Spool’s Out: Cassette Reviews For August By Daryl Worthington

Pastoral motorik masterpieces from France, field recordings from a volcanic island and a cybernetic solo percussion album, Daryl Worthington finds tapes contain lots of ways to drown out the modern nightmare this August

Sally Decker, portrait by Nathan Kosta

Of all the weird and wonderful things released on cassette, subliminal self-help tapes are one of the most bizarre. Recordings of gentle natural sounds with messages for self-improvement embedded within them, the idea is those messages will seep into the subconscious and change behaviour – achieving anything from weight loss to helping you give up smoking.

In the 80s and 90s it was a huge industry, in the US alone estimated to be worth$50 million a year and more than 2,000 companies producing the tapes. In the early 90s the movement was causing quite a stir, a slew of studies published exploring how effective the tapes were. A US National Research Council study concluded “there was no theoretical foundation nor experimental evidence” to support the idea the tapes improved performance.

Jump to 2021 and tapes are continuing to orbit the worlds of self-care and self-help, but with DIY artists sharing their rituals to face the weight of the modern world rather than subliminal messaging. Richard Dawson and Sally Pilkington’s Bulbils project saw the duo, who are two quarters of space disco synth-pop wonders Hen Ogledd, confront lockdown’s enforced stasis by daily recording jams and improvisations. At the start of the pandemic they were restless, recording an album a day and releasing them as digital pay what you likes. Blue Tapes have whittled that formidable discography down to three tracks for Blue Forty, catching some of the brightest rays of light in the catalogue.

This is music as coping mechanism, a playful way of adjusting to new normals of inner and outer, private and public space. Opener ‘Journey Of The Canada Goose’ has Dawson playing bass and drum machine, hitting a ramshackle motorik like the Young Marble Giants channeling Neu, while Pilkington fires beautiful organ flurries and melodies over the top. The forty plus minutes of the track a startling reminder of the beautiful things that can happen when time suddenly becomes a dauntingly limitless resource. ‘The Easter Bunny’ is more unbounded, guitar slipping through organ chords before the duo’s voices enter, uniting in soft hums like a morning ritual to hold the anxiety at bay. This is improvised music, not just in the process behind how it was made, but how it feels like a weighty counterpoint to a time when life itself felt like a constant daily improvisation.

Nicholas Langley, who runs the Third Kind label, recorded Mbira Locations 2018-2020’s, elegantly clumsy sway of plonks and thuds in solitude as a routine for relaxation. The side long first track of the tape, out now on Falt, feels like it’s being animated to life by a rusty automaton, the odd lack of steady gravity never irritating but instead moving the composition like waves gently lapping on the side of a boat. It documents a garden installation made last summer, mbira somehow hooked up with various percussion and a turntable – the contraption’s gentle progress only interrupted by a hilarious if panic inducing blast of seagull noise. The b side takes in a series of shorter, more fluid mbira improvisations, the accompaniment of bird song and on ‘Playing & Not Playing’ a rooster calling and police sirens giving these tracks a reassuringly familiar sense of time and place.

Like with the Bulbils tape, I imagine Langley performing these pieces as a ritual to free some time from the daily rigmarole, and their Zen calm is catching, trickling out of the Walkman like a self-help tape working on the conscious rather than unconscious level.

Grand Veymont – Route du Vertige, Persistance et changement, and Grand Veymont
(Moon Glyph)

Grand Veymont is the French duo of Béatrice Morel Journel and Josselin Varengo, and this trio of tapes via Portland’s Moon Glyph documents their entire recorded output to date. The pair’s music is a revelation, taking synths and motorik rhythms as a starting point but flying off into something breathtakingly diverse. ‘Je cours après avant’, from Grand Veymont, begins with shuffling arpeggios before switching into what sounds like a four handed, four dimensional organ solo, finally sidestepping into a beautiful vocal ascent. The ‘Persistence et changement’ tape is a single 30 minute journey, moving through pastoral flute and organ duets before hitting a crescendo of chanting voices which almost echoes M.D.K. era Magma. Though the duo are in a constant state of sky facing ascent, there’s something pastoral ebbing through these proggy synth compositions, so that Route du Vertige’s ‘Tête de la Dame’s waltz and see-sawing vocals almost becomes a folk dance. Other tracks jump through rolling arpeggios and beautiful vocal duets between Journel and Varengo, all three tapes rhapsodising through the joyful possibilities of music. This might read like some kind of chaotic genre mash up, but the pair have a stunning ability to effortlessly string these multifaceted pieces together into their own self-contained logic.

