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

As heralds of a cassette comeback strike again, Daryl Worthington finds truly triumphant synth odysseys, hurdy-gurdy vs guitar live jams and a metronome quartet help break the sense of going around in circles


The cassette comeback is back. Last year, tapes hit their highest sales for two decades, with Arctic Monkeys The Car the bestseller on the format. As is tradition, that’s triggered national newspapers talking about tapes. The cycle of comeback/backlash against the comeback will likely continue every spring until the end of time, or at least until the British Phonographic Industry stops publishing sales figures by format. But if you’re reading this column, you know that what’s exciting on cassettes isn’t captured in sales figures.

What’s exciting is the pair of new releases from Brachliegen Tapes. Tom Betteridge’s Pearly imbues an alien intimacy reminiscent of that conjured by Henri Chopin, and more contemporarily, the collaborations between Lea Bertucci and Ben Vida. Smooching sounds open the release, which may or may not be coming from a voice. From there it drifts through disconcerting vocalisations and a swampy blanket of delicate feedback and rustling detritus. Betteridge forges a common ground between sound poetry and the playful misdirection in electro-acoustic music. One thread weaving through sound poetry’s multifaceted history is a grappling with the limitations of language and meaning. Betteridge embraces that ambiguity rather than try to resolve it. He creates a zone claustrophobic yet comforting, insular yet welcoming. The two sides of this tape capture feelings that are difficult to quantify but undeniably familiar.

Megzbow & Vinegar Tom’s Welsh Noise Vol. II sees fragments of speech, taken from, among other things, farmers hustling cattle, weave through soggy loops. The tape originates in field recordings taken in rural Pembrokeshire, but it never takes the vantage point of a disinterested empirical observer. Its swaying motion feels more impressionistic, an attempt to inscribe the uneven pulse of rituals and routines to a wobbly medium. Welsh Noise has the perplexed affection of someone investigating the cracks and crevices, quirks and eccentricities of a place, presenting it as something akin to a time-locked diorama of the uneven cycles of the day-to-day.

Both of these tapes on Brachliegen are a reminder that artists working at the most abstract ends of sound are able to evoke settings disarmingly poignant.

Synthfreq – Vol. 1
(Orange Milk Records)

Synthfreq is Danielle and Crystal Morales, twins who are both severely hearing and visually impaired. Using techniques such as adding braille to the interfaces of their synths and honing in on sounds that they can either feel, or hear via listening aids, they create astounding synthesizer music. Vol. 1 pulls together 12 of the Austin, Texas-based sisters’ compositions, mostly taken from their YouTube channel. As they make clear, their music is heavily influenced by the 80s, but from that starting point they launch into vivid dream worlds rather than pastiche, from the pounding squelch funk of ‘Industrial World’ to the frosty moonwalk arpeggios of ‘Power of Two’. Sitting somewhere between Jan Hammer, Patrick Cowley and Exit-era Tangerine Dream, Synthfreq’s magic comes in how close their squealing synth guitar solos and noodly electronic saxes come to being kitsch, and how elegantly they always evade that trap. Whether it’s the feverish disco intensity propelling ‘Miami Sky’ or the sprawling tendrils on ‘Sines Of Life’, there’s layers upon layers in these compositions. They re-enchant the 80s prog-synth-disco tangent before your ears, opening it as a space for euphoria away from cinematic cliché and cheesiness.

Laura Agnusdei – Goro
(Maple Death Records)

The tracks on Italian saxophonist and composer Laura Agnusdei’s Goro each manifest like a different room in a large and eccentric house. This compartmentalization is perhaps partly explained by the fact it’s directly inspired by Quasi Nessuno Ha Riso Ad Alta Voce, a comic book by Pastoraccia. It almost flows like a comic, complete scenes to take in and absorb before moving on. Opener ‘Maciste, Wet Nights’ sounds like several locked grooves intersecting, cymbals stuck in a perpetual ebb while soulful vocal samples dance through. ‘Matilde’s Lemon Dance’ is glowing techno pop somewhere between The Space Lady and Michele Mercure. Closer ‘Pontelagoscuro’ is a sprawling collage, piano and drones weaving through vivid environmental sounds and delightfully non-chirping bird vocalisations. The common thread is Agnusdei’s woozy, bluesy saxophone playing. Lyrical and lucid, it adds flickers of melancholy or moments of playfulness to caption and set the mood of the settings she’s created.

