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

Singing devices, an almighty snare drum rucus, and a council estate reimagined through an echo chamber. Daryl Worthington dives into this month’s cassettes

Enchanted Forest, photo by Emily Fox

This edition of Spool’s Out starts with a format even more archaic than the cassette. Marc Masters’ forthcoming book, High-Bias: The Distorted History of the Cassette Tape charts the story of everyone’s favourite noisy plastic rectangles. Knowingly written from the perspective of an entangled enthusiast rather than a distanced observer, it carries an awareness that an objective history of the impact of a piece of technology isn’t possible, all we can do is collect the stories we tell through it.

The book switches between detailed histories of the cassette’s creation and the communities that sprout up around it. Masters is forensic when it comes to what’s easily recordable about cassettes, their fluctuating sales figures and the specifics of their technical development, but where this book really takes off is his exploration of what’s much harder to quantify: how cassettes became great enablers for radical sounds and new communities. High-Bias is a material history, but it’s also a folk history.

He reveals a colourful cast of characters who had skin in the game of the cassette story. Alongside lo-fi legends come major label execs who drummed up fear that home taping was going to kill the music industry. And there’s the curious figure of Andreas Pavel, the German businessman who came up with a prototype for a personal listening device similar to the Walkman prior to Sony. He got a settlement from the Japanese tech giant, despite Sony maintaining they had no knowledge of his work.

Musically, the book veers through hip hop, go go and even the new wave of British heavy metal, and into the vibrant corners of the contemporary underground. Masters makes a compelling case for how the cassette was pivotal in creating the musical landscape we have now. High-Bias looks at the past to apprehend the present. That’s brought home by the compilation (on cassette of course) that accompanies the book. Travelling from Omni Gardens’ pristine electronics to Cop Funeral’s gloriously un-pristine electronics, it reinforces the book’s quest to explain exactly why cassettes can mean different things to different people.

Zhao Cong – 55355
(Aloe Records)

Beijing-based Zhao Cong makes something moving from the typically ignorable on 55355, herding the noisy excesses of the quotidian into delicate soundscapes. She mics up everyday objects to create gentle assemblages of buzzes, hums, whirs and clicks, the four pieces collected on this tape cut from sessions without any overdubbing. The whooshes and indicator light like clicks of opener ‘Swing’ create a soundscape which prompts, for me at least, mental images of sitting in a traffic jam with the windscreen wipers on. ‘Contact’ has constant rhythmic ticks, as though the high pitched whines and crackles of the track are being broadcast over a bed of mechanical cicadas. What’s most remarkable about Cong’s work is that a collection of sounds which could be maddening becomes serene and soothing. The way she selects, controls and sculpts makes you want to dive in and explore each texture intimately. She shows that what might be irritating background noise can be immensely fascinating if it’s shifted to the foreground.

Yara Asmar – Synth Waltzes & Accordion Laments
(Hive Mind)

Yara Asmar recorded the tracks on Synth Waltzes & Accordion Laments at home in Beirut. And while I don’t know if they were made at night, they’re dripping in nocturnal glows and heavy eyelid energy. The accordion mentioned in the title, a Hohner Marchesa, was sent from Germany to Lebanon in the 1950s and belonged to Asmar’s grandmother. Here, it provides a swaying, earthy familiarity through the synthetic ambiences that douse her tracks. However, while the instruments mentioned in the title play a big part in its pull, it’s the ghostly whistled melodies through the second and third tracks that really makes this tape levitate. Tender, uncertain, they’re a friendly intervention emerging through clumps of wistful accordion, barely audible voice and glistening chimes. From the gentle kosmiche arpeggios of ‘It’s 5:00pm And Nothing Bad Has Happened To Us (Yet)’ to the glassy tones on ‘Jumana’, these tracks are a cushion against reality. Asmar creates music that unfurls in evanescent bliss, an invitation to a safe space both isolated and welcoming.

