Spool Out: February’s Tapes Reviewed By Tristan Bath

Tristan Bath mixes himself a caucasian and gets to grips with February's best cassette releases

At this time of the year, when an end to the grey and the snow and the cold can seem forever out of our reach, all kinds of strange emotions can hound the human mind. I found myself on a weekend trip to Oslo in January (where “cold” and “grey” take on new and deeper meanings), wandering the icy streets, eventually staring out over the unforgiving cold fjord, hopelessly searching for the right words to note down. Before the early stages of frostbite kicked in I decided to put my hands back in to some gloves, and listen to some tapes instead. The empty frozen streets of the city suddenly made sense the second I hit play on Kawabata Makoto’s solo live tape recorded in Hebden Bridge. Torturing Nurse’s harsh relentless noise tape and Peals’ Thrill Jockey cassette both similarly gelled with the monochrome cityscape of the Norwegian capital, disintegrating my brain and rocketing the remains into the great wintery beyond. In its own way, pain and ugliness is beautiful – or at least unearths the same deep recesses within us as its prettier cousins.

Much of this month’s tape music coincidentally seems to stem from that very uncharted place. Projecting atonal scattering sounds into a cavernous, gaping, overcast spaces, leaving us feeling sad and happy and sick all at once. Raw, wild, utterly unhinged – and with an audience of next to nobody – the cassette tape subculture can go places no other can.

Kawabata Makoto – In The Black Lodge Of Prince Frederick

(Was Ist Das?)

What a title, eh? Like The Incredible String Band jamming in the background of some lost Twin Peaks episode … or something. Anybody who’s followed the solo guitar explorations of Acid Mothers Temple’s spiritual leader Kawabata Makoto knows he well and truly eschews his “Speed Guru” nickname for what usually constitutes lengthy, minimal, often improvised and often ambient pieces. This outing recorded at the Masonic Hall in Hebden Bridge manages to stand out though, with a gradually aging Kawabata plunging even deeper into the recesses of the cosmos than usual. There came a point during the 2000s (when the Acid Mothers Temple camp were seemingly releasing albums on a weekly basis) that Makoto’s improvisations for solo guitar became somewhat predictable, though admittedly far from stale. Lines of loop drones and impressionistic glissandi would wash over the listener, with Makoto occasionally breaking into sparse lush plucking, or dropping back into some variation of his eternal riff from ‘Pink Lady Lemonade’. Anybody who’s seen more recent solo live sets from Kawabata knows he’s changed as a solo improviser, drinking in the atmosphere of his venues, and often eschewing any semblance of melody or the user-friendly wash of ambient chords in favour of atonality, and timbral experimentation. A series of bizarre passages strewn together by stream of consciousness fill up both sides of this 50-minute tape, with Makoto spending plenty of time scraping his strings furiously with a bow, warping tones through a ring modulator, and generally making drones almost unrecognisable as having first come from a guitar. Some way into the second side, we’re treated to some very pretty noodling akin to Kawabata favourite Jerry Garcia reaching ultra deep into space on some harsh-acid-trip reading of ‘Dark Star’. Kawabata soon disintegrates the pretty shapes of his noodling, quickly disseminating everything into whistling wails of lingering glissandi underpinned by folksy picking, and vocals!!. It’s not quite “The Speed Guru Sings”, but his mumbled intonations make the penultimate passage of the tape some of the tenderest music the man’s recorded since his utterly gorgeous collaboration with Richard Youngs back in 2001 – admittedly he soon destroys the sweetness with a blast of red raw amp-exploding feedback. Kawabata Makoto continues to develop as an improviser, and his focus here on riding wave after wave of non sequiturs into the cosmos makes In The Black Lodge Of Prince Frederick one of his most revealing and rawest solo recordings.

