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

From a beautiful choral take on a Fluxus classic, to euphoric German anti-folk, Daryl Worthington finds there’s all kinds of escape through tape this January

Macie Stewart & Lia Kohl by Maren Celest

It might seem out of place to start the new year by looking back, but this is a tape column after all, so we’re hardly worshipping the idols of progress here. And the UK based Disciples label’s ongoing dive into the 1980’s home recordings of His Name Is Alive’s Warren Defever shows messing with the archive sometimes points the way ahead.

Disciples has released a couple of LPs of Defever’s teenage home recordings, accompanied by beat tapes that test just how far you can run with a remix before it becomes something else entirely. The first, Return Versions, saw drones from the Return To Never compilation twisted into beats with assistance from Walking Trails. Filtering them down into a crumbling, blazed and ruthlessly effective mixtape.

Washington experimental rap duo Model Home then took over for Versions Returned, adding the abstract vocal stylings of NAPPYNAPPA to the mix and filtering the whole thing through Model Home’s distinct brand of lo-fi weirdness to create a surreal, slurring hip hop mess. Both cassettes tap into the pure, DIY essence of dub, boosting hidden frequencies, cutting the excess, and dosing the whole thing in a scuffed haze.

This layering and remixing isn’t new for Michigan based His Name Is Alive. After getting a demo from Defever, 4AD cofounder Ivo Watts-Russell edited the tracks into what would become His Name Is Alive’s 1990 debut, Livonia. Since then, the band, with Defever the one constant, has occupied a unique place in the alt-rock canon, somewhere between Young Marble Giants lo-fi invention and Fairport Convention’s folky weirdness.

The latest stage in Disciples ongoing remix project, Ghost Tape EXP shines a microscope on the gentle swells and flickering guitar textures embedded in teenage Defever’s four-track creations, reworking material from the third compilation, Hope Is A Candle. There is a sense of the fractured bliss of Flying Saucer Attack seeping through the music, but hushed, as though Defever’s strive to create kosmiche epics was muffled by a fear of waking up whoever was in the room next door. A blanket of luminous compositions creeping through the ether.

This sense of spinning from a fixed point in the past into a thousand new directions keeps coming up in this month’s column. From a gorgeous reimagining of a Fluxus classic to sound art made from a 1930s drum instruction book and a reinvention of bootlegging, it’s clear the way forward is rarely a straight line when it comes to music on tape.

Katya Shirshkova – Pond

(CANT Records)

Described as a homage to the Ben Patterson piece of the same name, the two sides of Katya Shirshkova’s Pond are an awe-inspiring exploration of what’s possible with a group of human voices. The original piece by Patterson involves a group of performers each choosing a sound, whether it’s a cough, clap or gurgle, and making that sound whenever one of a set of clockwork frogs enters a square designated to them and marked out on the floor. During Shirshkova’s youth, Patterson visited Irkutsk, and gave her father a set of the clockwork frogs, which were eventually handed down to her.

Shirshkova seems to twist Patterson’s process on the title track (you can hear the mechanical frogs clacking away), her eight person choir singing parts of a refrain rather than making random sounds. The result is a stunning tapestry of voices that ebb, flow and tumble in volatile harmony. For the b-side, ‘Memory Pond’, Shirshkova takes the original recordings and saturates them in echoes and glitches. Mimicking and accelerating the degradation inherent to tape as a format.

Good Willsmith – HausLive 2: Good Willsmith at Sleeping Village, 4/25/2019

(Hausu Mountain)

Chicago trio Good Willsmith have had a relatively quiet few years but this live tape gives some clues about what they’ve been up to. The trio of Max Allison (who works solo as Mukqs), Natalie Chami (TALsounds) and Doug Kaplan (MrDougDoug) sit between jam band, deep drones and DIY experimentation, but the set captured here sees them adding more of a rhythmic focus and outwardly proggy sensibility.

