Spool’s Out: The Best Cassettes Of 2023

After the cassette celebrated its 60th anniversary in 2023, Daryl Worthington looks back on a year where it reinforced its role as pivotal to the present of underground music. From deep-fake ecosystems to post-sense Dictaphone freakouts, dolphin impersonations, and cutting edge beats

Gloorp, photo by Parker Phelps

In the last twelve months the way I’ve listened to music has changed. Previously, every gig I attended or track I listened to I found myself trying to hold in my mind how it had started. Attempting to weave a thread through a piece or performance in my mind rather than giving full attention to what was happening there and then. I was convinced this was a focused way of listening, but in truth I was at war with my attention span. Trying to force my brain to plot a narrative through an entire piece for fear that if I didn’t, it’d wander off into various neuroses and mundane concerns. Not wanting to sound like some hollow call to “embrace the moment”, but I’ve found it increasingly rewarding to try and stay open to the present.

Bearing in mind that finding any kind of overarching trend or pattern in what’s happening in the music released on cassette is only going to be, at best, subjective, at worst, total fabrication, it’s this change in listening that’s shaped the tapes I’ve been drawn to this year. This isn’t to say I’ve only enjoyed stuff with instant wow factor. Sensation and stimulation don’t need to smack you around the head, sometimes it comes in incredibly subtle music.

Looking at my tape shelf, there are some patterns. Field recording has long been a consistent presence on tapes. But this year has seen attempts to commune with the wild and the untouched in ways other than sticking a microphone in front of it. Perhaps it’s something of an anti-speciesist influence, engaging with the complexity and nuance of other creatures’ sounds rather than just capturing them on a hard drive/lump of plastic. It’s most prominent in Mappa’s compilation, ‘Synthetic Bird Music’, but also there in IEOGM’s Dolphins in Cornwall, and Wife Eyes’ bacteria imagining muzak, Regna Vita, on Strategic Tape Reserve.

Elsewhere, there’s a pivot to the polemical. It can be heard in the cryptic transmissions from the Everyday Samething label, Unperson’s gorgeous detournement of commercialised mindfulness, and Abadir’s sprawling plunderphonics. None of this is particularly didactic, but pokes at the structures and institutions that surround us.

This year marked the 60th anniversary of the cassette, and its moment of attention in wider discourse coincided with a surge in people treating them as a nostalgic fetish to capitalise on, and a rise (online at least) of snubbing as either a scenester crush, or a ridiculous low fidelity anachronism. But there’s far more happening on cassettes if you bother to stick around the communities that have sprouted up around them.

As is tradition, I’ll start this round-up with my tape label of the year, before diving into eight cassettes I missed first time, before looking back at seven I covered previously.

Tape label of the year: Drowned By Locals

A strive to sound the margins has seeped through everything Ammam, Jordan-based Drowned By Locals has touched this year. In some ways they’re sonically aligned with Bristol’s Avon Terror Corps, and it’s perhaps not a surprise that the two share some artists. Drowned By Locals are not exclusively a cassette-label, as shown by Hulubalang’s brilliant vinyl full length Bunyi Bunyi Tumbal. What’s more, they’re releases come with everything from herb grinders to sets of cards.

On tape, they’ve released Madrid-based Firstlin3’s blend of seemingly every descendent of dancehall into a cursed and delirious whole. Bristol producer Kinlaw’s Weld features a globe spanning cast of vocalists giving voice to triumphantly scathing industrial-dungeon rap. But Drowned By Local’s remit isn’t just focused on outsider club spaces. Thomas LaRoche’s Ever More Precise Accounts Of The Cave is a creepy world of concrete sounds and spoken word. On the B-side, it uses little more than a change in speed and relentless repetition to find a threat hidden in a tape loop of a pop classic. And then there’s Egyptian artist Abadir’s Melting, a montage of samples strung together with a breathtaking sense of timing and wit. It triggers a psychedelic effect, a reality mash-up in real time.

All of these releases are uncompromising. Combined, they show Drowned By Locals revel in being an uncategorizable spanner in the works of any kind of easy, predictable listening. It’s a refreshing modus operandi, embracing rough edges rather than attempt to smooth them out.

Gloorp – Gloorp
(Jolt Music)

Every tape from Brooklyn-based Jolt Music has felt vital this year, the label dropping a stream of ultra-vivid, ultra-bizarre electronic music which splatters distinctions between hi- and lo-fi, club and headphones, pop and experimental listening. One which slipped through this column’s lens first time around is Gloorp’s (real name Garrett Burke) self-titled debut. The album began with loops Burke played on an acoustic drum set which he cut, warped and then mangled through a modular before adding mundane field recordings taken from sites such as the local pool and a laundromat. The relative steadiness of the beats against the weirdness in the higher frequencies mimics Rhythm & Sound, had they applied their reverbs and filters to chart pop and tinny phone recordings rather than dub-reggae, which should give you some idea of this tape’s peculiarly innervating impact.

