Spool’s Out: Cassette Reviews For February

Shuddering industrial bass music, old school keyboard techno, experimental club sounds, and modular ragas inhabit February’s greatest tape releases, picked for you by Tristan Bath

With this foul season really starting to drag on, a recent episode of Spool’s Out Radio focused on what I niftily dubbed "Seasonal Affective Drones". Lethargy, solitude, longing, and the cold are all behind the tendrils of this episode’s heavy drones, slithering off of magnetic tape and around your psyche like brain freeze. New and recent music from Dino Spiluttini, Machinefabriek, and Kyle Landstra all make an appearance, plus something from a stellar upcoming tape by Broshuda (featured below…).

Head over to spools-out.com, or the Resonance FM website to find out more about the show. This episode and others can still be streamed in full via the above, as well as via podcast.

The hefty thump of bassy electronics has been top of the food chain amongst deep music heads for a good few years now. And understandably so, considering how it ticks so many of the boxes we want ticked right now: direct visceral and physical strength, an abstract and androgynous approach to power, a brutalist inversion of popular culture. It’s something truly out there and weird, which former ravers, metalheads and hippies alike can gather around and headbang to in the new heterogeneous musical landscape. Like anything a few years into being in vogue though, it also runs the risk of going stale.

Thus, the mapping out of new pastures on Zabte Sote’s monstrous four hour Girih compilation last year was massively welcome, spontaneously creating an Iranian scene which adds newly intellectual and emotionally dynamic feathers to the communal noise bow. The debut release by Tehranian duo Temp-Illusion continues proceedings on the label with a recording of their live set from SET x CTM festival (a collaboration between two pre-existing fests) made in Tehran on 27th July 2018. The duo fiercely fill out two sides of tape, pulling trick after trick out of their bag of dark electronics, guiding us from barely-lit room to barely-lit room in an imagined post-apocalyptic club. The sonic matter is definitely heavy, brimming with distorted bass whomps and monstrous bleeps blaring into chambers of cavernous reverb – yet the pacing is gradual and calm and logical. There’s a serene logic to Temp-Illusion’s live set, though perhaps it only comes across in the light of day when emanating from my humble tape player. As a live experience, one can clearly expect them to be quite something, taking choice leaps from funkified bass-heavy techno to outright noise breaks, and even on menacingly into glitchy jungle towards the end of the second side.

This one sits comfortably alongside Temp-Illusion, somewhat literally too considering it’s out on the mighty Opal Tapes (who are a key collaborator with the Zabte Sote imprint). A duo of Belgian brothers (from the German-speaking town of Eupen) perform here as Selm, channeling an even purer form of electronics, exclusively whittling their sound down to hefty bass and patches of percussive thuds. The likes of Emptyset have for sure plodded across some of this territory in the past, but Selm’s constructions are more filled with a certain dread. It’s been long established that there can be a blissful peace and serenity in total heviosity (see drone doom), but the punishing chamber bass horrors of Selm are the kind of beast you’d hurriedly run away from.

Tracks like ‘Selfsub’ loop with a trickster beat, dividable into four-four, two-four, or the dreaded tail-chase of one-four – should the listener choose to hear it. The music’s main function though, is a maddening bash bash bash, like the crazed pummelling of bombs falling onto the earth above as heard from the belly of a deep subterranean shelter. Following the glitchy nine-minute bass wall that is ‘Weissdorn’ (German for ‘hawthorn’, a plant with myriad mythical properties including healing powers, warding off vampires, and being the source of Jesus’ crown of thorns), the duo issue the extraordinary ‘Efeu’, switching bleak darkness for some kind of, admittedly still blinding, light. The bass hum turns from overpowering to warming, and the kick hits switch from battering to comforting, like the rocking of a cot. Even when essentially reduced down to bass, rhythm, and distortion, there’s still so much untapped potential in electronics. With Zabte Sote and Opal Tapes peering into the forgotten darkened corners of the musical landscape to source their cassettes though, we’re safe for now.

London-based Li Yilei is pegged online as a ‘fine artist’, and it’s insisted that her recordings be ‘quasi instrumental sculptures’. This new EP, titled 0:00 and out on Ferric:Flux though – utilising radio signals from Venus, Uranus, Neptune, Mars, and Saturn alongside some synth, guitar, and field recordings made down here on Earth – undoubtedly draws its greatest strength from its objective musical beauty. The extent of the musification of said planetary transmissions remains a mystery here, with everything in these four brief pieces scrubbed free of its recognisable semblances. Li Yilei’s sparse pieces creak like the wood of an old house, bending and humming against the elements. The tinkle of bell-like tones is the only respite in these brief, cold, and alien atmospheres, reminding one of a memory from back on planet Earth – even if it was perhaps the ringing of a freshly sharpened knife. 0:00 is best taken as an exercise in total immersion, and the rewards for willing participation are manifold. In that sense at least, Li Yilei’s undeniably like a fine artist.

