Spool’s Out Cassette Reviews For October By Daryl Worthington

From Barbie keyboards to drops of water and homemade bagpipes, Daryl Worthington finds anything’s game on cassette tapes this month

Brigitte Bardon’t

In case you missed the announcement last month, your guide through all things cassette for the last seven years, Tristan Bath, is taking a sabbatical from this column while he goes off to study. Fear not though, he’ll be back in 2021 and as everyone reading this knows, you can never really untangle yourself from the tape-o-sphere.

And so, the first question I have to ask is: what am I actually supposed to be doing here?

First things first, the way I see it the sonic remit is broad. The tape scene crosses genres, and it’s no coincidence a lot of the most interesting music subcultures, from noise to hip hop and countless others, have seen the humble cassette play a big role in their development.

Secondly, the format itself is only part of the game. More important are the bands, producers, MCs and composers that use this format’s relative affordability to take bigger risks and make fewer compromises. Whether a tape release is a mere stop off en route someplace else, or a glorious end in itself, it can encourage artists to make bold statements or follow unfamiliar tangents. To do something a little unhinged, a little unusual, but still filled with ambition and intent.

That’s what I’m taking as the raison d’etre for this column then. To try and shed some light on the ecosystem of weirdness sprouting from these lumps of plastic.

Looking at the ten tapes I’ve picked out of the ton of worthy candidates I was still whittling down until the moment I had to begin writing this, one thing that stands out is all of these artists actually start from something fairly mundane or familiar, yet they manage to mess with it just enough to make something comprehensively off piste. Discarded junk is turned into sleek electronica, pop songs become collages. Heck, even a string quartet, that bastion of classical music, isn’t a traditional string quartet at all.

Nandele Maguni – Plafonddeinst

(Already Dead Tapes)

Plafonddeinst sees Mozambican producer Nandele Maguni pull together a beguiling mix of sonics, from sci fi synths, to throbbing bass music and nature recordings. What’s most surprising here though, is not how diverse the sounds are, from local recordings to experimental electronics, even the occasional guitar solo (played by Roberto Chistsonzo Jr), but how smoothly Nandele gels them together.

“I’m the manifestation of my ancestors’ imagination,” says poet Adrian Diff, on fourth track Nnê, calling on the past to be reclaimed from colonial narratives as a way to reshape present and future. It gives perspective on the spaces Nandele opens up in these nine tracks, genres, textures and rhythms folding into each other before unravelling in new directions.

From Afrika Bambaataa to Underground Resistance, there’s a history of electronic music striving for liberation beyond the dancefloor. “My foot stomping the soil allows me to levitate to a place where peace and power eventually illuminate,” says Diff, and it’s a sentiment that runs through Plafonddeinst’s psychedelic electronica. Music might not be able to change reality, but it builds zones where you can poke at it with a stick.

G Sudden – Bunout Boss EP

(Bokeh Versions/Duppy Gun)

Sometimes the sheer fire it ignites in your speakers is enough to make a release 100% vital. That’s the case with Bunout Boss EP, the latest future dancehall drop from Bokeh Versions and Duppy Gun, which sees Okeme Robinson, aka Gaza G Sudden, take the mic with Seekersinternational on production.

Dancehall’s history is as much a culture of communities, soundsystems and defiance as it is a music genre. And that story is seared into the circuity of Bunout Boss EP and its telepathic links between rhymes and riddims. Richmond, BC via Manila duo Seekersinternational’s mix of 8-bit bass lines and scattered beats is one of the most distinctive backdrops you’ll hear, but they harness it on these eight tracks to amplifying G Sudden’s flow.

Even as the lyrics on G Sudden’s full debut (the Portmore, Jamaica artist has been involved with Duppy Gun since 2013) tackle the hard issues of ghetto life and gun violence, the tracks also contain escape routes from the strife. “You can be anything you want to be” as G Sudden says on Skin Get Bun. This is party music, but there’s a fierce defiance to the rowdiness.

