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

Poems on space and place, divine bassoon, reality bending plunderphonics. Daryl Worthington catches up with the tape scene for the first time in 2022, and finds things as chaotically brilliant as usual

I-sef U-sef by Sam Lee

“There is no single word evocation of a place, of the situation, of its people,” says Clare Archibald on ‘Excavate Of Other (The Unknowing)’. It serves as a frisson inducing modus operandi for Birl Of Unmap, her new collaboration with Kinbrae. Co-released by Texas’ Full Spectrum Records and Scotland’s The Dark Outside, the tape sees the trio use poetry, fragments of testimony and a lilting soundtrack of strings, brass and earthy atmospherics to decode what turns a space into a place.

The place in question is currently known as St. Ninians, in East Fife. It’s had various names and uses, from mining community to site of a post modern art installation, and most recently an eco-wellness centre. The album paints a vivid picture of a land as time and people move through, its identity shifting as generations leave their mark. Flows of micro and macro, personal and historic observations seep through the music’s elegant swell and churn, evoking a state of constant flux. As Agnieska Jadowska says on ‘Half Seen Truths Of The M90’, “Are we immigrating or are we simply in constant movement? Concepts of time and space will define the answer.”

British duo Martha Skye Murphy and Maxwell Sterling dwell on movements through rather than on spaces and places themselves on Distance On Ground, their new release on American Dreams Records. The tape is accompanied by a website where the user can select an urban or rural video to go along with the listening experience. While these visuals are relatively linear, the interactions of voice, double bass and electronics are anything but. Murphy’s vocals eschew language, combining with Sterling’s vibrant, twisting orchestration to point in multiple directions at once. Shifting from fixed patterns into free flows of burbling texture, the intricate layers of sonics operate in a different time frame to the visuals. Burrowing down into detail while the videos move forward, pushing your mind to absorb a strange spatiality.

Taking another angle on the space-place continuum comes Cowboy Killer, whose The Name Of The Demon Is… Cowboy Builder was released late last year. These masterfully splintered slacker jams come with a booklet titled PICTURES FROM ACROSS THE GREAT DIVIDE: BEAUTIFUL PLACES THAT WILL ONE DAY BE REPLACED, a collection of photos of anachronistic buildings in a housing estate in Falkirk. A similar weary disjointedness pervades the Scottish trio’s music. Guitars have a virtuosic messiness, while the drums variously sound like they’re leaking through from another room, or being played inside your head. Veering from nasal rants to startling sweetness, the songs slither into a precarious transcendence. Much like the images in the book, the whole album feels like it’s been knocked into a battered out-of-placeness by reality speeding up around it. The lo-fi production making it more evocative of a place than fancy mics and high end studios ever could. A world of strange comforts emanating from grey skies and out-of-sync architecture.

I-sef U-sef – Consistency

(Preference Records)

I had no idea that the thing I needed this winter was a suite of bassoon centred space soul jams until I heard this tape from I-sef U-sef, aka Yousef El-Magharbel. These sensuous pop gems are doused in warm glows, effortlessly switching between languid beats, mournful tapestries of woodwind on the title track, and slippery funk on ‘Zeemo Has No Nuts’. ‘Are You Delusional’ meanwhile, sees El-Magharbel turn producer for BLANNCHE’s verses, creating a heady delirium as the bassoon weaves through accelerations and crashes into beats and rhymes. More than anything this tape brings to mind Arthur Russell, not that I-sef U-sef necessarily sounds that much like him, but in the way he weaves a new texture into pop’s fabric. Where Russell centred the cello and used it to expand what was possible in a pop song, El-Magharbel does the same with the bassoon. And like Russell, the result is absolutely joyous.

Fadi Tabbal – Music For The Lonely Vol.2 (2019-2021)

(Ruptured Records)

The first time I listened to Fadi Tabbal’s Music For The Lonely Vol.2 (2019-2021) was during a freezing cold walk late at night. The kind where the icy air seems to infect the street lights and turn the world higher definition than usual. That high resolution frost seemed to permeate through Tabbal’s music, so the gap between environment and what was coming out of the headphones blurred. That’s not to say the Lebanese composer’s sonic world is a cold one, although glassy synthetics abound there’s more going on here, his intricate exploration of texture-assembling, time-freezing, floor-removing structures. ‘The New And Improved Guide To Birdwatching Vol. 4’ is utterly epic, pure tones melding into choral vocals before collapsing into a cauldron of burbling electronics. ‘Snow Scene’ begins with Ghassan Sahhab guesting on ganun, the plucked and strummed strings underpinned by the subtlest of electronic tones and textures. At points the tape feels indebted to Kompakt’s Pop Ambient compilations, at least on the surface level, but there’s something quite distinct in the scope and scale of Tabbal’s compositions. Equal parts contemplative and mood-altering, it’s atmosphere forging music. Sounds that are able to stop a moment and alter its DNA.