Perrier & Rigg – Hotline Hold-Music 2022-2023
(Everyday Samething)

Hotline Hold-Music 2022-2023 by Lawrence Perrier & Aggie Rigg came in an edition of four tapes, which is limited even for the tape scene. Everyday Samething is a curious label that exists primarily as an online mailing list. Their output comes out of the blue, sitting in a zone between lo-fi sound art and strange detournements of corporate culture. This tape is billed as compiling the hold music for their phone hotline. While the vapourous synths and woodwinds swim through muzak tropes, they look into the banal and pull gravity and substance out. On ‘Hotline3’, a swooning chorus of ‘it’s not your fault’ fills in the gaps between automated ‘thank you for holding’ announcements. ‘Hotline5’ broadcasts transmissions equally romantic and ominous through a somnambulant waiting line soundtrack. As the vocalists wearily sing “Running around in circles like we used to.. is it so bad? Yes I think so”, you hear them both stuck in a loop and slowly realising it. Perrier & Rigg crack holes in tedium, latching on to the incidental music of life’s great queue and rewiring it into playful escape.

Ushangvagush – Pestmo’qon
(Realm & Ritual)

Black metal artists releasing on cassette, such as Black Spine and Wrekan, have produced some of the most direct ruminations on the human-nature relationship and environmental crisis in recent years. A book probably could (and maybe should) be written on the full complexity of the politics, aesthetics and ethics involved. Ushangvagush’s Pestmo’qon’s is a prime example of music’s power to convey both trauma and urgency. Ushangvagush is a one-person indigenous black metal project led by D, (the only additional player here some violin from audra sears). The tape’s title means starvation in the Mi’kmaq language, and this single 40 plus minute composition channels the idea a separation between human mind and nature’s spirit is making the planet uninhabitable. Whether you agree with this read of our situation or not, D’s music hammers home it’s how they’re experiencing the world. Drums and guitars are alienation and metabolic rift played out in real time. The whole thing slams, but there’s a constant sense of conflict and upheaval in the sharp accelerations and decelerations. Occasional moments of respite come in the form of shimmering ambient passages, but they’re the briefest glimpses of tranquility. This is turbulent music to reflect perilous times.

Maria W. Horn & Vilhelm Bromander – Earthward Arcs
(Warm Winters Ltd.)

Stockholm duo Maria W. Horn (electronics) and Vilhelm Bromander’s (double bass) debut collaboration is described as drone, which makes sense while underplaying the motion in Earthward Arcs’ two compositions. Their music accumulates tension, mid-way through the title track it feels like wood and string on Bromander’s bass is actually buckling under the strain. The moments of release come in gentle slackening rather than violent snaps, clumps of pressure dissipating into swirling eddies. Their music effortlessly swings from taut to susurrating. Juxtaposing slabs of immense weight with moments of untethered bliss.

Cerpintxt – Microtubule Encoded Memory
(Boundary Condition)

Alaa Yussry’s Cerpintxt has been a fascinating live entity for a few years now, and while there are some recordings available online, debut tape microtubule encoded memory is its most fully realised recorded documentation yet. She’s described her music as hauntological, but rather than a retro-facing aesthetic texture, her compositions reflect an uneven and heavily loaded Eternal Return as lived experience. It’s felt in the cryptic form her music takes, voices slip from coherence into blurs, hazy instrumentation scythes from noir crevices into unsettling proximity. What loops gently trips out of repetitive cycles. On ‘Operator Division’ a monologue is read accompanied by little more than layers of its own erosion, while closer ‘Dweller In The Eye’, has the mournful piano of Yussry’s live collaborator, Ruben Sonnoli, pierce the churn, a twinkly sonata slipping in like a glimmer of light in a windowless room. Cerpintxt’s music tracks the disjointed flow of recollection. Finding solace against the sense that both our surroundings and our memories are little more than a cursed palimpsest.

IEOGM – Dolphins In Cornwall
(Molt Fluid)

IEOGM is a collaboration between Marie Vermont and Vienna-based The Concept Horse. On Dolphins In Cornwall, they use voice and electronics to enter the sound world of dolphins. While the inter-species impersonation is subtle, it’s there right from the off, a text read through a voltage controlled variable filter creating a swirl of high-end whistles. On ‘Nancledra’, human voice is so glitched it becomes a click train, while a bass guitar line saunters about underneath to add to the surrealness. Dolphins use clicks and whistles to learn and navigate through an environment. IEOGM synthesise similar sounds to uncover different lessons.

Stylianos Ou – Rififi Ston Epitafo (An Oral History of Extinction)
(Fort Evil Fruit)

The liner notes for Stylianos Ou’s Rififi Ston Epitafo (An Oral History of Extinction) depict ghosts of washed up Scandinavian black metal stars haunting the gentrified streets of Athens, Greece. More than just release bumf, the situation this tale depicts feels at one with the music, framing and sound a homogenous whole. Midi ideophones dance through vertigo inducing electronics. Autotuned voices duel with razor edged screams and sidesteps into stuttering rhythms. It never sounds like different traditions bolted together, everything coheres into a fully realised, sprawling counter-reality.