The warm synths on opener ‘Dolphin’ almost have a Weather Report vibe, wailing guitars and electronic bursts replacing brass solos. ‘Burning Orphanage’ meanwhile, comes across as a glitching King Crimson, stately guitar riffs anchoring scattering drum machines. Hausu Mountain (the label is run by Allison and Kaplan) says the HausLive series is meant to channel the spirit of informal bootlegging and tape trading surrounding the Grateful Dead, and the performance here captures a moment of a band being a fluid, constantly evolving entity in between studio recordings, as the trio expertly walk the tightrope between chaos and sublime.

Stuck Sunsets – Delitism

(Sea Records)

Created in response to the death of his brother, Stuck Sunsets, aka Patrick Atkinson’s Delitism stumbles through all five stages of grief, these dream pop songs unable to disguise the rawness felt by those left behind by death. Atkinson has collaborated with the likes of Yeah You’s Gwilly Edmondez in Leap Wars as well as releasing wild tape collages under his Dallas Boner alias. Delitism sticks to song-based forms, taking inspiration from the likes of the Walker Brothers, Destiny’s Child and TLC for a weird take on R&B that phases in and out of focus like a cracked reflection of the singles chart. For sure, moments of noise and chaos still detonate, and against the sweet melodies of ‘I Wish I Was A Dance’, or ‘No Love Deep Cuts’, they sound like the lashing out at anything and everything that accompanies loss. There’s no shortage of music inspired by sadness, but Stuck Sunsets captures the absurdities of bereavement particularly acutely. The bouncing between anger, denial and ultimately acceptance. An understanding that knowing that you’ll eventually get over it is why the death of someone close hurts so profoundly.

Macie Stewart & Lia Kohl – Recipe For A Boiled Egg

(Astral Spirits)

Recipe For A Boiled Egg, by Macie Stewart & Lia Kohl sits in a gloriously uneasy middle ground between the divine and the profane. The Chicago based duo seem determined to explore every possibility of violin, cello and voice, dwelling in pristine, angelic string duets before snapping into blasts of creaking wood and babbling, possessed sounding vocals. The soaring minimalism of ‘Open Winded’, and the sawing motion of ‘“The” “Electric” “Slide”’ mark out the two extremes of this release. Between, is a remarkable album of vocal gymnastics, cacophonous harmony and blissful dissonance. Created through improvisation in real time, the pair bounce ideas and inspiration off each other and run with full abandon down the rabbit holes they dig up. It gives Recipe For A Boiled Egg a thrilling momentum, two musicians at the height of their craft building something ecstatic in the gap between noise and music.

Various Artists – Birdsong From The Lower Branches

(Hypnagogic Tapes)

The seventeen tracks on this compilation of sound poetry and experimental vocals from Hypnagogic Tapes are as much an exploration of language as of sound. Largely limited to nothing more than voice, Birdsong From The Lower Branches nevertheless covers a remarkable range. James King’s ‘Distillations’ sees the sound poet ‘deconstruct’ a quotation, starting with the full prose before slowly breaking it down to the individual syllables, collapsing sentences into mere fragments of meaning. Elsewhere, Jennifer Walshe’s ‘They Go People And Person’ has the singer take an almost palimpsestic approach to a song, snippets of different pieces tumbling over each other against a keening backdrop. Natalia Beylis’ intimate ‘Koshka’ meanwhile, sounds like a compact, homemade reimagining of Alvin Lucier’s ‘I’m Sitting In A Room’, with quiet sentences merging to amplify the warm whir of the medium they’re recorded to. Each of the tracks here is a fascinating curio on its own, but brought together the folks at Hypnagogic Tapes have made an intriguing scrapbook that begs to be played start to finish.

My Bloody Sex Party – Vol. 1

(Zoomin’ Night)

Gloriously, gorgeously messed up sounds abound on this tape from Linyi, China based My Bloody Sex Party. The four piece, Liu, Zhuang, Shang, and Li, recorded Vol.1 to a mobile phone during the summer vacation after they graduated high school. These lo-fi means aren’t a limitation though, serving to amplify the feverish sonics of their squawking, coughing, no wave rollercoaster of invention. Traditional Chinese stringed instruments are mingled in with guitars and drums, an unrestrained maelstrom counterposed with brief, unexpectedly pretty moments. Opener ‘Branches Melancholia’ channels Keiji Haino electric guitar heroics before rattling percussion creeps in, followed by a furiously strummed acoustic instrument. Elsewhere, ‘Fifty Years Later, He Died’ and ‘Silver Aeroplane Pet Part One’ have a more collaged feel, as though strands of different songs are overlapping and interrupting each other. It’s a totally free sound difficult to put into words, but imagine something between Maher Shalal Hash Baz and Jackie-O Motherfucker and you’ll have some idea what to expect from this brilliant tape.