Arrington De Dionyso – Lovers And Dragons


Antony Milton – There Are Other Possibilities

(End Of The Alphabet)

This incredible New Zealand label should be on absolutely everybody’s radar. The country’s renowned for its unique experimental music scene, but these two transmissions from the end of last year aren’t so much from another hemisphere as from another planet. Based in Olympia in Washington State, USA, Arrington de Dionyso is a visionary outsider, whose music is as colourful as his eye-catching ecstatic paintings of nudes and animals (some included here as J-card artwork). He’s previously garnered a heap of releases as a ‘mere’ clarinetist, but this tape, mostly recorded in collaboration with brilliant drummer, Gal Lazer Shiloach, reaches far trippier territory than what we’d called jazz. In addition to various sizes of clarinet, Dionyso plays the droning Indian sruthi box, ‘Sulawesi flute’, ‘tarompet’ (apparently a ‘Javanese double reed’) and employs stunning vocalisations, including what sounds like the well-know weird sound of tuvan throat singing. Side one opens with blasts resembling a sort of headbanging stoner take on Peter Brötzmann, while later a passage of clarinet freeforms atop a sruthi box drone and near-motorik rhythms approach propulsive jazz-rock territory. Dionyso’s sheer madness is something to behold, and along with some truly blinding skins work from Shiloach, and a striking guest appearance from harpist Graeme Smith (who channels Alice Coltrane), Lovers And Dragons is ferocious, bold and utterly unlike anything else. Have your mind melted.

New Zealander Antony Milton’s been around since the early 90s, and with a catalogue that includes memorable jams with noise travellers Anla Courtis and Birchville Cat Motel, you can get some idea of what to expect – even if it’s something totally unexpected (and incredibly good). Opener, ‘Fallen Heart’ sees the man on exceptionally pretty form, issuing high-pitched distant vocals over mid-tempo beats and washes of all-encompassing keyboard noise, like a meeting of Keiji Haino and Jefre Cantu-Ledesma. ‘River Of Stars’ twists beauty into lurching darkness via gnarled guitar plucks that seem to evaporate into a dense fog, lingering in tension. Other tracks like ‘Batter Pack’ and ‘Flower Show’ play out as noise-cum-pop miniatures, the former even climaxing with shortcircuiting R&B claps, dualling with Milton’s squealing synth noises. The thirteen minute title track closes proceedings with a gradually unfolding wash of cataclysmic and colourful noise, blending all that’s come before into a towering monolith of trippy fuzz. It’s the most cathartic kind of noise possible – as wholesome and sunny as it is impenetrable, wigged out, and grizzly. Believe the label when they say, “Antony is at the top of his game.”

Mark Dicker – Universal Processes


Unlike the hazy instrumental wash of industrial oscillators and alien drones that made up Livestock, this cassette tape is a real sequel to Dicker’s more heavily Quietus-endorsed Talk Of The University, also out on Bunkland in April last year. Thematically, Universal Processes sees science and more specifically physics, come into the foray, as was foretold by Mr Dicker in his Quietus interview with Luke Turner.

“The idea behind the material is that I had observed how certain physical/scientific phenomena, such as the Doppler effect for example, mirrored personal, emotional experiences in an almost allegorical fashion.”

The seven minute ‘Doppler (on the coloured light of the binary stars and some other stars of the heavens)’ on side one, most certainly examines the musical implications of the phenomenon (wherein waves emitted from a moving object seem to vary in frequency to an observer, hence a siren on a passing ambulance suddenly seeming to get lower as it passes by). Hard-panned modular tones pulsate and battle it out, rising and dipping in tone – but not note – on either side of the stereo field. They seem to come closer and go further away hypnotically, in the sonic equivalent of an optical illusion. To which “emotional experiences” Dicker is referring above remain somewhat mysterious, although around the four minute mark, the oscillations cut out, and Dicker’s artificially deepened, disembodied inner voice pronounces “You’ve missed your ambulance”, only for Dicker to add, “and they are infrequent.”

‘Larsen’ similarly accumulates glacial drones and battling electronics into an utterly alien mass, over which Dicker almost yells, “Larsen! Pinprick! Deep space sarcasm!”, addressing inner demons with ritualism. The ritualism of the man’s music is deepening too, with the fourteen minute sidelong track on side two almost coming across as something of a sermon on the subject of optics. “Viewed through a lens, light bends around you,” he opines, ushering in a truly galactic buzzing or sparse tones that slowly unfold into commanding vibrations, simmering with menace, and more essentially seeming to open up. Transmutation is going on right in front of our very ears, and the artist seems to access another plain, if only for half an hour. He announces, “information is never lost,” before dissolving into the ether once more. Somehow Mark Dicker continues to operate at the highest possible level in his field (which he also happens to be basically alone in).

