ultra Cycle (Pt. 1, Pt. 2, Pt, 3, Pt. 4)

(Hausu Mountain)

By December 21, Prolaps, the duo of Matt Stephenson (Machine Girl) and Bonnie Baxter (Kill Alters), will have released a C120 on both solstices and equinoxes this year for their Ultracycle series, and it’s maximalist in more than just duration. ‘Keep Worrying, Details To Follow’, the opener on ‘Ultra Cycle Pt. 1: Vernal Birth’, acts as overture to this epic adventure, synths bending into air raid sirens, machine polyrhythms sprouting more machine polyrhythms, and snippets of intercepted chatter ripping through the glitching footwork façade. The collection pretty much sticks to this intensity, so that diving in at any point is akin to beat matching your mind to the entirety of space and time. There’s variation to match the seasons, so spring’s ‘Pt. 2, Estival Growth’ blossoms in vibrant colours, while winter’s ‘Pt.4 Hibernal Death’ goes into a darker, sludgier terrain. But the main feeling throughout is a twitching, glimmering parallel universe emerging from the wreckage of a multimedia calamity.

Toiret Status – Liquid House

(Gin & Platonic)

Any of 2021’s releases from Gin & Platonic could be a contender for mind bending tape of the year, but I’m focusing on Toiret Status’s Liquid House because of its sheer, gleeful absurdity. Isamu Yorichika, aka Toiret Status, compares his process to digesting food – an insight which ultimately reveals as much as it obscures. At points, ‘#103’ or ‘#72 – Reclosable Tapioca Chrome (feat. Cat Palm)’ they sound like Autechre if someone replaced all the code with rubbery goo. ‘#88 heat#’ meanwhile, moves like someone slowed down a footwork track and pulled out every component to examine under a spotlight. Calling it deconstructed dance music makes sense, but it misses the fact that Liquid House feels like all of its playful experimentation is meant to be doused in connection rather than alienation.

Zero Gravity Tea Ceremony – Introduction to Phase 5

(Base Materialism)

Zero Gravity Tea Ceremony is by Charlie Miles, creator of scuzz-addled guitar soundscapes, but Introduction To Phase 5 saw them become slightly gentler and much weirder. Opening with a jagged guitar chord which could be lifted from a Storm & Stress album, it journeys through odd sing-song-y vocal laments, spoken word interludes and itinerant guitar and drum wig-outs. Miles recorded this album in their Cardiff flat, using nothing more than a four track, guitar and tape loops of free jazz drumming. These lo-fi resources are a launch pad to invention rather than an aesthetic choice and end in themselves, creating an off-kilter escape route out of mundanity.

Evvy Shark – Ms. Liza’s Psychic Hotline
(Grimalkin Records)

Love, money and the supernatural combine in Evvy Shark‘s Ms. Liza’s Psychic Hotline. According to the liner notes, Evvy Shark (aka Jarik Hieronymous) wrote this as an exercise in “subconscious projection, automatic spirit writing, aural oddities, and finding a soul in disembodied voices”. She seems fascinated with the oddness permeating the everyday across the spooky jingles and sweet electro pop here, but embedded within is something disarmingly uncanny. As though she’s capturing the strange sense of isolation that comes despite ever greater connection. It hits a jolting crescendo on the title track – on the outside a love song to the voice on the other end of a chatline, it closes with an automated voice asking for credit card details. A darkly humorous, heart-breaking moment reminiscent of the strange poignancy unearthed in Ben Hozie’s ‘PVT Chat’.

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