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

From drip powered cave orchestras to raw sax improvisations and stunning electronics, Daryl Worthington finds hope and strangeness on cassettes in May

Eilien aka Ellen Virman

Back in 1992 Bruce Sterling described cyberspace as the place where a phone conversation seems to happen – not in the devices themselves but some imagined zone in between. The boundaries of that space have expanded exponentially since the nineties, but perhaps the biggest surprise is that much of the romance and wonder promised in its sublime digital potential is currently finding its way onto a supposedly archaic format – the trusty cassette.

A recent video on the BBC website asked: “Why are cassette tapes making a comeback?” These heralds of a return to some ferric Albion crop up a couple of times a year it seems, so there’s no need to go over it again. Suffice to say, these tellings of a tape renaissance tend to frame it as some nostalgic yearning for a rickety but charming old format. No doubt this is true, and I do think that one of the attractions of cassettes (and any physical medium) is they offer a way to listen to music without a screen and an internet connection. But they also overlook that a lot of what’s coming out on tape right now is defiantly not rehashing the past.

Eilien is Helsinki based Ellen Virman, and on Digital Lovers, released on Czech label Genot Centre, they make music which sounds like sweet nothings transmitted through code and liquid crystals. Virman created these tracks using a text-based audio coding platform, but the real story is the sweeping allure Virman’s compositions have. ‘There Is Someone Who Looks Like Me’ sounds like the exact midway point between Enya and Holly Herndon, a strident love song to the digital ether, while ‘Blue Skies’ and ‘SMS’ come across like synthetic odes to synthetic panoramas. It feels intimately connected to that imagined space Sterling described, an attempt to chart the network’s emotional coordinates and possibilities.

Keeping things tied to the radical futures which seem to brew in the tapeosphere, Endless Fluctuations, out on the Pawlacz Perski label, sees Polish producer Krysztof Ostrowski craft rich webs of internal and external momentum spinning out in every possible direction. Opening tracks ‘Diffusion’ and ‘Stochastic Resonance’ take polyrhythms to an odd extreme, layering microscopic patterns on top of each other so they congeal into a single fluttering murmuration. Later tracks add more centralised beats, ‘Noise Induced Transitions’ bounding along on a fierce low end swagger while ‘Molecular Motors’ verges boldly towards jungle territory. It usually feels like multiple bpms are on the go in the same song, at the same time, yet the chaos is euphoric rather than disorientating. There are nods to dance music history, not least the twitching trancey synth that rears its head a couple of times. But Ostrowski’s productions seem to strive towards pure motion, as though he’s tracking movements from the molecular to the cosmic level and cramming them into the same plane. It’s an overwhelming, but totally fixating listen, as though the invisible network were made audible.

Both the Ostrowski and Eilien albums tap into the cassette’s long history of piggy backing the cutting edge of music across the globe. They show that rather than some boutique accessory to nostalgia, it’s a timeless, endlessly versatile blank slate. A conduit which can be used to capture some of the imagined spaces Sterling described back in the 1990s.

Roger Robinson And The Black Space Quartet – Seasons

(Boomkat Editions)

Roger Robinson has long been the poet most able to put into words the slide between optimism and dread, solidarity and isolation that marks twenty-first century life. Seasons sees him team up with new band The Black Space Quartet, comprising members of Welsh collective LSN and vocalist Ruby Jones, for a set of tracks which manage to look up at the stars despite feeling knocked down onto their back. Growing from the dub roots which weave through everything Robinson has done, a bruised sparseness in production and voices capture the same frayed soul that Sly and The Family Stone tapped into with There’s A Riot Goin On. ‘Count On Me’ and ‘You Know’ are tender love songs blazing a line of hope through despair, while ‘Smoke City’ feels like Robinson coming to terms with the idea that the town he loves might be slowly killing him. “Good times are around the corner”, Robinson and Jones sing on the title track. With music and voices simultaneously hurting and yearning, it feels less an empty reassurance than a mantra for finding and holding onto glimpses of fragile light.