Donald W.G. Lindsay and Richard Youngs – History of Sleep
(Good Energy)

History of Sleep pairs Donald W.G. Lindsay, a Glasgow musician and inventor who designs his own bagpipes, with bona fide weird music legend Richard Youngs for a quartet of long form, ragged drone improvisations. This includes taking cues from the oldest collection of bagpipe music in existence by William Dixon on fourth track Dorrington.

A lot of recent drone music feels like it’s been painstakingly buffed for display in cathedrals. As beautiful as that can be, Youngs and Lindsay understand the potency of leaving some rough edges and wobbly pitches in. A possible comparison would be the recent work by Tashi and Yoshi Wada, not least due to the presence of pipes, but Youngs and Lindsay create a sparser, more intimate affair. It means a few minutes into Dorrington the guitar crashes in with such force it feels like it sucks the air out of the room. It’s such a cathartic moment that once the tape ends you immediately needed to flip it over, retrace your steps and try and understand how you got there.

Marta Forsberg – New Love Music

(warm winters ltd.)

Polish-Swedish composer Marta Forsberg‘s New Love Music, shows that sometimes there’s nothing heavier than complete silence. The three tracks, (plus a fourth, a continuous mix of them played without interruption) were originally performed as an installation piece for electronics and LED lights. The music is built from gentle zither strums which leave cavernous gaps for sine wave tones and a keening six-person choir to gently trickle into and slowly saturate.

Converting something conceived for an installation to a ‘release’ format can be a risky business with ersatz results. However, New Love Music is a remarkably malleable composition. The stark beauty of the piece is strong enough to translate to headphones, and the sparser moments have the weird effect of making you more keenly aware of the background noise of the environment you’re listening in as well as the music itself.

Showing a real DIY dedication to capturing the physicality of the installation, the tape also includes a light score with a timeline of the piece, guiding you in triggering a light source of your choosing to reconstruct the intended audio-visual performance. At a time when simply experiencing music outside your own home never seemed further away, it’s a strangely poignant gesture.

Tegh – Emergent Errors

(Opal Tapes)

Emergent Errors, sees the Iranian musician and sound artist Tegh, aka Shahin Entezami, explore the effects of Cotard Delusion. The illness, which becomes more troubling the more you learn about it, sees the sufferer begin to think that they (or parts of their body) are dead, dying or don’t exist. At its most extreme the delusion throws sufferers into complex doubts about their sense of self and raises harrowing existential questions.

Heavy material then, and in Emergent Errors Entezami translates his research on the subject into shockingly evocative sound. Parts of the album have the violin of Nima Aghiani sheared and cut into weird ghosts of itself among the clouds of metallic dust and sputtering electronics. Elsewhere, harrowing clusters of synth hit like the void made physical. Points of reference here would be Beatriz Ferreyra or Bernard Parmegiani, at least in effect if not in process.

This isn’t necessarily a harsh sounding release though, as much as the gruesome track names, inspired by conversations between Cotard patients and doctors, may be. Instead, Entezami makes aural a deep sense of disorientation and disturbance. Coming across as a kind of psychiatric musique concrete, it’s a bold attempt at rendering tangible a condition defined by its very sense of intangibility.

Daphne X – Água Viva

(tsss tapes)

Water, or more specifically its collision with different surfaces, is the focus of Daphne X’s Água Viva. The Barcelona-based Greek sound artist presents four recordings of the liquid hitting polyester, metal and skin. Like all the best ideas this is a relatively simple one, but the decision to commit these events to tape pushes you to pay attention in new ways.

Daphne X (aka Daphne Xanthopoulou’s) approach to field recording is the audio equivalent of a scientific illustrator not necessarily striving for photorealism, but exaggerating salient features. At times the recordings have been affected subtly, sounds looped or frequencies bolstered, affording more space and amplification to certain events. At others, the mics have been expertly placed to let incidental information and hints of location and situation creep in and take centre stage.

Listening to the drops and splashes ends up strangely addictive. I find my brain attempting to map the time and space in which the recordings took place, as every eerie echo and subtle resonance is rendered as a question with no clear answer.