Mira Martin-Gray – Stick Control For The Air Drummer
(Full Spectrum Records)

Sympathetic resonance of a snare drum, that is, when an external vibration triggers a dormant stringed or percussion instrument to sound, is the basis for this new tape from Toronto based improviser Mira Martin-Gray. If you’ve ever been to a gig and heard the snare rattling when it’s not been hit, you’ll have some idea of the materials Martin-Gray is working with here, but not how oddly alluring it can be. For Stick Control For The Air Drummer she programmed patterns from a percussion instruction book from the 1930s into a drum machine, and let those vibrations bring the snare to life, adding objects to or adjusting the snare’s wires to affect the sound. That description of Martin-Gray’s process won’t prepare you for the world of patterns and timbres she extracts from this narrow palette as your ears get pulled into ever deeper listening. The slightest variation in the rhythm hits with enormous weight, and the whole thing has a serenely disorientating effect, as though she’s amplified the footprint of a beat moving through the air rather than the drum hits themselves.

Mark Dicker – Metropolith
(Tesla Tapes)

Coming with little information other than the six tracks were recorded in a concrete monolith between autumn 2019 and spring 2020, what’s most startling about this release from Mark Dicker, which snuck out last November on the GNOD affiliated Tesla Tapes, is the sheer amount of empty space it contains. Metropolith was made using modular synthesis, but Dicker gently etches away at the machine rather than letting full streams of sound gush forth. It means every slab of kick drum, floating dubby bass line or blanket of crackling drift is allowed to take on it’s full gravity, while each track is meticulously arranged so new textures fade in and subtly bend the atmosphere. On ‘Coarse & Fine Aggregates’ that means synths burning through the frost of the frozen low-end dread, while the beautiful formless drift of ‘Tankroom’ and ‘Admix’ sound as though the air itself has been rendered into audio.

Tehrapiegruppe – Zu Krank für Punk

(Kitchen Leg Records)

Made from Casio beeps and beats, kazoos, singing saws and glockenspiels, Berlin/Kassel based trio Tehrapiegruppe describe the songs on second album Zu Krank für Punk as inspired by the self-healing power of music, and that positivity bounds through their high energy take on experimental pop. All the songs are sung in German, and deal with topics such as cordless drills and coping with illness. I can’t speak any German, but thankfully their playful sentiment transcends the language barrier. From the campfire sing along of ‘Kitsch’ to the charged keyboard anthem ‘Morbus Scheißen (Zu Krank für Punk)’, a sweet, almost folky melodicism, underpins every chorus, wailing saw and Casio squelch. The sense of everyone being invited to the strange party that makes pop music so special ebbs through these tracks, meaning Zu Krank für Punk might just be the hyperactive German anti-folk tape you need to get you through the next few months.

KeepSleep – Tactile Ambient

(No Problema Tapes)

This new release from Chinese composer KeepSleep, aka Maya Makarova, is ambient in the purest, deepest and headiest sense of the word. Eerie synthetic masses dominate the tracks, which could be called drones but comparing them to smoke might be a more accurate description of how they move and shift without losing form. Underneath, slippery clicks, rustles, and occasional muffled voices amass and collapse. The pieces show the artist’s remarkable sensitivity to the microscopics of sound, and the constellations they draw seem to change the way I listen and hear even once the headphones are off and the Walkman’s stopped.

KeepSleep says these tracks represent their “fantasy of what kind of music can be relaxing”, and I think that gets to the heart of what makes Tactile Ambient so vital. It dances so close to falling into ambient cliché, but avoids it. At a time when so many of us might feel like the walls are closing in, KeepSleep flips that anxiety on its head and shows that actually, the whirs, hums and other sonic detritus of the mundane don’t have to be intimidating.

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