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

From midi orchestras to Schopenhauer via compositions made from the sun’s own radio frequencies, Daryl Worthington finds the onset of autumn hasn’t dimmed the amount of inspiration to be found on cassettes this month

Rojin Sharafi live shot by Arash Bolouri

October brought the news that cassette sales were up to their highest level since 2004, with tape releases from AC/DC and Lady Gaga leading the way. So, yet again, a revival of the ‘obsolete’ format is heralded, but the year 2004 and the word ‘obsolete’ are important here.

The CD had been around for decades by then, and iTunes was a few years old as well. Both of these supposedly rendered the humble cassette obsolete, so the chronologies here clearly don’t stand up to too much scrutiny.

In reality tapes have been a pretty constant bridge between underground scenes spun out across the globe for decades, a mutual support network of traders, collectors and creators which reassures independent artists in a way the internet never could that they’re not, in fact, shouting into the void.

So, the peaks of 2004 and 2020 aren’t where the really interesting story is. That lies in the years in between, where this apparently redundant technology never stopped being a live means of communication. You could argue this focuses too much on what happens at the margins of culture, but then, it’s people working in those margins who are most likely to stretch them out a bit and let a few more voices into the conversation.

I spent a big chunk of last month watching streams from Tusk and its accompanying fringe, the annual festival of experimental music in Newcastle forced online in the wake of Covid-19. Events like this going digital really drives home how far reaching the spectral community of weirdness is.

The ten tapes this month all tap into that, whether it’s the Zabte Sote label uniting a globally spread network of Iranian producers, international collaborations between sound artists, or bedroom producers releasing their home made symphonies into the world.

Rojin Sharafi – Zangaar

(Zabte Sote)

The compositions of Vienna based, Tehran born composer Rojin Sharafi don’t so much diffuse through the room as swarm over you in nebulous, twitching patterns. Sharafi herself describes Zangaar as “the dust of time that covers memories and mirrors. It makes, thus, a new abstract surface, a new quality of time.” This image of dust fits well the effect her palette of ephemeral electronics and vocals have, matter that can simultaneously float formlessly and settle into smothering layers.

The tracks here are all based on poems written during a summer trip, and Sharafi’s reciting of these stories is done with an attention to pace and intonation you’d expect from an elite MC. This is music that exists in a thrilling tension, language and pure sound tearing at any structure that threatens to contain it.

Zangaar is part of a batch of four tapes by Iranian artists from the Ata Ebtekar (aka Iranian producer Sote) curated Zabte Sote label. Also taking in the time freezing low-end monoliths of London based Pouya Eshaei, the ecstatically brutal electronics of Denmark based Arash Pandi, and the hypnagogic synth pop of US based SAHAB, the whole lot is worthy of spending time with if you’re into musicians working at the edges of what’s possible with electronic music.

Diana Duta & Julia E. Dyck – Wave Debris

(Crash Symbols)

A geologist by training, British scientist Dr Elizabeth Alexander spent the Second World War studying the radio waves emitted by the sun. Her research would play a key role in the development of radio astronomy, that is, the study of celestial objects at radio frequencies. Once the war was over, Alexander went back to geology, but her studies on solar broadcasts serves as the inspiration for Wave Debris, the new tape from sound artists Diana Duta and Julia E. Dyck.

This is quite literally radiophonic music then, the duo using modulated versions of the solar radio frequencies Alexander studied as their building blocks. Over the course of both a live and studio interpretation of ‘Wave Debris’ they gently augment these drones with field recordings, spoken word fragments and crackling electronics, Duta and Dyck operating in the ethereality of wave forms rather than notes and harmony. The result is two eerie, radiating pieces befitting the celestial phenomena that inspired them. Duta and Dyck adding a new zone to the liminal space between science, philosophy and sound explored opened by Daphne Oram, Eliane Radigue and Pauline Oliveros.

Andy Rantzen, Jochen Gutsch, Lawrence English – On The Completion Of My Masterwork

(Hasana Editions)

The writings of philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer form the bedrock of this new release from Andy Rantzen, Jochen Gutsch and Lawrence English. Largely steering clear of Schopenhauer’s pessimistic philosophy itself, the texts Rantzen reads over On The Completion Of My Masterwork focus on details of Schopenhauer’s life in Napoleonic Europe, and his misanthropic ego. English and Gutsch create a surreal soundscape in and around the readings, sifting through possessed sine waves, haunted fanfares and haggard crescendos.

On the b-side, the voice is largely removed and the materials of side-a are cut up into something stuttering, sinister and carnivalesque. This is ambient music in the purest sense, prioritising tone and atmosphere over music forms. Throughout this tape that atmosphere is feverish and harrowed, making the album a discretely unsettling, and compelling, experience.

Able Noise – Recordings


Marking a welcome and hopefully sustained return for the GLARC (Greater Lanarkshire Auricular Research Council) label, Recordings, the debut album from Dutch/Greek duo Able Noise shows that it’s still possible to extract something new and wonderfully un-rock from two voices, a guitar and a drum kit.

George Knegtel plays baritone guitar in Able Noise and Alex Andropoulos is on drums, but those instrumental roles only seem to capture half of what’s going on in this mixtape of agitated folk songs, slowcore patterns and subtly spooky sound experiments. Reminiscent of This Heat or Swell Maps, there’s a strong sense in Able Noise’s music that Knegtel and Andropoulos have delicately tampered with their original performances, discretely cutting, layering and collaging in new strands and patterns. It means Recordings has an intriguing shimmering quality, existing in a state of impermanence that skilfully amplifies rather than obscures the tenderness at its core.

