Spools Out 3: A Cassette Reviews Column For March

The Master Of The Tapes, Tristan Bath is back with a selection of the best releases from February and March

It’s a constant reassurance. Digging deeper and deeper into the pile of tapes, one gets an invaluable insight to the sheer weight of ambition and creativity still out there; confirmation that affordable MIDI controllers and desktop condenser mics have levelled the playing field in a truly big way. The overgrown long tail of new music could be considered to have diluted creativity on a global scale, yet the opposite appears to be true. Creative thought begets creative thought, and inspiration flows via groups, and effectively the cultural conversation ends up a global game of musical Chinese whispers, throwing up twisted and morphed replicas of replicas until turning points emerge. Releasing music on cassette post-internet is perhaps two steps back in response to one giant leap forward, but the physical embodiment of it seemingly offers some small legitimacy to artists that would have to fight beyond their means to get heard in other ways.

February and March’s cassette tape offerings have been especially fantastic and wide-ranging. It goes so much further than the tidal of wave of half-baked synthesizer ambience that’s inundated the scene of late. There’s a searing footwork mixtape, actual chamber music from a string quartet, leftfield guitar jazz, lo fi psych-metal and a Bristol teen’s homemade version of a Branca or Chatham symphonic. There’s simply never been a more exciting time to be listening deeper underground.

Ben von Wildenhaus – How He Performs

(Psychic Mule)

Much to my own surprise, this is the album I’ve wound up listening to the most this month. Taking cues from varied disparate sources, guitarist Ben von Wildenhaus’ instrumental music often shares much ground with those guitar-led John Zorn tracks of recent years, with Marc Ribot summoning the spirit of Morricone’s unsung six-string collaborator, Alessandro Alessandroni, to twang feigned filmic folk themes across jazzy arrangements. In addition to excellent covers including Ellington & Strayhorn’s ‘Mount Harissa’, and Wildenhaus’ own instrumental compositions (which indeed feel like standards themselves – ‘Easy Opiums’ cyclical tango would surely suit mid-60s Blue Note-style rearrangement), the tape’s littered with odd little interludes of free noise and childish guitar-effect experimentation, and they do nothing but add to Wildenhaus’ clear charm. The haphazardness of the tape, blending lo-fi home and live recordings, helps to get across something of his oddball persona which is clearly on display to the audience at his shows (some of the live recordings are occasionally spiked with audience laughter in reaction to some unseen onstage antics). Wildenhaus anti-prismatically recombines the worlds of David Lynch, Marc Ribot, Jad Fair, and Luis Bacalov into an oddly familiar new whole.

The album’s pretty much killer throughout, but the version of Riz Ortolani’s beautiful-and-yet-chilling theme to Cannibal Holocaust at the tail-end of side one, complete with WIldenhaus’ own wordless vocals pretty much summarises his mysterious world; twisting familiar Euro-American musical tropes with his own distinct persona.

Fairhorns – Medici

Matt Williams is one of Bristol’s most confusing musicians. He’s a mere one-step removed from the city’s defining trip hop movement as the keyboardist for Beak> (Geoff Barrow of Portishead’s fantastic ‘other band’), and has made phenomenal, near-symphonic drone-rock epics as one-man band, Team Brick (see a top Quietus chat with Team Brick here), and as Fairhorns he’s now seemingly a purveyor of lof-fi psychedelic metal too. Opening with a brief blast of doom sludge, Williams quickly adds drums, organ and – oddly enough – early-00s post-hardcore screaming. The tracks are all around five to seven minutes long, largely comprising suites of bass-heavy riffage, screams, organ blasts and gauche drums. ‘Necro Thrumm’ initially moves monstrously unhurriedly across a wall of bass and organ riffing, while throaty whispers lifted straight from Neurosis sketch out a song. Eventually wah-wah re-contextualises the guitar into psych-jamming for the finale. The bookends of ‘Hologram At Trevi’ tones things down to Mogwai-like levels, the scream reduced to a whisper alongside a melancholy bassline, while the tune’s middle section bashes out an angry punkish attack. While semblances of familiar metal, punk and post-rock tropes abound, the bare-boned production (there’s absolutely no post-effects on the recording from the sounds of things) and the inclusion of a very un-metal organ sound recall very little. The five tracks on Medici are totally raw, boldly original homespun rethinks of what metal can be, and (in whatever genre) startlingly fucking brilliant lo-fi metal compositions.

Friesen / Waters Duo – FW
(Shaking Box Music)

This duo are not only accidentally blessed with a most satisfyingly puntastic name, but astute ears too. For these six improvised duets between guitarist Devin Friesen and saxophonist Nate Waters, the pair from Calgary initially summon the spirits of other like-minded improvisers, Waters assuming the light finger work of Evan Parker, while Friesen unsurprisingly assumes the vaporous freeform feedback-and-drones persona of Thurston Moore’s less well known instrumental output. By the second half of the set though, the pair find their own voice and stumble into even less safe territory, allowing sharper edges to appear, and facilitating semblances of actual melody to emerge by the sombre finale. It’s a refreshing set to hear, as the pressure to careen down the route of virtuosity and affronting atonal abstraction too often pushes contemporary improvisations to eschew traditional music for noise, and of the two, these guys do traditional music much better.