Valerio Tricoli & Werner Dafeldecker – Der Krater

There’s an unsettling swirl to this pair of side-long improvisations from Valerio Tricoli (Revox tape machine and electronics) and Werner Dafeldecker (double bass), as though you’re slowly being sucked down a well into a dank, slightly metallic yet highly fructuous underworld. While the pair’s respective instruments initially populate the first track relatively recognisably, if creepily, they soon splinter then reanimate. The second side starts with a spectral howl, equal parts meteorological and anthropomorphic, which might be an effect of Tricoli’s tape and electronics rather than an actual voice, but either way its proximity to humanity adds to the unnerving mass of these compositions. The pair say these recordings are two nightmares. Although Der Krater is dark, there’s an intricate, richly layered vibrancy to the cursed terrain they survey.

Man Rei – Health
(Somewhere Between Tapes)

On Health, Frankfurt-based Man Rei conjures a sense of being on the cusp of sleep, where the gap between subconscious and reality can start to get a little blurry. Although there’s a shimmer through their music that joins the dots between Grouper and the Cocteau Twins, they balance oneiric drift with pristine clarity. Opener ‘I Don’t Want The Money’ layers voice into a choral levitation, before the glimmer peels away into the sparsely plucked guitar notes of ‘Mangeler’. ‘Stairclimb’’s luminous chords morph into a twisted spiral. Through it all, their lyrics paint vivid snapshots from ambiguous settings. “Oh do I love, feeling sorry for myself” over ‘Just Another Let It Die’’s sparkling chords. Or, “I’m a mystery to myself exclusively” among ‘Pareidolia’’s twinkling drones. According to the release notes, Health is driven by Man Rei confronting the impermanence of existence. While these ruminations are doused in melancholy, their compositions find tenderness in heavy questions and fragile mental states.

Mondoriviera – Frenton Cantolay

There’s an arc to Mondoriviera’s Frenton Cantolay that’s equal parts Sid Meier and Drexciya. His productions fuse echoes from the dungeon and utopian extremes of the online musical archive into a sprawling virtual narrative, opener ‘Compax’s rolling flutes and synthetic bamboo evoke nomadic roaming. ‘Sun City’s hammering sequences are like video game characters embracing proto-agriculture. Neon electronics wash through the middle three tracks to give the impression a metropolis has sprouted up around you. From there things get gradually more ominous, so that ‘Marzabotto’’s twitching micro-glitches sound like we’ve fully succumbed to the world of intra-AI discourse. To be clear, I’m not claiming that Mondoriviera, aka Ravenna-based Lorenzo Camera, is trying to spin epic histories like a post-vaporwave Herodotus – the album is apparently a parody of Peter Frampton’s ‘Frampton Comes Alive’. The narrative is only in my head, but it points to the sweeping scope and vivid detail in his productions. They’re eidetic, a mosaic of diverse reference points synced up into a sprawling counter-reality.

Far Rainbow – The Blue Hugeness
(Metaphysical Powers)

Far Rainbow is the London-based duo of Emily Mary Barnett and Bobby Barry. The Blue Hugeness begins with bubbling sounds which Barnett’s cymbals splash through, taking on a gait somewhere between Jack DeJohnette and a leaky pipe. Later, flickering drones emerge that seem more electrical than instrumental – which might be true as previous releases have seen Barry credited with playing electric toothbrush and various small motors. Submerged in it all are eerie field recordings, the most beguiling sounding like a baby cooing in the distance. It’s seldom clear where any sound comes from on this tape. Even where the drums begin and end gets a little hazy, while the lush reverb that glistens off everything is a source of intrigue in itself. It’s a spooky and hypnotic zone, one where machines seem to live in ghostly spaces. Every sound on ‘The Blue Hugeness’ is a riddle, slipping along the boundary between familiar and unfamiliar to find an alluring place in the in-between.