Torturing Nurse – All Bastards+

(Cruel Nature Records)

Under the spell of Japanese early noise legends such as Hijokaidan (and presumably Merzbow), Chinese band Torturing Nurse have spent the last decade releasing hundreds of tapes, CDs and records, and putting on dozens of infamously harsh performances. Formed in Shanghai back in 2004, Torturing Nurse add this tape on Newcastle-upon-Tyne’s stellar Cruel Nature Records to their catalogue, and it’s a real killer. Torturing Nurse embrace a pretty wide spectrum of possible noises, opening with an 11-minute stream of consciousness wave of clipping shapeless cataclysm, where nothing beyond a handful of yelps and yells are discernible behind the noise (‘Sunday 22.22’), but also venture to punky noise rock territory on ‘Ordinary World’ as clattering drums and high-pitched Shanghainese screaming play a song-like improvisation at the highest possible volume. The title track is a searing set of lengthy guitar feedback stabs, and ‘For ZK’ has vocalists swapping weird intonations, warped out of recognition into harsh unrelenting fuzz. It’s pure nihilism by the climactic 17-minutes of ‘Relentless Joy’. There’s naturally some catharsis to be found in 45 minutes of relentless, deafening, sheer sound, but even with the understanding that their listeners have (presumably) accepted that the amorphous wave after wave of harsh static fuzz is what they’ve signed up for, Torturing Nurse are able to produce some of the most listenable music in the genre since Wolf Eyes went legit (well, sort of). By the total violence of ‘Relentless Joy’ it’s not even disturbing any more, and Torturing Nurse yank the listener into their unforgiving ecstasy and total utter madness – this is essential listening for noise heads.

Peals – Seltzer

(Thrill Jockey)

Well worth noting from the outset that these two were signed to Thrill Jockey as Peals before that performance on American television last year. This improvising and folky ambient duo comprise William Cashion of Future Islands, and Bruce Willen of Double Dagger – two Baltimorean bassists who created Peals as something of a sanctuary from their energetic and punkier day jobs. The pair’s first full length for Thrill Jockey was a curvaceous set of alluring guitar and field recording loops, chiming off over the horizon in a pleasant, if not hugely revelatory manner. This time round, the pair offer up two thirty minute sidelong tracks – one a live recording from inside the clock room of Baltimore’s Bromo Seltzer Tower, and the other a collage of old and new rehearsal and studio sessions – and create something exceptional.

Side one’s ‘Time Is A Milk Bowl’ (recorded inside the Bromo Seltzer Tower), begins pairing twinkling glockenspiel notes with scattered guitar plucking, before a friendly chugging drone surfaces, bobbing along as the gears of the clock tower whirr into action. There’s an inescapable sense of the place the recording was made, becoming part of the music itself much like the leafy countryside and forest walks captured in The Blithe Sons’ classic albums from the early 2000s. The drone shifts, with the assistance of scattered hand percussion and bells, and eventually the sound of a tick-tock (literally) rhythm underpins an Americana-twanged, and incredibly dreamy finale. Sections of the piece were apparently adapted from their first album, but running as one long single compositions divided into movements, ‘Time is a Milk Bowl’ is a powerful recording that elevates Peals music to new heights – and is undoubtedly the main body of the album.

Despite the second side lasting thirty minutes too, it’s clearly more of an intimate bonus track. The tellingly titled ‘Before And After’ presents lightly sketched ideas taking shape jamming out guitar and keyboard drones for 5-10 minutes at a time. There’s little of the magic from side one to be found here, but Peals’ music is never uninteresting – and always profoundly pretty.