Line Gate – Trap

On his latest album, Trap Line Gate (Michal Vaľko) delivers fathoms of depth and weight. The a-side sees hums and drones seeping through each other. They have a lulling yet disturbed rise and fall, a collective sigh, and all its possible connotations, stuck in a loop. The second side is more of a shudder. A gush of hurdy-gurdy unleashed under chiming glass cups and groaning, keening voice. The titles here are remarkably prescient, ‘Maze I’ and ‘Maze II’. While it’s breathtaking to admire the architecture of resonances and overtones that grow out of Line-Gate’s music, there’s also an inescapable sense his incantory compositions are sucking you further into an unsolvable puzzle.

Babau – Flatland Explorations Vol. 2

On Flatland Explorations Vol.2 Italian duo Babau deliver a deep fake ethnography. A field guide to a world where the only way to access the untouched is through a computer, where birds and flutes sound synthetic and twinkling synths organic. Touchstones for their work might be Michael Stone’s fictionalised ethnographies, Jon Hassell, or some kind of post-vapour wave Messiaen. But really this world is all Babau’s, a place where the uncanny valley has expanded into an entire ecosystem.

Zhao Cong – 55355
(Aloe Records)

Beijing-based Zhao Cong’s music is built from miking up everyday objects to create gently whirring, humming and clicking compositions. Her process is about latching on to incidental noise, the mundane background buzz on the edge of attention. That in itself is not hugely unusual across the tape scene, but what makes 55355 so compelling is how she investigates detail and intricacy, finding movement, sensation and weird stimulation in these little bundles of sounds.

Synthfreq – Vol. 1
(Orange Milk)

Synthfreq is the twins Danielle and Crystal Morales, and they’ve overcome severe visual and hearing impairments to create their music, deploying innovative techniques such as adding braille to their synth’s interfaces, and working with frequencies they can either feel, or hear with the support of hearing aids. On Vol.1 they deliver a set of richly textured, radiant synth-prog-funk. Even more triumphant than the fact this music exists in the first place, is the joyful escapism that leaks out of it. A hopefulness you can’t help but catch.


IFS MA is the meeting of minds between rapper and extended vocalist MA, and expert beat makers IFS (Mateusz Wysocki & Krzysztof Ostrowski), with debut REIFSMA released on a label specializing in footwork. It’s exactly as gravity and reality defying as you’d expect with those credentials. IFS react to MA’s unconventional flow, filling their beats with elasticity to match his ungridded phrasing. MA leans into the bedrock they lay, using it as a foundation to veer into ever more unpredictable, convention bending vocalisations. It’s music which finds brilliance in contorted forms.

Lucie Páchová – Крънджилица

The source materials for Lucie Páchová’s music on Крънджилица come from visits to a remote Bulgarian village with a population of less than ten inhabitants. Field recordings from that place are mixed with her prepared zither, creating a collage bristling with life and activity. Doors creak, animate and inanimate objects buzz, rattle and hum with disorientating proximity, while snippets of the residents’ speaking slip in and out of hearing. Крънджилица is an impressionistic documentary of what makes a place a place, however scant the population is there. This year, it’s become a place increasingly familiar and welcoming.

Breathing Heavy – Heavy Breathing
(Infant Tree)

Breathing Heavy is the London-based duo of Ciaran Mackle (also from Ashcircle) and Sam Andreae. Mackle plays a sampler filled with snippets of him blowing into reeds, whistles and recorders which Andreae plays over, under and through. Their music is a skronking, bleating, at points slightly avian-sounding miasma with a fascinating sense of antagonism, the pair egging each other on to ever more inhuman extremes. When samples and live sax fully enmesh, it’s spell-binding.

Courtis-Posset – Micro-Glottis

There’s a temptation to theorise about the sense and fidelity smashing significance of these file shared micro-cassette and sound poetry improvisations from Courtis-Posset aka Buenos Aires-based Anla Courtis (also guitarist in Reynols) and Newcastle-based Joe Posset, and where they sit in the lineage from Hugo Ball to Audrey Chen via Henri Chopin. But more than that, the babbling, croaking and distorted dialogue captured across these ten tracks remains a transfixing listen five months on from release. As unconventional and rough-edged as their interactions are, it’s rooted in human communication and exchange. It’s like being pocket-dialed by someone at a party – what you hear might be totally garbled, you’ll probably never grasp what was really happening, but you’ll nevertheless be compelled to listen all the way through.

The Quietus Digest

Sign up for our free Friday email newsletter.

Support The Quietus

Our journalism is funded by our readers. Become a subscriber today to help champion our writing, plus enjoy bonus essays, podcasts, playlists and music downloads.

Support & Subscribe Today