Sally Decker – In The Tender Dream
(NNA Tapes)

US based artist Sally Decker switches between feedback and blissful ambiences on In The Tender Dream, as though she’s trying to echolocate the self with the sheer force of vibrant sound. Glassy electronic textures slam up against cold hard surfaces as the album moves through charred kosmiche synths, static buried voices and surging masses of frayed audio, delivering a heady dose of pure sensation to burn through numb disassociation. “See all the voids, feel every last one” she whispers on ‘The Loss’, over a pulse of vibrating doom, as though crawling down into the psyche to find what’s buried underneath. The two parts of ‘Affirmation’ add vocalists Briana Marela and Emily Cardwell, the pair grappling with what the self is in a world of strange experiences and temporary sensation. The album never resolves that riddle in its lyrics, but the journey through audio as pure sensation, so that closer ‘Seen’ ends in an endless noisey catharsis to drown out hollow stimuli, suggest that perhaps the answer lies in those viscerally felt experiences

Clair – Earth Mothers
(Hot Gem/The Dark Outside)

A growing appreciation for the patterns hidden in nature helped shape Earth Mothers, the debut album from Clair, real name Clair Crawford. And listening to these seven tracks you constantly feel like it’s grasping at something just on the edge of what’s recordable. The Glasgow based artist found solace and inspiration through time spent among the local wildlife, and the album comes across like an attempt to map the volatile interdependencies and relationships shaping our world, intricate compositions weaving through the mess and dirt to trace webs of connection. Opener ‘Queen Bee’ has insect buzzes and bird calls embed a lush counterpoint of keys and metallic chimes. ‘Tiger Queen’ sees growls, splutters and rattles backing a sweeping arrangement of organ and electronics, teetering between the mucky and the divine. Clair’s tracks sift delicate layers into stunningly intricate sound worlds, as though she’s burrowing down to find new overlaps and entanglements. Instrumental and wildlife sounds slipping into each other as though trying to draw a map around something magical hidden in the earthy mundane.

Minua – Simulacra
(Warm Winters Ltd.)

Minua is the German-Icelandic trio of Fabian Willmann, Kristinn Kristinsson and Luka Aron, and their music on Simulacra is one of elegant processes. While zoomed out these four pieces are defined by barely perceptible harmonic shifts that seem to freeze time, the suspension gives space to see the intricate craft that sustains these levitations, like sneaking a glimpse into the inner workings of a finely tuned machine. The first two pieces focus on wind instruments, and inspired by an eighteenth century temperament used by organ tuners, they have a surface level texture similar to that explored by Ellen Arkbro on ‘For Organ And Brass’, but the way Minua’s arrangements diffuse is different. The pieces oscillate back and forth in a lulling call and response which feels imminently conversational, one tone only entering when another starts to dissipate. The third and fourth tracks take in guitar, bass and Bavarian Zither. Here, the subtle differences in each gesture and movement is captivating, every strum or pluck interacting with the surrounding frequencies in a slightly different way so that they trigger a lush internal motion. It’s mind focusing music, giving your brain space to meditate on the paths and interactions that weave into these compositions.

d’Eon – Rhododendron
(Hausu Mountain)

The opening notes of d’Eon’s Rhododendron triggered an involuntary memory in me of hours spent playing Final Fantasy VII, the synthetic woodwinds sounding like they could be soundtracking some idyllic digital village. But key to this tape is the journey, the compositions evolving from genteel beginnings into increasingly superhuman symphonies. The Montreal based artist, full name Chris d’Eon, has previously worked with more beat driven music, 2012’s Foxconn a high point of mega precise synthesis at footwork bpms. That intricacy remains here but the percussion is gone, d’Eon working with a palette of digital bowed, plucked and blown instruments. ‘Into the Clearing’ has a beautiful tapestry of melodies weaving in and out of each other, while ‘Outskirts’ sounds like it could launch into Yes’ ‘Roundabout’ at any point, the blending of classical music patterns into d’Eon’s electronic worlds giving them an odd resonance with 70s UK prog. As the tape goes on, it feels like he’s less concerned with the instruments his digital orchestra are meant to mimic, so that by the two parts of ‘Through The Mangrove’ they’ve become unhooked from their baggage and fired through machines into impossible shapes. As though this mind-boggling album is peeling away layers of history through its strange compositions and pointing firmly towards a trippy future.