Fendahl – Complete BPM I-IV


This humongous collection of lengthy electroacoustic meditations from British group, Fendahl (seemingly named after an alien race from Dr. Who that live off psychic energy taken vampirically from other beings) was inspired by Czech psychiatrist Stanislav Grof, whose studies with LSD, intense self-exploration, and an often very maternally- (or perhaps foetally-) oriented approach to cosmic healing via psychology. Fendahl’s music – here titled after Grof’s four Basic Perinatal Matrices – is a deep experiential soundtrack, designed almost purely for the purposes of powerful tripping out in your bedroom. Submersible tones of buzzing static and droning synthesizer tones makeup almost the entirety of the experience, littered with smatterings of higher-pitched wails and random buzzes. Fans of Italian cosmic voyagers My Cat is an Alien, or Klaus Schulze’s almost unbelievably weird Cybord album will find much to cherish here. All eight sides of these four cassettes are full to bursting with hypnotic ambient noises, and if the aim – as with Grof’s treatments – was to encourage the listener to regress (almost like William Hurt in Ken Russell’s Altered States) and relive their birth through a “undisturbed and focussed listening”, then Fendahl can label BPM a resounding success.

Headphones on, and somewhere around the middle of the third tape, I did in fact begin to feel profoundly nauseous, found myself unable to stay upright, and could no longer see straight… Though it’s worth noting I’d ignored the group’s advice from the inlay to “experience this recording at moderate volume in an otherwise quiet, comfortable environment, marked by the absence of bright lights or other intrusive distractions”. Handle with care.

Xth Réflexion – /​\​\​05


The US-based Aught label has garnered a pretty decent rep off the back of its first four releases, housing pulsating, largely minimal out-there techno in uniformly plain packaging (a clear tape in a clear plastic bag). There’s a commitment to letting slip absolutely no biographical information regarding any of the artists too, so all we know about the label’s fifth release is the following: the artist is named as Xth Réflexion, and this apparently refers to 17th Century French philosopher Boileau’s critical essay on Longinus’ On the Sublime. That’s it.

The four untitled tracks contained herein are a sort of shimmering distant take on minimal techno, gnarled and bruised, but meditative, and by no means designed for the dancefloor. Track 1 wrestles with a fluttering vibration and sparse kick stabs to carve glistening hiss into a Loscil-like 7-minute interlude, while track 2 sort of picks up the pace a bit, pushing hiss deeper into the distance and focusing on stuttering near-beats that cycle endlessly. On the flipside, track 3 crunches unidentifiable snapping sounds inside a cavernous reverb chamber, and the nine-minute finale of track 4 barely moves from a mega-minimal set of ticking clicks and echoing heartbeat percussion throughout. The entire tape crackles with dormant thoughts, barely existing save the handful of barely musical semblances; hovering between the infinity of endless repetition, and the nothingness of nothingness.

Jeff Bridges – Sleeping Tapes


Yeah, Jeff Bridges put out a tape of ambience and spoken word. It’s available on LP and digital download too, but the name – and much of Bridges’ bizarre ramblings throughout – focus on the tape element. The whole thing’s just an advert for Squarespace and the Bridges-endorsed charitable campaign, No Kid Hungry anyway, and should be instantly dismissible … but it ends up pretty damn enjoyable. It’s sort of like Chris Morris’ weirdo ambient radio masterpiece Blue Jam or Ken Nordine’s Word Jazz, but quite a bit less funny than either. If you want to hear the bizarre stream of consciousness ramblings of an aging (and it must be said, truly great) film actor musing on sleep, dreams and bedtime stories, combined with synthy soundscapes and sewn together field recordings, then this is for you. It’s all clearly a bit of fun, but there are some truly nice moments to be found, including the lengthy ‘Temescal Canyon’, which sees Bridges on a (presumably staged) hike through the titular locale, taking in the warm sounds of tweeting birds, distant trains and fluttering helicopters. At the very least Sleeping Tapes somewhat makes up for the legendary Dude’s uniformly bumwank attempts at country music over the years.

Project Pablo – “I Want to Believe”


You’d be foolish to dislike this tape from the increasingly well known Vancouverite 1080p label, but it also ventures dangerously close to almost blandly assembled identikit house music. Patrick Holland – aka Project Pablo – has a real penchant for insanely catchy melodies, and his cosy adoption of older disco tropes make “I Want to Believe” something noteworthy, and pretty much club ready. It’s definitely a seriously fun listen – but it’s also the sort of innocuous house music your local Toni & Guy likes to spin while chatting about Celebrity Big Brother.