(Pointless Geometry)

SKI aka Damian Kowalski’s KRE was made using a drum kit fed through microphones, effects and feedback, with the assistance of producer Swrcfx on four of the tracks. While this tape showcases Kowalski’s skill for hypnotic pounding rhythms, it’s even more fascinating for his ability to paint with degraded signals. His distortions are the nasty, broken, everything’s on the fritz kind. It’s there in the crease of snagged electricity that creeps out of the first track, and the way the hi-hats and snare on the fourth sound like they’ve been picked up over a busted telephone receiver when compared to the overdriven warmth of the lower pitched drums. Even the third track, the cleanest and most elegant beats on the tape, inhales a snarling echo. It’s not that these drum focused explorations of the grittiest sides of dance music are all transmitted in the red. There’s a masterful blending and smudging of fidelities which sees differing levels of erosion accumulate to give his intricate beats a palimpsestic quality. Clarity and obfuscation mixing together to add an extra dimension of movement to the pounding drums and electronics.

Ryosuke Kiyasu – Dig Up Roots
(Notice Recordings)

Keeping in the zone of radical drums comes this tape of snare and table performances from Ryosuke Kiyasu. Kiyasu is a member of Fushitsusha as well as Sete Star Sept and Kiyasu Orchestra. His solo shows, (at time of writing he’s in the middle of a globe spanning tour) are a visceral experience, Kiyasu ripping out deluges of sound as he goes at the instrument with maximum ferocity, throwing it, himself and the table around the room. Dig Up Roots, recorded live at Tokyo Arts Space in 2022, is animated by that same uncompromising energy, but the absence of the visual spectacle highlights Kiyasu’s textural nuance. His mapping of the acoustic properties of spaces, instruments and amplification has resonances with Alvin Lucier and James Tenney’s work, but Kiyasu’s cartography is one that can only be realised through grindcore intensity. Endless drum rolls trigger mysterious ghost tones. Microphones get overloaded into producing arhythmic white noise. Kiyasu switches surfaces and proximity to give the impression you’re hearing more than a single drummer at once. This is most potent midway through side B, when the torrent briefly stops and you hear a dropped drumstick echo through the room. Something close to silence lasts for a few seconds, before Kiyasu immediately reignites the torrent. Recordings of Kiyasu have a different impact than seeing him live, but they help focus on the fact that his process is as fascinating sonically as it is performatively.

Tenniscoats – Tasmania Bootleg
(Room 40)

If I’d attended the 2009 Tenniscoats concert documented on Tasmania Bootleg, I’d probably have been annoyed at the crowd speaking. Yet on tape the conversations picked up over the band’s performance are oddly captivating. This is live album and field recording in one, seemingly recorded from right in the middle of the audience, they become a mysterious texture threaded through the tracks rather than just incidental sound. For this Hobart gig, Tenniscoats’ core duo of Saya and Takashi Ueno were joined by Room40 head Lawrence English on drums. The set opens with delay-soaked guitar and Saya’s voice riding through crowd chatter. Sometimes the audience is a murmur rising and falling, blending into the soundscape to fill in the spaces in ‘Bokura N Niwa’s jaunty groove. Elsewhere they’re more disruptive, drawing attention away from the band with flashes of inexplicable laughter or someone rightfully declaring “this is great” as ‘Baibaba Bimba’ soars to a crescendo. The fact Tenniscoats play so serenely makes me think that the majority of the crowd were fully immersed, the nature of recording meaning we’re only noticing those who decided to say something. Tasmania Bootleg captures Tenniscoats live and at their tender, precarious best. The fact you can hear the audience fall out of attentive listening only causes the qualities that make the band so special to shine more brightly.

Aircode – Surface Tension

There’s a line of eerie ascent seeping through Aircode’s tracks on Surface Tension. While there might be a temptation to call Sweden-born, London-based, real name Julia Svensson’s productions deconstructed dub-step, I’d venture they’re almost the reverse, or at least what comes next. Barren terrains of ghostly pianos, splintered percussion and marble bass tones coalesce from austere into vibrant forms. When the beats drop, they innervate the drift, driving it forward while never quite landing in a fixed shape. The way her pieces are structured evokes images of stepping into a gravity-free debris field and watching the wreckage whiz around your head into new configurations in real time. Those new shapes may feel inherently impermanent, liable to crumble soon after being stuck together, but Svensson never shies from starting the whole process again. For sure, the spooky aesthetic remains even when ‘Surface Tension’ is at its most propulsive, but it can’t dim the positivity that crawls through her productions. ‘Surface Tension’ is haunted in tone, but its form reaches for a new horizon. It makes for a compelling contrast.