Lukas Koenig – Buffering Synapsis
(Opal Tapes)

Austria’s Lukas Koenig uses a bare bones set up of a single cymbal and double kick drum fed through electronics to craft fractured beats and haunted metallurgy. While previous album Messing featured guest vocalists such as Elvin Brandhi, Buffering Synapsis sticks to exploring the potential of drums and devices, delving deep into a soundtrack of exposed nervous energy and paranormal sonics. Opener ‘Particles’ flings from austere rattles into a clanging fanfare of electronics. Elsewhere, flickers of kick drum sound like blast beats untethered from gravity, while the title track has Koenig summon a hypnotic, distended shimmer from the solitary cymbal. Texturally Buffering Synapsis sits in a similar space to the shivering brutality of Mika Vainio or Desmond Briscoe’s Quatermass & The Pit soundtrack, while as a percussionist Koenig’s tactile exploration of surfaces and rhythms reminds me of Eli Keszler. Expertly pulling spooky rhythms and pummeled textures from the sparse equipment, and firing them out in a blast of volatile, twitching energy.

Alyssa Moxley – Underdrift
(Vertical Music)

Alyssa Moxley’s Underdrift is a collection of field recordings from the volcanic island of Nisyros, Greece. According to the liner notes, sounds captured include mud pits, sulphur vents, bats, owls and people calling to animals and singing to themselves. Moxley has a panoramic approach to field recording, instead of latching onto specific sounds, sonic events are caught in wider contexts, capturing vibrant interactions among wildlife, geology and humanity. The first time I listened to it I found myself trying to work out what individual sounds were, the spooky whistles on ‘Night Smoke Over The Caldera’, or the gorgeous burbling tumult on ‘Subduction’. But I think it’s more enjoyable to stop playing detective and enjoy these field recordings for the world they combine to create, a mysterious drama of moos, squeaks and chirps.

Fluke-Mogul/Liberatore/Mattrey/Mendoza – Death In the Gilded Age
(Tripticks Tapes)

The ten pieces on Death In the Gilded Age are performed by Gabby Fluke-Mogul (violin), Matteo Liberatore (acoustic guitar), Joanna Mattrey (viola) and Ava Mendoza (electric guitar), and combined their unconventional string quartet forms a liberating anarchic system, an elegant tangle of scratched and mangled strings, knotted into each other so that every gesture yanks their cacophonous swarm into a new shape. At points harsh, others raggedly beautiful, these beguiling compositions never feel nihilistic. All the moments of dissonance and melody torn from the instruments feel in dialogue rather than conflicting monologues – a kind of collective composition across the ten pieces where every voice is allowed to weave and shape the conversation. Eschewing unison for polyphony, it feels like four individuals collectively processing and responding to the world around them. At points overwhelmingly intense, heavy as hell in an unconventional way, it also feels fundamentally social, as though striving towards a shared reflection of these strange days.

Human Error Club – Human Error Club Day
(Preference Records)

It’s a common trope to describe band members having a telepathic connection, but it’s the individuals asserting themselves against the hive mind that makes Human Error Club’s Human Error Club Day so liberating. One of the trio throwing a curveball that surprises the ensemble into reacting and reorienting in the spur of the moment. The album is the second release from the LA based trio of Mekala Session (drums), Diego Gaeta (keys/synths) and Jesse Justice (also on keys/synths), compiling live recordings they made between 2020 and 2021, and here they sound like a smooth jazz band gone gloriously off message. The keys and synths jump from liquid jazz through proggy wig outs and into new age flurries, at times hitting a sci-fi funk somewhere between Masato Nakamura’s Sonic The Hedgehog soundtracks and Yellow Magic Orchestra. All the while Session’s drums switch from locked in groove to frantic explosions which threaten to jettison themselves from the beat but somehow never do. The sound is a kind of restless fusion, a hyperactive stream of creativity as the trio fearlessly fire through ideas in total ecstatic freedom.

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