Amirtha Kidambi & Matteo Liberatore – Neutral Love

(Astral Editions)

Amirtha Kidambi & Matteo Liberatore turn their respective instruments of voice and guitar into something truly interdimensional on Neutral Love, creating a suite of warped vistas which seem to burrow in and out of the unconscious. Kidambi’s voice flows effortlessly from keening singing into whistles, croaks and other extremes of vocalisation which push at the limits of throat and scratch at the thin veneer of reality. Liberatore manages to summon all kinds of beguiling textures from his guitar, sometimes sounding like church bells, others like an organ, and even growling in a detuned, low register somewhere between a cello and a tuba. There’s a stunning virtuosity on display from Kidambi and Liberatore, but it’s directed towards shared world, rather than ego building. The duo bending together a palette of sounds which falls outside the expectations of both of their instruments and on the precipice of the familiar. Weaving into each other to create intricate, speculative environments on the cusp of being articulable.

Vica Pacheco – Fibre-Fusion

(Wabi-Sabi Tapes)

What really stands out about Mexican Vica Pacheco’s Fibre-Fusion is how unbounded it sounds, the nine tracks spilling out of the speakers with a gentle gush. As far as I can tell there are no recordings of water in this tape, yet the way it moves just feels wet, her electronic productions sidestepping obvious rises or falls and instead just sitting in the flow. Pulling influences from her Central American homeland, electronics smudge into organics and vice-versa, the membrane always feeling completely permeable and the sources of the sounds less important than their trippy whole. Cooing vocals and billowing percussion carry ‘Guateque’ on a mesmerising wave, while the shifting beat on ‘Las Monos’ makes it feel like a quiet dance for the humans and non-humans of the rainforest floor. Other tracks ditch such foregrounded rhythm, the meditative ‘Hemisfero’ bringing home just how intricate Pacheco’s compositions are with cricket-like percussion meandering through flute-sounding instruments and gongs. This is music built for and from movement and communion, immersing the listener into its slippery world

Luke Stewart/Patrick Shiroishi – Luke Stewart/Patrick Shiroishi

(Profane Illuminations)

This split sees Patrick Shiroishi and Luke Stewart take a side each to explore the gaps between instruments, musicians and spaces. Shiroishi’s ‘Staying Human’, actually has him sounding at his most cybernetic – not in a robotic sense, but the feeling that the dilution between soul, saxophone and music is at absolute minimum on this longing improvisation. Recorded in a parking garage, Shiroishi stretches out notes to collide and bounce off the walls. The sonic effects are spooky, as the room joins the composition, but what takes this beyond merely interesting is just how frisson-inducingly raw the performance is. Stewart’s side has more considered craftmanship compared to Shiroishi’s heart on sleeve performance. At the heart of ‘Works For Pioneer Works’ (named after the studio where Stewart recorded it on residency) are scrapes, creaks and cracks performed on double bass. Sonic events are gently folded, layered and fed back into the echoes and resonances of the room, assembling a beautiful miasma of low end hums and eerie pitches. It feels like the two sides of this tape capture different, equally vital sides of the psyche, the fire and passions of Shiroishi’s laments versus the contemplative etching and whittling away of Stewart’s elegant figures.

Hey Exit – Eulogy For Land

(Full Spectrum Records)

Hey Exit is Californian Brendan Landis, and on Eulogy for Land he plays blues on a geological scale. There’s a ridiculous level of restraint to his guitar playing, every note hitting with its own gravitational pull and every interval like it’s bridging a canyon. The tracks were recorded in a single take in 2019, as California entered forest fire season, and there is a real sense of looking out powerlessly at the coming storm, but also moments of sanctity nestled somewhere in these charred melodies. Each pick of the string feels like it’s struck just to amplify the nearly silent hums, resonances and drones surrounding it, or perhaps shake Landis and listeners out of their stupor. Though slow, these jams aren’t stationary, ebbing from mournful dirges into flickers of cautious optimism, but the album demands you really focus to hear the light. There’s thick nocturnality to these slow blazing guitar laments, but it’s not dark music per se, an eerie glow somehow seeping through. Songs for endings, but perhaps also tentative, shimmering beginnings.