Skeleton Hand – Yellow

Skeleton Hand – Grey
(Hand Drawn Hand)

Skeleton Hand is the improvising trio of Martin Elsey (cello), C.Joynes (guitar) and Kamil Ziobar (drums/percussion). These two tapes, both released on the same day, are culled from a single three hour recording session. Both come across like some forgotten ECM classic that lost its sleekness in the hustle and grit of pub back rooms and leaky practice spaces. The most captivating thing is the playful, almost cheeky interaction between the trio. On Grey’s ‘Danger Is Interesting’, guitar and cello pass a four-note surf rock riff back and forth between each other, whoever’s not holding the groove twisting off into joyful flurries. Elsewhere they veer into AMM style scrape and prang, but someone always throws in a curve ball to knock it into a groove. Both albums are defined by the itinerant moves between Elsey, Joynes and Ziobar, but they never fall into aimless noodling. Rather than finishing each other’s sentences, it’s as though the three players are feverishly bouncing ideas off each other as they try to co-write a movie script, endless concepts and moods jostling for position as the improvisations unfold.

(Already Dead Tapes)

The last time Maputo-based Nandele Maguni appeared in this column was to deliver one of my favourite tapes of 2020, the widescreen electronic epic Plaffonddeinst. Muave sees him in a trio with Chris Born and João Roxo, IMAGINARY documenting a live performance at Mozambique’s Gala Gala festival (you can also buy it on VHS). These four jams are smothered in an ecosystem of percussive webs, squelchy bass lines and wildlife sounds, creating a slow moving techno exotica. Underneath it all the trio are firmly locked together in a singular pulse, a groove so solid it exudes its own gravity the listener can’t help but get pulled into. The liveness of the recording gives it a lulling serenity, instead of overly efficient cuts and edits you hear loops and sequences build up around you in realtime, as Maguni, Born and Roxo take it in turns to intervene and reshape the flow. The languid kicks move like a conveyor belt, carrying you along as the trio assemble a vibrant sonic world around you.

Marta Forsberg – Light Colours In Jyderup
(Warm WintersLtd.)

For this 15 minute piece, Swedish-Polish composer Marta Forsberg got a group of Danish school children to mimic the sounds of a violin. Beginning with tentative oohs and aahs, they slowly assemble into a gleeful din. Midway through Forsberg fires it through a bed of effects. Voices spin around and reverberate through synthetic caverns, while a gentle bass throb emerges seemingly from nowhere. Even with the explanation of the sound sources Light Colours In Jyderup is totally spellbinding. Forsberg sifting through these playful vocalisations to amplify something spookily beautiful and endlessly captivating.

Asleep Country – Helvetic Sylph
(New Motion)

Asleep Country aka Octavia Möbius Sheffner makes sprawling fantasy worlds on Helvetic Sylph. While grainy samples and unnerving vocal loops make this double tape vaguely vaporwave adjacent, these plunderphonic vistas feel like they’re determined to crack open nostalgia rather than succumb to it. Glitches glitch other glitches in a strange domino effect, twinkling layers of keys fall into into mutated rhythms until the whole thing distorts under its own intensity. Elsewhere come snippets of Morricone-esque trumpets, flashes of reverberant guitar, and pretty much anything else you could imagine. But the key to this album isn’t so much the familiar sounds that appear, as the breathtaking compositions they’re used to make. The Bandcamp page offers a text for each track, each one reads like automatic writing as cosmic psychoanalysis. The same description works for the music, densely layered as it is and full of bizarre twists and wonderfully disorientating turns.

