Spool’s Out: Cassette Reviews For September

Tristan Bath is going on sabbatical. This month he passes the Walkman over to Daryl Worthington, so he can guide you through the best tape releases, from melancholy hip hop to grinding digital ecosystems of sound

Amani & King Vision Ultra

Having written this column without a break since December 2013, it’s time for me to take a little time off.

Fear not though, tapeheads! I have a colleague from the cassette-o-sphere who will be babysitting the column during my sabbatical. Introducing writer and experimental musician, Daryl Worthington (who records music under the name Beachers). This month’s offerings from the ferric tape gods are reviewed by us both as a transitional administration; padawan and master, side by side. For the next ten months or so though, it’s Mr. Worthington who will be your guide, picking the best cassette tapes every month. Be good to him – and see you on the flip side!

The Slovakian headquartered Mappa label is carving something of a niche in electronic music deeply tethered to both organic and synthesised environments. Hot on the heels of Felicity Mangan’s Creepy Crawly, sparse techno made from bird calls both real and artificial, comes Vlad Dobrovolski’s new work, described as an attempt to create "musical ecosystems".

Largely avoiding obvious pulses and rhythms, the seven Opuses on Natursymphony No.1 float around you instead of being dragged past by a central driving force. It creates a slowing down effect, affording more time to contemplate the array of synths, processed acoustic instruments and field recordings that seem to have grown around you.

At times, the sonics bring to mind Laurie Spiegel’s most open-ended explorations of space, structure and texture, or the long form sound experiments of Roland Kayn and Akos Rozmann. However, there’s a playfulness to Dobrovolski’s selection and placement of sound that gives his music a unique sense of being alive.

The compositions are disorderly but never chaotic. Instead, tracks like ‘Opus 4 Dream In Black On Black’, with its polyphony of delicate arpeggios, echoey percussion and creaks and squeaks, or the diverging polyrhythms, whistles and windswept pads of ‘Opus 7: Roar’ seem to always sit in states of uneasy equilibrium, coming across as interdependent systems however surprising some of the components might be.
Daryl Worthington

When it comes to changing the world, James Baldwin said “perhaps it can’t be done without the poet”. Whatever happens, the upheaval of 2020 feels like a world finally – perhaps, terminally – changing, and Amani & King Vision Ultra might well be the poets for this very American moment. Never has NY hip hop been as dark, brooding, or fatigued as it is on the An Unknown Infinite, recorded between January and August of this year, thematically woke, but sonically half asleep.

Productions from King Vision Ultra (plus guests Ahwlee, D00F, and Nick Hakim) seem buoyed by dreamy vapour, grinding along through greying streets every bit as hostile to them as they were the likes of Mobb Depp decades back now. Tracks like ‘Hell Juice’ float over minimal backdrops of subdued pulses and monochrome ambience. ‘Scrapes’, featuring fellow New Yorker ELUCID of Armand Hammer spitting stream-of-consciousness atop a vacant Béla Tarr-esque loop of chimes and bass wobbles: “The jazz is free, the noise is love/ You wear me out, I drag my tongue". Elsewhere on the beatier ‘A Not So Fruitful Wealth’ (sounding not unlike Illmatic soaked in downers), Amani’s own hopes and dreams emerge into the foreground: “I’m no scholar/ just a young man that wanna go farther/ painting portraits of karma”.

Besides time, place, and poetry though, politics inevitably sits at the core of a record made throughout the year of COVID and BLM. Over the vintage flutey loops of ‘Shaft In Africa’, Amani pulls no punches questioning consumerism’s ability to satisfy – “To what extent is your conscious furnished?” – and taking aim at modern American racism to ultimately yell, “24 years, I still feel foreign/ 2020 was a fucking dub!”

Content aside though, Amani + King Vision Ultra forge a slippery and intoxicating duo to get lost with. The rhymes and beats don’t pierce out of this magnetic tape, but rather seep and surround you like carbon monoxide. An Unknown Infinite is full of melancholy and anger, and the samples hover behind its MCs like mashed up memories from a history and present full of pain and struggle. It’s definitely a bleak portrait from a maddening moment in time – but there’s a beauty in the vibe. Best hip hop tape of 2020, no doubt.
Tristan Bath

The music of Sarah Hennies always seems to speak to an idea of community and ‘becoming with’. Compositions that aren’t fixed but instead moulded to the performers, listeners and the space in which the piece is experienced. Astral Spirits’ reissue of her 2014 album Cast captures perfectly this blurring that makes her work so vital.

Opener, ‘Speech’, has a voice repeating the word “car” for seven minutes. Repetition and duration disintegrate language into a study of the timbres and tonalities of the voice, the listener’s ears and brain entangled with the composer in how the piece plays out. An obvious comparison is ‘I’m Sitting In A Room’, but while Alvin Lucier’s most famous work is fixated on a space, Hennies is fixated on the human in it.

‘Vibraphone’ follows a similar trajectory to her solo live performances. Undulating vibraphone patterns teasing out spooky resonances and eerie overtones across the twenty minute duration. Again, you sense that as a listener you’re as involved in shaping the sonic effects it has as the composer.