Kasai – J/P/N

Recorded alongside the twin pressures of raising a child and running a farm, on J/P/N Kasai, aka Daisuke Iijima, merges footwork and juke with minyo – a form of traditional Japanese folk singing which spread through the country, evolving into different forms as it landed in different regions. The result is something far more integrated than simply sticking some samples on a groove. Footwork’s presence in these nine tracks isn’t so much sheer velocity as how Kasai expands a beat, his compositions rolling out in shape-shifting lattices of rhythmic and tonal colour. It’s a joyous tape, Iijima’s soaring vocal melodies weaving through pounding drums and a vibrant palette of synthetic and acoustic instrumentation. Wrong-footing shifts in rhythm or flashes of tender triumph in the vocals keep this music in a state of constant flux without dropping for a second the pulse and rich melodicism that makes it so compelling.

Ábris Gryllus & Dávid Somló – Every Day
(Warm Winters)

Every Day started as a 2022 installation from Hungarian composers Ábris Gryllus and Dávid Somló. Twenty, three metre-high columns, each representing a Hungarian county, were erected in Budapest to play a pattern of ominous ringing chimes whose qualities warped in relation to pandemic data. Mixed down into two stereo tracks here, it carries weight beyond the Covid context. In terms of effect, if not process, it parallels Phill Niblock’s audiovisual ruminations on the nature of work. His pieces, on which slow burning microtonal accumulations are played against video of people at work, evoking both toil and serenity, speak to the complex webs weaving through even the most repetitive moments. Every Day’s 37 minutes of phasing, fluctuating staccatos animate the mass of empty durations. While its origins came in writing tragedy into a time when the world stood still, its resonance stretches further. Every Day is a stabilising mechanism against the void, its fluctuations providing ballast in the drift.

Unperson – Spiritual™

Imagine the Situationists were sounds artists who took aim at the contemporary mindfulness industry and you’ll have some idea of what to expect on Unperson, aka Sheffield-based Jake Parry’s, Spiritual™. The side-long piece (the B-side is an instrumental version, the digital includes an a capella) sees Fiona Scott impersonate a guided mindfulness experience over a sound bath turned toxic. It lambasts a situation where spirituality and mindfulness are commercialised – in other words wellbeing is only visible if it has economic ramifications. The wry detournement in the voice over starts subtle before becoming increasingly explicit and absurd; “Think of this as a sonic WD40…”. Anyone who’s ever had a work mental wellbeing seminar that keeps looping back to discussions of maintaining productivity will find something familiar here. Gently nudging marketing inflected tropes out of shape to reveal the contradiction at their heart, it perhaps also provides the keys to break the corporate stranglehold.

Soviet Pop – Two Small Works: Continuous And Discrete
(Aloe Records)

On Two Small Works: Continuous And Discrete Soviet Pop, aka Beijing-based duo Li Qing and Li Weisi treat sounds as an object to be mapped. There are full liner notes on the release page but to paraphrase, the first track sees snare drum playing respond to and affect harmonics in a held tone. The second has Li Qing’s play pedal cymbal alongside four metronomes of different pitches and speeds. The first piece is methodical yet transfixing, snare rolls delicately shifting pace and drawing attention to the tone they’re playing over. The second would be maddening, if the criss-crossing rhythms weren’t so mesmerizing. Both are fascinating for the patience with which the duo explore processes, gently allowing every possibility to emerge from the constraints.

Skull Mask – Iká
(Raash Records)

Ten minutes into this tape, Gosha Hniu’s hurdy-gurdy chokes on its drones and spits out a celestial croak. It comes as Miguel Pérez, aka Skull Mask, jumps into chugging, martial riffing on acoustic guitar. It’s a heroic transition, as though the duo are leading us into battle against a demonic presence. The two live tracks on Iká (the Raramuri word for wind) were recorded last summer, at Cafe OTO and Supernormal Festival, while Pérez was playing with Hniu’s Staraya Dervenya on their UK tour, the latter returning the favour and becoming part of Skull Mask for these two shows. Pérez has a gift for conjuring gothic-tinted, immensely dynamic instrumentals from acoustic guitar (see his 2016 tape La Muerte Es Sabia). In the Cafe OTO performance, he and Hniu take on a pendular motion – drifting apart and leaving acres of space for each other before accelerating together through rapid finger-picking and wailing tones. The Supernormal set erupts in a swarm and never lifts from that blazing swirl. The best live albums capture performances at the ragged edge of flying apart but never stepping over that precipice. That’s exactly the sweet spot Pérez and Hniu ride here.

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