Ambulance vs Ambulance – Industrial Country

(Drowned By Locals)

In her book Capital Is Dead, McKenzie Wark – and I’m paraphrasing massively here – points to the inability among critics to name the modern condition, everything’s a prefix on an existing idea – post-capitalism, neo-liberalism and so on. It’s a problem music writers have been bashing their heads against for years, everything a post this or a hyphenisation of that. The temptation is to do the same for Industrial Country the debut album from Ambulance vs Ambulance, the duo of Bristolians Jeffrey Lee Hearse (Bokeh Versions founder) and Robin Stewart (Giant Swan). The broken baritone on ‘Hell Is For Johnny’ and the cover of ‘You Were Always On My Mind Ft Abul-Loul The Singer’ channel a crooner singing in the smoky ruins of a bar demolished in a night of misplaced reverie, while ‘From 1804 To Bearpit’ sounds like mutant minimal wave recorded over some nightmarish insomnia tape. At its core it seems to tap into the dub blueprint – the heaviness of silence, decontextualised sound and bass mass, but calling it a dub album is really stretching it. Perhaps it’s best just to think of this worship of gunk and drift as a call to set aside some time and let the strangeness in.

Stuart Chalmers – Suikinkutsu 水琴窟

(Fractal Meat Cuts)

Recorded in a cave in the Yorkshire Dales, Stuart ChalmersSuikinkutsu 水琴窟 is a breath-taking celebration of the power of the drip. Setting up an orchestra of cans, kettles, lids and gongs, Chalmers lets drops of water strike the objects and bring them to life. It creates an oddly symphonic, and chaotic, composition that at its mellowest leans towards gamelan territory, and its most cacophonous sounds like a rain powered modular synth. The track titles record the dates in 2020 they were recorded, taking in England’s driest May and second wettest February on record. Those extremes in precipitation are rendered tangible as these nine pieces veer from ‘February 2’s’ clanging polyrhythms to ‘May 7’s’ mournful bongs and rattles. The album starts with a blast of Beautiful South’s ‘A Perfect 10’ sounding like it’s played over a supermarket tannoy, the cassette tape’s auto-reverse making it a portal into and out of Chalmers’ translation of the water cycle into audio. It’s jarring, but that’s only because it brings home just how delicately immersive the rest of the album is.

The Incidental Crack – Before The Magic

(Soundtracking The Void)

The Incidental Crack’s music charts an unusually honest history of the lockdown experience. The trio, Justin Watson, Rob Spencer and Simon Proffitt, who also makes music as The Master Musicians Of Dyffryn Moor, haven’t all been in a room together yet – composing these tracks online by firing half-formed ideas back and forth across the internet. Debut album, Before The Magic, was a twitchy collage of spoken word and kitchen sink musique concrete, a document of those few months when something like a blocked drain was an unsolvable disaster, and things which were once soothing became irritating. On second album, Municipal Music they feel more acclimatised to this new world we’re living in – the fidgety sound collages have been replaced by elegiac synths, shoots of hope from recordings of children playing outside and strident, if cautious arpeggios. There’s a connection to Kraftwerk’s ‘Autobahn’ in my mind, in that Municipal Music seems to have the same fascination with the awe hidden in the totally ordinary. Three kosmiche meditations on the banal infrastructure that binds us all together.

Electronic Sensoria Band & Gavin Duffy – Live at The Joinery

(Diet of Worms)

Live At The Joinery captures a 2008 Dublin meet up between Electronic Sensoria Band and trumpeter Gavin Duffy, the four-piece improvising a joyous din like a marching troupe going off-piste. When the drums come in on highlight ‘Mind The Street’ I get a mental image of someone falling up the stairs, the slapstick introduction a launch pad for the track’s stumbling shuffle. For a lot of this tape the players are locked into propulsive, if off-kilter, grooves, but someone always turns it inside out or knocks it tumbling off its axis – a slightly ill-fitting clarinet or trumpet run, a clang of guitar or the bass tripping into slippery glissandos. That’s not to say these improvisations are amateurish, I think the Electronic Sensoria Band and Duffy knew exactly what they were doing when they laid this down thirteen years ago – gleeful wig-outs somewhere between free jazz and krautrock which are happy to dig deep into their own oddness.

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