Kane Ikin – Warehouses
(This Thing)

To call listening to Kane Ikin’s EP Warehouses a revelation is perhaps a bit of a stretch, but not by that much. Presumably put together using little more than a computer, the soundscape implied by Ikin’s dominating music feels maddeningly (and often scarily) real-world; every sound has those organic rounded edges so easily lost ex machina, and the reverb’s articulately added as to invoke an actual cathedral rather than some mere church-verb plugin. The Melburnian producer has already put out some intricately pieced together experiments (his 2012 CD Sublunar is definitely worth hunting down), but Warehouses sees Ikin make two vital changes to his sound. The title track extends to the ten-minute mark, and he commits to boldly go beyond the mere dime-a-dozen dreamy soundscape, using gruelling static as a sonic weapon rather than a cloaking device. The incredible title track navigates through opening passages of industrial clanging sound effects and throbbing bass to stumble upon a demonic 6/8 waltz, playfully littered with organ stabs, invoking some spectral dancing machinery. The tracks on the flipside cover similar ground, albeit with more immediacy, and Warehouses‘ danceable madhouse electronica clearly affirms Ikin as one to watch.

Spektral Quartet – Chambers
(Parlour Tapes+)

The two debut releases from Chicago’s Parlour tapes come across as being uncharacteristically ‘grand’ for a tape label. Chambers from October last year explodes with so much creative musical energy that the pocket-sized format seems almost childishly insufficient. Six pieces by six composers from the windy city’s still under sung avant-music scene get stunning interpretations by the Quartet. Anybody who has heard John Zorn’s seminal Cartoon S/M album will have some idea of the music that lies herein. Dynamic, abstract, unwieldy compositions that range from intimate to aggressive and constantly challenge the players to adopt unusual approaches to playing. Liza White’s onomatopoeic ‘ZIn Zin Zin Zin’ presents a batshit mental series of dissonant horror movie legato attacks, while elsewhere ‘Almbumblatt’ by German composer, Hans Thomalla wanders a more disconcerting route through beautiful violin meanderings to instrumental abuse that sounds more like the creaking of ancient timber than chamber music.

Tlön – Truth in the 13th
(Birkhouse Recordings)

If the world’s rusted machines could get together and dance, they’d dance to the music of Bristolian duo, Tlön. Stuart Chalmers and Liam Mconaghy sculpt far-reaching electronic music on this tape from Birkhouse, meshing semblances of rhythm with sluggish drones, glitchy loops and found sounds galore. The opening, ‘Crepescular’ is a coldly menacing journey of botched tape loops, that manages to nearly drive itself mad trying to incorporate familiar sounding instrumental violin and woodwind samples into the hazy metronomic loop-scape towards the end. ‘In Accordance With Divine Laws’ travels quite a different route, gradually building imposing luminescence from monochrome synth drones and a wall of fuzzed out and delayed keyboard sounds that against all odds disseminate into distant drums and vocals. Throughout, Truth In The 13th presents freewheeling abstract ambient electronic noise sculptures that consistently surprise, alternating between ethereal soulfulness and the soullessly industrial. Furthermore it’s beautifully housed in a card case that brings to mind the scribblings of a deranged scientist, and includes two bonus digital remixes of the title track that prove Tlön’s deranged electronica is never more than a hastily added rhythm track from becoming outright minimal techno. As opening statements go, this is a pretty powerful one.

EQ Why – Chitokyo Mixtape
(Orange Milk)

Although hardly forgotten, Chicago’s footwork phenomenon has been at the very least drowned out here in the UK by the sound of us falling back in love with our own club music (having perhaps neglected it for a while). Chitokyo Mixtape by EQ Why – put out by the fittingly brilliant Orange Milk label – is so blindingly good it’s tough to argue against footwork being henceforth declared as the ultimate dance music and the hoards of British DJ/producers being ordered to simply give up and go home. Presenting the light-footed, insanely paced music as two gapless sidelong mixes adds to this music’s stream-of-consciousness composition stunningly well, elevating the whole thing to inebriating heights if listened to en masse. On paper it amounts to little more than hundreds (or maybe thousands) of chopped up and looped samples sewn together with relentless MIDI percussion. In practice though, it’s an unremitting maze, and appropriately a real minefield of non-sequiturs for dancers. While semblances of melody still lingered in some of the genre-defining works from last year by the likes of DJ Rashad and RP Boo, EQ Why’s all but abandoned tunes in favour of sheer rhythmic attack here. Tracks like ‘No Return’ from RP Boo’s Legacy (sections from which are in fact sampled on side B of this tape) prophesised a future where dancefloors never hear a melody when more beats will do the trick, and this tape takes blistering fast-paced footwork to its next logical extreme, and latest high watermark.

Silver Waves – EP1
(Howling Owl / Bulb)

Young Dylan Mallett, aka Silver Waves, has put out a revelatory tape EP of two guitar instrumentals that pulls together disparate strands of downtown NY guitar minimalism with something of his hometown’s signature ambient dub. Along with Ex-Easter Island Head’s appropriately titled Mallet Guitars pieces, it seems new British guitar music is getting increasingly contemplative and truly minimal. The effect with Silver Waves, as with Ex-Easter Island Head, is incredibly compelling, especially as both seem so very unperturbed by their own youth in the pursuit of decidedly non-rock guitar granduer.

Each side of EP1 is a longish (9 – 12 minutes) track of plucked, strummed and bowed guitar put through effects and loop pedals, and littered with the odd synthesizer or sample. Relatively speaking the compositions are brilliantly simple, building from the ground up, layering loop upon loop. Side one features oblique bowed lines and bashed out rhythms on Mallett’s electric guitar, while the second side remains more abstract, using the looper to not so much simulate metronomic/electronic rhythms as to hypnotise across a head spinning ambient trip a la Kawabata Makoto’s more dissonant solo sessions. Once I stopped kicking myself for being so pathetic in comparison to the youngster, it’s clear that Silver Waves’ EP1 should be acknowledged as the first rumblings of a new talent. It goes without saying, he’s one to watch.

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