Halfsilks – Cupid Operations
(Kitchen Leg Records)

Berlin based trio Halfsilks, aka Marcia Arff, Jana Stzko and Karen Thompson, work in the pro-dancing, anti-macho post punk zone that started with Delta 5 and has been propelled forward through the likes of Shopping and Sweeping Promises. The trio stamp their own mark on the formula with Cupid Operations, as synths take the place of guitars. The songs have a knack of subtly wrong footing you. While opener ‘No Wire Hangars’ is propelled by sheer defiance, the vocalist belting out: “Don’t fuck with me fellas, this ain’t my first rodeo”, the album gets oddly melancholic as it goes on. ‘Blood Runs Deep’ flips into gothic tinged synth runs and wordless vocal solos. ‘White Horse’ manages to sit in an exact middle ground between The Raincoats and Kate Bush, the line, "Let’s go jump into the sea, and the rocks will tear our flesh" one of a number of disarming lyrical shifts producing truly enigmatic songs. The tracks constantly battle between reckless abandon and an existential fragility lurking in the background.

CC Sorensen – Twin Mirror
(Full Spectrum Records)

Karen Tei Yamashita’s ‘Through The Arc Of The Rainforest’, describes an abandoned junkyard in the Amazon where new species of mice have evolved prehensile tails and burrow into exhaust pipes, and plants attach themselves to decaying vehicles. This magical realist depiction of anthropocenic adaptation seems to vibrate to the same pulse as the hybrid world CC Sorensen inhabits on Twin Mirror. The liner notes describe these tracks as acting like journal entries following the narrative of a prolonged unsettled living situation for Sorensen in 2019. However, there’s some misdirection in these notes as while diaristic music tends to focus on unearthing the magical in our everyday environment, Twin Mirror feels pointed firmly towards escaping into a deeply personal but totally parallel universe. Kalimbas jostle their way through watery synth patterns. Strange ballads sound like duets sung across a dimensional divide. Wildlife sounds blend into electronics so it becomes difficult to distinguish synthesis from recordings of frog noise. The whole album is smothered in a stunningly off-kilter orchestration, as acoustics and electronics gently pull each other apart. ‘Twin Mirror’ faces real world upheaval by imagining a new mundane. A fantasy universe where earthly concerns like a fixed abode are allowed to slip out of conscious thought.

Il Santo Bevitore – Water And Tears
(Opal Tapes)

London-based Sardinian Nicola Serra, aka Il Santio Bevitore sounds like he’s trying to render friction audible on Water And Tears. The liner notes say the tape reflects on Serra’s home country, and the jumps between beauty and harshness draw an outline of uneasy interactions. In effect, it becomes a Proustian nightmare, as if Serra’s reflections on home are triggering a deluge of violently juxtaposed memories. Glockenspiels do battle with fried electronics, voices get sped up into inhuman ecstasy, and screams tear through the contorted ether. It’s a work of visceral asynchrony, laying bare a frightfully absorbing world where nothing is quite as in sync or harmonious as it might seem. It’s most potent on ‘Malia’, saxophone from Rik Jensen, contrabassoon from Thomas Stone and vocals and clarinet from Cerpintxt creating an uneasy impasse which gets ruptured by a burst of drums. The music’s form is reminiscent of Jon Hassel’s Pentimento compositions, sounds layering upon each other to reveal new shapes and textures. But the world ll Santo Bevitore creates is full of interference and disruption, and ultimately far less serene.

Anne-F Jacques, Bardo Todol, Chemiefaserwerk, Zhu Wenbo – Floating Tape 飘浮的磁带
(Zoomin Night)

Anne-F Jacques, Bardo Tadol, Chemiefaserwerk and Zhu Wenbo are a globe-spanning, homemade musique concrete super group of sorts. The four of them are all label owners and prolific creators of odd sonic universes in their own right. Their Floating Tape project embodies the weirdo camaraderie and ego-free collaboration that makes the cassette underground so great. Each release sees two of the four improvise with each other remotely. Those sounds then get mixed and assembled by a third, and released on the label of the fourth. Then they all switch roles for the next release. Floating Tape 飘浮的磁带 has Canada based Jacques jamming with Argentina based Bardo Todol, France based Chemiefaserwerk on mixing duties, and the tape put out by Wenbo’s Zoomin’ Night. The second tape in the ongoing series, Floating Tape 飘浮的磁带’s rustling world of whirs, spooky tape loops and sensuous clutter conjures a soothing low-key chaos, kind of like an insect-scaled hauntology. It points to this free-flowing, ever changing project as one of endless, open ended possibilities.

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