It’s no secret that the man around which Finland’s kraut/psych/spandex/metal gods Circle cycle is a huge Deadhead. Jussi Lehtisalo has released enough music to soundtrack your entire trip to the moon and back uninterrupted, yet the incessant collaborator and Circle’s keystone still piledrives on into the unexpected, this time nabbing some naming conventions from his favourite jam band to title a tape of… dungeon dread proto-techno? That’s right ladies and gentlemen, Jussi’s done with the cucumber slinging avant-kraut game and turns his attention on DEAD to primordial techno that sounds somewhere between Tangerine Dream and the Belleville Three.

It all falls in line with a synth renaissance going on over in the Circle camp, with a slew of synth poppy albums coming out from Circle satellite projects over the next few weeks, but even by those standards Jussi’s pulling something unexpected here. The tracks take their names from some imagined Grateful Dead stadium jam – ‘Space (Part One)’, ‘Jam (Part Two)’, ‘Drums’ – yet the music comprises 808 rhythm loops with loose minor key chord sequences. Quite the juxtaposition. The entire tape is repetitive to near-Crumb Duck levels of motorik hypnosis, which is to say it works probably far better in real life than imagined (though, I guess leading Circle’s a cast iron guarantee of being good at looping). There’s a childlike charm to the way it’s all put together – just check out Jussi’s comically gruff vocal turn on ‘Grateful Dead’, resembling a peed-off cartoon dragon – but that only adds to the fun.

Byron Westbrook produced some incredibly refined electronic music in recent years, summoning spellbinding alien textures and forming them into abstract rhythms and clouds of trippy synaesthetic colour. Voice Damage is a slight departure though, presenting us with two 21-minute improvisations. "Nearly all of my recorded music is pieced together from organised edits of various improvisations of some sort," explains Westbrook. In 2016 however, the artist found himself with a take that "felt distinguished in its raw form, mistakes and all." 18 months later, a second such improvisation struck as intrinsically consummate in its raw form. "It seemed that a work had completed itself," as he puts it. The result is, for want of a better term, fucking glorious.

Both pieces take on something of a raga-like form, setting a meek drone section in motion (there are even some pretty tambura-like tones on offer) while Westbrook instinctively rides a roller coaster of noise generators and rippled synthesizer screeches. The first side features a languid single percussive tone beating slowly behind the action, cycling over its droning bed for infinity. All the while Westbrook is reaching mini climaxes on his abstract set of electric leads, sounding like whistling wires or grumbling amplifiers before hitting some outright shredding during a face-melting final act. Side two is entirely beatless, but no less compelling, with Westbrook swatting his way through siren-like screeches until settling on beautifully quivering tentacles of synth portmanto. Sometimes a musician just has a perfect moment of serendipity with their instrument, and it all just comes together; like peering into the sky to see rays of pink and orange sunset scattered across a refracting atmosphere for a few blissful minutes.

Berlin-based Nancy Drone (real name Molly Gunn) is tentatively experimenting with some thoroughly appealing in-between spaces on Displacement. Arpeggiated electronics is practically a genre unto itself these days, but here it gets woven into something potently woozy and oddly banging, thanks to the help of a constantly skewed ambient backdrop and infectious beats. Second track ‘Counter-Productive’ demonstrates what we’re talking about here, with pounding synths and footworkian rhythmic madness battling it out in the foreground while a fog of off-kilter drones mists up the hinterlands. ‘Ingenuine By Proxy’ immediately follows, pushing the atonal bleep school of rave to its limits.

The music was apparently made on computer during her move from Pittsburgh (home I presume) to Berlin (well, yeah obviously), and it fits considering that constant unmitigated motion is what makes Displacement work. Despite the amelodic shards of disharmony purposefully peppered throughout the mix as drones and bleeps clash, the ride is too good to call this a ‘challenging’ listen. There are ambient weirdo sidebars throughout, but it all comes to a belting climax on closing track, ‘Stim De Novo’. It’s a masterclass in supplying maximum dancefloor energy without just straight up beating your audience up.

Well, for starters this tape label based out of Washington DC sure makes some pretty tapes. These screen-printed covers are methodically pleasing; some truly eternal design right there, slicing up colours into kids menu mazes for your eyes to dart around. Atlantic Rhythms has been at it since 2016, documenting lush missives of "deep contemporary music" every bit as intoxicating as those screenprints. It might sound like familiar territory, but this latest one, contributed by George Cory Todd (studying composition in Berkeley following the completion of this music) is an especially alluring set of zoetrope ambience. The source material is heavily veiled by its hard-to-dissect production processes, with acoustic guitar notes and field recording and keyboard plods (at least, I think that’s what they are) left as shimmering and quivering spliced-together blobs, nonetheless compellingly beguiling in their dreamy betwixtness. It’s like if Brundlefly went well; smushing together separate sonic genes with robustly positive results.

The likes of Tim Hecker (particularly earlier albums) and sunlight-focused Fennesz have trodden similar ground to summon densely layered instrumentals that burst with colour, but George Cory Todd’s busy ambience is set apart by its impatience and restless energy. The histrionics and drama of droney ambient narratives – long passages of quiet and crashing crescendos – are replaced with a joyous abandon that makes every second of Icon count, brimming with sonic dreamworld candy.

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