Brigitte Bardon’t – Pink

(Industrial Coast)

When Brigitte Bardon’t, aka Toronto sound artist Kristel Jax, last appeared in this column, she was creating radio collages on 2019’s Radio Songs. Now she’s once again revelling in the creativity material limitations afford.

Every track on Pink was recorded using nothing but a Barbie Jam With Me keyboard that Jax found at the side of the road as the sound source, “At home I found the battery terminals were finicky, but, like many electronics people throw in the trash, it wasn’t truly broken,” she explains.

A Barbie keyboard found in the trash is a fairly culturally loaded object, and Jax could have probably stuck with the novelty sounds it presented and convincingly badged it as a comment on consumerism/nostalgia. Instead, she’s comprehensively repurposed the kitsch sounds within into industrial tinged beats, weird dub techno vibes and beautiful ambient drift. Unleashing a palette of uncanny timbres and textures that seems particularly timely as the last of summer has just ebbed away.

J. Pavone String Ensemble – Lost and Found

(Astral Spirits)

The physiological effects of sound and how vibrations shape emotional well-being are the name of the game on the J. Pavone String Ensemble’s new work Lost & Found.

The description might make it sound like a new age cliche, but there’s far more rigour and subtly to these four compositions. The unconventional quartet of Jessica Pavone and Abby Swindler on violas, and Erica Dicker and Angela Morris on violins, (most string quartets have a cello in place of the second viola) patiently explores the impact of discreet sounds played against each other. At points the four instruments smoothly overlap in the restricted range, and others they tangle into ominous swells or snap into staccato shards.

Unusually, the J. Pavone String Ensemble is formed on the idea of collective improvisation (rather than a soloist playing over a fixed base). It makes listening to Lost And Found feel like you’re in the middle of a cat’s cradle game as the quartet tug and pull to extract all the emotional possibilities from the four instruments.

Polypores – Terrain

(Frequency Domain)

Anyone who’s currently living and working exclusively through Outlook and Zoom will have felt the dread of the passive-aggressive virtual personas closing in on them. On new release Terrain, Polypores, aka Stephen James Buckley, has created a nostalgia-dosed ode to a time when computers were just an escape into fantastic virtual worlds, rather than portals that let the outside into our once private spaces. The bleeps and synths of video game hauntology perhaps?

Buckley bought himself a SNES Mini at the start of lockdown, and got pulled into the sprawling world of RPGs such as The Legend Of Zelda and Earthbound. The 13 modular synthesizer compositions on Terrain were written to complement the pixelised terrain he’d become immersed in. The bittersweet melodicism that’s become a feature of Polypores’ music combines with the wobble of my tape player to give these tracks a poignance beyond imaginary game soundtracks, though. Meaning even the most explicit nods to game sounds, such as the power-up chimes of Save Points, are stopped from becoming kitsch.

These synth miniatures end up unearthing the warmth in the pixelated ether. A timely tonic to anyone feeling trapped in the online environment.

Tar Of – Instant Light

(Glass Orchard)

On their third album, Instant Light, New York City duo Tar Of don’t so much reinvent the pop music wheel as cut it up into a bunch of spinning plates. The 22 tracks Ariyan Basu and Ramin Rahni condense into 36 minutes here take in everything from bowed banjos to duelling clarinets and doo wop style vocals. Skilfully crafted mini pop-songs appearing as further sonic detritus in their expertly crafted mess.

The songs themselves have echoes of post-Pet Sounds-era Beach Boys, Van Dyke Parks and Animal Collective running through them, and Tar Of’s skill with a strong hook softens what could otherwise be an overwhelming drive through their stream of consciousness. Take a more overarching view to this bonkers tape and it starts to seem less a short attention span skittering between ideas and more like an expert art pop collage of the American songbook. As the duo themselves say, “We attempt to balance levity with gravity." As vague as that phrase is, it does seem to capture the wild tensions as play here.

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