B/B/S/ – NK012


Driftmachine – Eis Heauton

(Umor Rex)

These two January releases from the fantastic Mexican tape label, Umor Rex, both feature Berlin heavily. The trio of Canadian Aidan Baker (known for his Nadja project as well as a notable collaboration with Tim Hecker), Italian percussionist Andrea Belfi, and Erik Skodvin of Norway’s dreamy duo Deaf Center perform together as B/B/S/, having all met after moving to the German capital. The entire tape is purportedly their first musical meeting, and was recorded with little more than a stereo mic in the centre of the room. The resultant NK012 is a pretty stunning listen, with all three exploring spontaneous composition with varying degrees of ensemble playing throughout. The atmosphere is emotionally confused, but overall harrowing, and beside the clatter of Belfi’s drum kit, the swarming mass of drones barely rises above lethargic energy levels.

It’s something of a shock to discover there are actual Germans living in Berlin too these days – but here they are! The duo of Florian Zimmer and Andreas Gerth are using what seems to be the now-near-standard modular synth on Eis Heauton, but it’s of little consequence. This pair’s real skill lies in the atmospherics that seem to haunt all Umor Rex tapes, and dub-like echo chambers, we’re treated to blasts, pops and crackles of synth randomness. It’s a great bit of tape, but the pair are never really better than on the dark eight minute beatscape of opener, ‘Rungler Statik’.

Nolan Dialta – Nolan Dialta

(Cutting Room Records

This truly awesome tape deserves to be recognised for it’s “excellence in the field of drone”. Released via the Brighton-based Cutting Room Records, Nolan Dialta’s debut comprises eight tracks of 4-10 minutes, each sitting restlessly in the rich purgatory between outright nihilist noise and collagic musique concrete. ‘Christmas II’ quite literally hijacks the sound of an aircraft blasting off, and re imagines it as a shrill noisy chamber work, while other tracks see harsh noise fart through sodden speakers long enough to become almost calming, healing ambience (‘-Ment’). The ten minute centrepiece, ‘Birthday’, sounds akin to a glitched copy of the real world, frozen and stuck in slowly mutating repeition, as towering random whirrs mesh with processed field recordings. Sonically it’s more varied than your average drone album, too sensitive to be simply labelled noise, and has the hallmarks of deeper meanings left behind by concrete masters like Helm. The artwork more or less sums it up, as we peer through a group of seemingly random circling lines, only to find ourselves sucked into a wormhole.

Joseph Lawrence Quimby Jr – Wren / Le Chat Est Parti


Andreae/Birchall/Cheetham – I  Didn’t Mind You Improvising, I Just Wish You’d Done It Better

(Tombed Visions)

Tombed Visions has truly lived up to its position as this column’s Tape Label of the Year 2014, and kicked off 2015 with two blinders – one’s a punch to the gut, the other’s a feature length bliss out.

For his fourth contribution to the label, Joseph Lawrence Quimby Jr has compiled a sprawling double cassette, containing 12 tracks of the man’s often beautiful and meticulous drones, field recordings and generally fantastic sonic assemblages. The original source material is deeply veiled as on the harrowing ‘Ariane’, which opens to the noise of some sort of unidentifiable cutting machine. Past works from the composer, such as the swirling drones of Riga recorded in the Latvian capital, have drawn liberally from a deep well of rich melody, as seamless loops and haunting faded memories of ghostly cityscapes coalesce into rich, powerful, and emotive grand monolithic statements. The 23-minute ‘Return to Latvia’ aptly returns to Riga’s pretty ambient lyricism, but takes several unexpected twists and turns on its journey, backward masking sounds and adding plucks and ultimately dissonance to the mix. Quimby’s quickly maturing as a composer, broadening his palette significantly, and striding boldly into new and less comfortable territory, as on the chilling devilish urban night portrayed on ‘Les Mgrateurs’, or the glitchy rainswept stasis of ‘Bins’ (which incidentally sounds exactly like some long lost cut from techno Wolfgang Voigt’s epochal ambient GAS project). At a full 2 hours both cassettes are a hell of a lot to take in, but in a sphere awash with throwaway drone projects, Quimby’s created one of the few you’ll end up loving, cherishing, and returning to in the future – late at night some evening when sleep won’t come, but you still need to dream.