R. Aggs – Tape 1


With her bands Trash Kit, Shopping and Sacred Paws, Rachel Aggs has always had a knack for finding the universal in the personal with her lyrics, and that crosses over into Tape 1, her second solo release following a debut on Lost Map Records earlier this year.

The tracks here are recordings Aggs made at home, and while the bands she’s in are all defined by a rowdy, defiant conversation between the members, the songs on Tape 1 see loops, drum machines and synths filling out the space behind her distinctive voice and guitar playing. Bringing to mind the pure intimacy of Young Marble Giants, or the Raincoats’ Ana Da Silva’s solo work, Aggs also manages to keep hold of the bouncing positivity that’s imprinted into everything she’s recorded. Lines like “We were unstoppable, probably insufferable,” on Exuberance, or “I only think about you, I hope you think of me too, I guess only you know” on Wherever gives these tracks a poignancy that will tug at the coldest hearts, while the ramshackle momentum at their core will let your Walkman temporarily summon the communal energy of the sweaty basements we’re all missing so much.

Natalia Beylis – The Steadfast Starry Universe

(Eiderdown Records)

Described as an audio guidebook to her mystical life in rural Ireland, Natalia BeylisThe Steadfast Starry Universe is music that lives in the slimy, gooey, squelchy reality of nature, rather than taking in romanticised panoramas. Her lulling arrangements adding a magical levity to the damp, earthy environments that surround them.

The Kiev-born, Baltimore-raised and currently Ireland-dwelling composer crafts gentle, sparse songs on a variety of recognisable and not so easily recognisable acoustic instruments. The accompaniment comes from solitary chirping birds, or footsteps squelching in the wet sand. Every time I listen to it I find myself wanting to shush anything and everything making noise outside my window, afraid it will drown out some crucial element in the creaking flotsam and jetsam so pivotal to the mysterious beauty these compositions have.

Bass Clef – Orezero

There’s a tendency in electronic music for a narrow range of samples, synths and drum machines to become a set of shared building blocks among producers, but from the early days of his Bass Clef project, Ralph Cumbers, has always seemed to hone in on his own set of tools, timbres and textures.

Orezero finds Bass Clef in a more harmonic and melodic zone than his earlier beat driven exercises. According to Cumbers, the instruments here are two ROMplers, “much loathed relics with samples you’ve heard on a billion records,” and an “extremely popular, yet deeply uncool” synthesiser. It lends these ten tracks a weirdly off-centre quality as the kitsch, mass produced, essence of pop music echoes through the elegant instrumentals. The maligned sounds used here and the focus on melody put Orezero out of step with a lot of contemporary electronic music. But it’s that out of placeness that makes it so vital, and surely what releasing music on cassette is all about.

Jacob Sachs-Mishalanie – Scribble

Acting as a good companion to Orezero is Brooklyn based Jacob Sachs-Mishalanie’s Scribble. Although more abstract, at its heart is the same playful fascination with electronic sound. Like the Bass Clef tape, the use of midi instruments here seems to challenge what sounds are considered fashionable in experimental and electronic music and also ask, why so serious?

At times it sounds like Sachs-Mishalanie is using his synthetic instruments and stuttering glitches to write nursery rhymes for algorithms, at others, as though he’s making beats from Play-Doh. That’s not to say that these tracks are naive or juvenile though. There’s a deceptively high level of skill and sophistication in both composition and production here, with echoes of Mort Garson and Yellow Magic Orchestra in the colourful textures. These scribbles don’t so much form a narrative, as show that it’s possible for electronic music to conjure imaginaries that aren’t limited to dystopian dread or faded nostalgia.

S ‘,,,’ G – The Point
(Fort Evil Fruit)

There’s been a rich stream of wonderfully messed up clutter core improvisation burbling away in Newcastle for a while now, centred around Gateshead’s The Old Police House (TOPH), which seems to have become a hub for a thriving community of musicians who revel in the croaking, splattered, wild side of experimental music.

S ‘,,,’ G pairs up two figures from that scene, Odie Ji Ghast (aka Greta Buitkute, also of BAD@MATHS and Historically Fucked), and SW1n-Hunter (aka Adam Denton, of Trans-Human). Over the three tracks of The Point, they summon a relentlessly descending mulch of frazzled electronics, groans and other vocal contortions. A kind of montage of the unconscious where language, voice and objects are used in an instinctive way liberated from preconceptions of what counts as an instrument. Releases like The Point interrogate the Overton window of what music is, challenging the hierarchies of traditional musical knowledge and technology which exclude so many. Beyond that though, there’s something strangely welcoming in the burbling mess S ’,,,’ G have concocted that makes it well worth exploring.

Charlie Behrens – Uneasing

(Collapsing Drums)

There’s been a slew of releases in the last few months that have faced 2020’s burning forests, exposed socio-political nightmares and pandemic with soft, contemplative music. Charlie Behrens however, takes a different tack, dropping a set of surreal, eccentric electronics to face these absurd times on their own terms.

The tracks on Uneasing were first released back in September, when lockdown was still easing in the UK, field recordings from a Black Lives Matter protest on ‘Attending’ giving it a very clear sense of time and place. The tape only found its way through my letter box this month, but the delay hasn’t blunted its relevance. The mangled stream of consciousness electronics here, jumping through modular squelches and clangs into stuttering techno beats, paint a visceral soundtrack of normality flailing at the edges that sounds particularly unhinged through my overworked tape deck. Poetic spoken word interludes from Jessi Brown, Victoria Richards and Joshua Idehen give a human insight to the absurd mess. Idehen’s imagery of “oozing screens” on tofu & egg ramen well suited to a time when reality itself seems to be spinning off its axis.

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