Jihem Rita – Suspension Abandon
(Third Type Tapes)

Jihem Rita is the project of France-based drummer Johann Mazé. Suspension Abandon is mostly a solo affair, although he’s joined on a couple of tracks by JB Geoffroy on electronics and percussion, and vocals from Èlg and RvdeC. This tape sits in a zone between DIY fourth world exploration and a colouful brand of wonky musique concrète, culminating on ‘l’incendie’ with what sounds like someone playing along to a possessed AC unit. Dizzyingly labyrinthine rhythms meet peculiar wind instruments, vocalisations erupt in bizarre mantras. Second track ‘Bras Longs’ starts with what could be a close miked-balloon. You could probably write a whole book trying to pinpoint the disparate sounds that emerge throughout. But to paraphrase, it’s what I’d imagine R. Stevie Moore mixing a session between Sunburned Hand of the Man and African Head Charge would sound like. ‘Suspension Abandon’ shows that relatively low fidelity in production doesn’t necessarily mean low fidelity in imagination, these tracks deliver shapeshifting and ultra-vivid escape from all that’s staid and ossified.

Enchanted Forest – Semele’s Tryst
(Jolt Music)

While doom-scrolling the other day I read a list of thirty things I should have done before my twenties were through. This included mastering one dance move so I’d never get caught out. Fortunately I’ve never been to a party where I was forced to dance on demand, but my real point in this meandering intro is that the music of Enchanted Forest, aka Philadelphia duo Noah Jacobson-Carroll and Em Boltz on their third album Semele’s Tryst is a potent counterpoint to that advice. To my ears their intricate music embraces a certain awkwardness. This isn’t to say their productions, which bring in influences from video game soundtracks, acid bass lines and glitchy ambient, are clumsy. Rather, the duo excel at putting jittery 2-step pegs into round fluorescent synth holes. Opener ‘Wish On A Wing’ sounds like Laurie Anderson’s ‘Superman’ stuck in a time loop that forces it to sprout outwards rather than forwards. ‘Sailboat’ is effortlessly uplifting, precisely because its light speed drum fills are so surprising against the skyward facing melody. Their music exists in solidarity with the urge to move like every limb is tethered to a different bpm. A weird, gleefully liberated space for body and mind which finds joy in instinctive hyperactivity rather than shying away from it.

Breathing Heavy – Heavy Breathing
(Infant Tree)

AMM suggested their performances shouldn’t be seen as isolated events, but part of an ongoing one – to the extent they’d start each concert remembering how the last one ended. Breathing Heavy, the London based duo of Ciaran Mackle on sampler and Sam Andreae on saxophone work in a more frenzied mode than AMM, but there’s something across their live performances and recorded output that resonates with this idea. A sense you’re just getting a glimpse at an endlessly proliferating swirl of febrile energy. The duo duel sampled sax with live saxophone, Mackle tapping out manically taught snippets at high speed which Andreae heaves, squeals and clanks his way through. At points on Heavy Breathing you hear their precarious game of high-speed skronk Jenga start to teeter, glitches creeping into the samples and Andreae’s playing beginning to fully unbuckle. It reinforces the intensity of their interaction. At their height these tracks slip into a blur, triggered and blown sounds converging into a twitching, transfixing contraption. It’s a minimalism comprised of sharp corners and awkwardly tessellating patterns, and it’s all the more captivating for it.

Spykidelic – Fortress Addo
(Weltschmerz Verlag)

Fortress Addo is the second album from Spykidelic, the solo guise of Human Inferno vocalist Tony F. Wilson. It’s named after a colloquial term for the New Addington estate in Croydon and is, according to the liner notes, “conceived as a horror soundtrack to the real-life nightmare of social deprivation, murder, suicide and LSD/skunk Induced psychosis that has plagued the Greater London estate.” The result is twelve tracks of sinisterly resonant spaces, Wilson simulating structures where every sound reflects off the walls and bounces back at you with sinister intent. Vocals emerge smothered in raw inertia. Percussion exists as degraded echoes rather than actual strikes. Even the reggae tape brought from Croydon market and sampled on ‘Timebridge’ is negated by the dank treacle it has to swim through, disfigured bass and topline turning its joy into something queasy and disturbed. Wilson never steps away from the ominous soundscape he creates, so that even when flickers of light do emerge, such as the pensive elevation of ‘Gravel Hill’, true escape feels perpetually out of reach. Fortress Addo is a dark listen, one that emphasizes Spykidelic’s remarkable knack for pulling us into the headspace triggered by a place.

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