In many ways, a guitar-sax-drums trio is the most liberated improvising lineup possible. Forty five years on from Derek Bailey, Han Bennink and Evan Parker’s seminal freeform blowout The Topography Of The Lungs (which, incidentally, was reissued by Otoroku at the end of last year), it’s clear the possibilites of the setup have still barely been breached. This recording of tenor saxophonist Sam Andreae, electric guitarist David M Birchall, and drummer Andrew Cheetham reopens that door once kicked by Topography Of the Lungs (coincidentally, the panning and general sound is almost identical on both records – guitar on the left, drums in the centre, sax on the right, all crystal clear and clean), and across four dynamic improvisations, the trio cross swords, hold hands and generally go nuts in an often brutally feral jam session. Opener ‘Eric Frohm Where’ builds crunchy guitar drones and sax blasts into a gathering storm which erupts as the stunning Cheetham kicks into action. A calming eye of the storm passes over, before a maddening climax throughout its twelfth minute more akin to some Napalm Death face smasher than any Coltrane shit (including that Live In Japan album). Mimicry is a theme throughout, and when one considers the atonality of Cheetham’s percussion, it’s no surprise this leads to some pretty weird parps and scrapes from guitar and sax. ‘Post Nasal Space’ is mostly sparse and skittering, while ‘Dude You Look Like Sea Sick Steve’ blasts right in our face, as wave upon wave of snare rolls underpin an increasingly similar guitar and sax. The musicianship is typically inventive and stunning, but more uniquely like Topography Of the Lungs, this trio seem to have evolved their own logic, evoking stark imagery through what sounds like total and utter chaos.

Swimming in Bengal – Insomnia Village


Nils Quak – Moiré / Braille

(J&C Tapes)

The newly rechristened J&C Tapes (it was until recently called Jehu And Chinaman) kicked off 2015 with four fine releases, each boldly capturing a wildly disparate soundworld. This trip from Sacramento three piece, Swimming In Bengal, instantly leaps out though, littered with odd instrumentation, and a vividly realised dreamy atmosphere. The group work with Middle Eastern and south Asian timbres, melding oud-like gourd guitar noodlings with Indian tablas, west African djembe drums, and some lightly sprinkled alto sax and flute parps. Luckily it’s no hippie drum circle (despite coming from California’s state capital), and wanders beautifully and aimlessly through structureless atmospheric jams like some breezy Martin Denny recording featuring Sam Shalabi. The massively relaxed atmosphere – audibly unconcerned with climaxes and histrionics – brings to mind the meditative noodling of Munir Bechir, veiled behind a cloud of hookah smoke, eternally reclining in a state of contemplative ecstasy.

After several months being inundated with the things, I was more or less sick of hearing about modular synths. That was until this epic double cassette from prolific Cologner, Nils Quak. Unlike his ambient collaborative release with Dino Spiluttini (who incidentally also has a tape out on J&C Tapes this month), put out by Umor Rex, this lengthy set of droning modular synthesizer constructions inhabits a rough-edged zone of rich impressionistic minimalism, bristling with dormant jagged sections, and often only a gentle poke of the mixer away from mutating into right out noise.

Originally Moiré and Braille were composed as separate releases, but “after recognising the powerful effect the music could have when laid out side-by-side, artist and label resolved to combine the albums.” They’re certainly all the better for it too. Moiré sees Quak’s sculpting rougher drawn out drones, which massage your frontal lobe gently – as if imprisoned in a cosy floatation tank. Braille  however, lives up to the bumpy pointillism hinted at in the title, punctuating a more restless and oceanic set of drones from Quak’s modular synth with blasts of noise, glitching sound effects and all manner of industrial clatter. It’s far less subtle than its sister tape, and all the starker in comparison to the rugged beauty of Moiré. Repeated listens to Braille further reveal how meticulously each track is a portrait of the stuff alluded to in their titles, from the smooth tones of ‘Linen’, grainy wash of ‘Dust’ and the bendy jagged notes of ‘Tilde’. Side by side, these four sides amount to the best set of solo modular synth explorations put out for a while – anywhere.

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