Closing piece, ‘Song’ is lifted from Hennies’ Contralto, “a one-hour work for video, strings, and percussion that exists in between the spaces of experimental music and documentary”. The piece uses trans women’s voices to explore the relationship between gender and sound, ‘Song’ seeing voices fold and mingle with soft drones. The feeling is that of a conversation in which the listener is a silent but just as salient player as the musicians and composer.
Daryl Worthington

I previously described this project led by Irish percussionist Dan Walsh as reminiscent of Fushitsusha’s bleak jazz-fused rockscapes. Well, steadily having moved into widening directions across self-releases since, Fixity finds itself here moving into some surprising territory. The likes of Esquivel, The Mohawks, or BBC Radiophonic Workshop track spring to mind, Walsh populating deceptive drum rhythms with cosmic keyboards and reeds, even weaving in a theremin on track 2. ‘Don’t Settle For Walkin’ is a straight up groove in fact, with washes of keyboard tinkling with Sun Ra-esque atonal abandon over a stomping 4/4. Fixity’s world is one where grooves, rock & roll, noise, motorik, and free jazz all coexist. I dunno how Walsh and co manage it, but it’s cohesive too. There’s even a maddened cover of Joe Meek’s ‘I Hear A New World’, executed with a kind of NWW-List insanity that gets you contact high by listening.
Tristan Bath

Under their project WIDT, the Nowacka sisters – Antonina and Bogumiła – have created some of the most intense audiovisual experiences in recent years, channeling analogue gear, video feedback, stacks of Antonina’s wordless vocalisations, and keyboard junk into shimmering maximalist waves of colour. Here recording under the name of Mentos Gulgendo, the duo plot a route dedicated to more minimalist sonics. Comprising solely the sounds of a Unitra Estrada 207 AR organ (plus Antonina’s voice intoning improvised gibberish), the focus is on sketched out keyboard shapes and chunky analogue pulsations recorded at the family allotment.

For context, the project’s name refers to a “philosopher and author of the ‘harmless lunatics’ theory, which states our universe has been created by the representatives of the cosmic madhouse”. The proposition is that these compositions are broadcasts of electromagnetic waves, designed by the ‘cosmic madhouse’ to melt away the rationality between people and leave our identities as a singular amorphous blob. Like some of the earlier keyboard works by Terry Riley, there’s definitely an organic inevitability to some of these structures. The shower of collapsing and buzzing chords on ‘Bariszbatu’ resemble swarms of bees burrowing into petals for nectar. Opening track ‘Cara di langit’ (Indonesian for “path in the sky”) embodies a musical structure more similar to the inward spiralling fractal leaves of a fern, or the squall of clouds in the sky. These raw keyboard sketches are elemental electronics, like sticking the DNA of music itself under a microscope.
Tristan Bath

Bill Orcutt – Warsawza

With his new tape Warszawa, out on Poland’s Endless Happiness, Bill Orcutt gives further evidence of the poetic potential of gnarled electric guitar improvisations. There’s always a feeling in Orcutt’s playing that he’s stepping over the limits of his physical ability, that strings are on the verge of breaking and amps exploding. A kind of viscerality only attainable through wrestling with limited means.

The first of the two fifteen minute plus tracks starts with Orcutt in a relatively serene mood, a crunchy guitar trundling through beautiful chords built to reverberate in wide open spaces. Around the six minute mark it lurches into more ominous riffing, the casual flow of the first part snapping into more caustic rhythms. It’s a pattern of emotional instability that seems to shape the whole piece. An erratic flittering between contemplation and bottled up rage, between relentless possibilities and endless obstacles, that seems very 2020.

Side two follows a similar trajectory, a relatively quaint Americana that slowly flails apart in jagged flurries of notes. A flaming Model T Ford with no driver at the wheel perhaps? The two sides of the tape come from a live performance, and if you’re missing the vitality of experiencing something being conceived, composed and performed in the moment, this tape can act as a good substitute.
Daryl Worthington

The narrative of Covid-19 might be isolation, but it’s also possible to tell a different story – a new abundance of free time for artists who never saw access to a studio as a requirement for releasing music anyway. The result has been some fruitful long distance collaborations to provide a small level of escape from the routine horror.

Ghost Violin is the duo of London’s Ivy Nostrum and New Zealand’s Unknown Rockstar, the two combining to release a self-titled debut on Bristol’s Liquid Library. Occasionally you can pinpoint the origin of different sounds in these six echoey collages– a guitar on ‘Tear Gas’, some bird song on ‘You Were There One Minute’, and the ghostly violin on ‘Yesterday’s Boost’, but usually you can’t tell where one sound begins and another ends.

This ambiguity isn’t a bad thing within the context of the soupy quality these bedroom acousmatic compositions have. Dwelling on the source of individual sounds doesn’t seem to be the point, so much as taking as a whole the oddly beautiful concoction they make, where anything from radio transmissions to kitchen table percussion are vital ingredients rubbing up against and occasionally bouncing off each other.
Daryl Worthington

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