Tape Hiss
#006: Aspiring to the Accidental



we have not entered the tape renaissance. Tapes have never gone away. Long abandoned by the recording industry, its status as preferred portable usurped by CDs and MP3s, the cassette still marches forward, championed by the tiniest of the tiny start-up labels and, increasingly, those looking for an alternative to digitalization and the tyranny of flat formats. The recording technology is dirt cheap, reproduction is a breeze, and packaging is a blast. Cassettes elicit a fervor of fandom rivaled only by top-shelf vinyl.

Herein, cassettes shall have their day. Unfortunately, only a few will. Try as I might, I can’t cover nearly as many as I’d like. So if you run a label or know someone who does, and you’d like to submit tapes for review, please e-mail me.

Postage/ Drunjus
Postage/ Drunjus
[Object, 2005]


Spilling out of a legal envelope comes this split from Drunjus and Postage, the former the droning duo of Davenport honcho Clay Ruby and Dan Woodman and the latter the enigmatic Endless with a guitarist so mysterious that he remains unnamed. Postage starts with creaky field recordings, not the usual epic tides or insect solos, but instead mundane daily ambience, as if Endless had left the recorder on the floor and stepped on record on his way out the door. These unremarkable sounds are surprisingly remarkable for their very banality. They set a humble, warm backing for the warbling strings and chimes moseying through Postage’s uncluttered landscape.

No sound seeks to dominate. Gestures are offered with the restraint and politeness of a guest, and each leaves as promptly. Linking these self-effacing moments, Postage creates a music aspiring to the accidental, to the unrecorded, to the non-existent. The recording environment as a space, free of the performer, becomes the primary player in the music, while the musicians themselves ebb into the periphery. It’s a curious inversion, one that works damn well, once one stops begging the guitarist—whose passages are often achingly beautiful—to step up and fill the space. We must remember that the space is already full, needing only to be listened to, and, now and then, garnished with the elongated chords of a hung-over itinerant bluesman.

Drunjus takes a far less oblique approach. In fact, their oversaturated drone directly opposes the open fields of Postage, though the opener establishes a point of communication between the two. Its guttural oscillations and frantic pitch-whistles are packed in gauze; the dim recording creates a palpable space between listener and sound, though this space is defined more by the negativity of the music held without rather than—as was the case with Postage—the sounds already extant within. This treatment of space reverses the dynamics at work in the Postage side and disorients the listener attuned to empty space.

Drunjus’ pieces share a naturalistic serenity, suggesting the lolling buzz of ecosystems in states of both repair and decay. A rolling mid-range frequency, subject to abrupt changes in channel and volume, anchors a panoply of squeaks and scratches. At their best, Drunjus create a sound world in which every element sounds autonomous, but their interdependence is revealed when some fundamental sound is disrupted. Given the ecological imagery employed prior and encouraged by the band, questions of free will are relevant.

Robedoor/ Haunted Castle
Failed Grails
[Notnotfun, 2005]


Failed Grails claims to tackle a mighty concept—the failure of Christian religion—but it pays scant attention to religion at all, opting instead for a barrage of noisy violence and drooling, doomed threats of violence. This total lack of focus and discipline, of course, is perhaps the best argument for the failure of Christianity, which beyond its mythology, finds its most important role as an enforcer. Morality, piety, and the like being primarily exercises in attention and self-control.

The packaging seems to present a tidy concept. A yellow tape, adorned with a red spray-painted cross and flames, presents the institution shuddering in the throes of death. The second, black tape, bearing an inverted black cross and grey wreckage, surveys the ashen remains of a dead society. No such arrangement fits the messy splatter of the two bands, however, as each tape contains an equal share of pre- and post-apocalyptic moments. Again, this is damned appropriate, a nice fuck you to folks demanding an over-arching meaning to a project denying the value of such abstractions.

Both tapes contain a Robedoor and a Haunted Castle Side, staggered so that the default listening sequence is RD-HC-HC-RD. I, however, prefer a HC-RD-RD-HC lineup, for a couple of reasons. Firstly, Haunted Castle is punishing, and twenty non-stop minutes of their aural assault demands a hell of a lot. Perhaps those who’ve set their homepages to Hanson Records would dig that, but the meeker sort (the majority, I’d guess) would enjoy Haunted Castle a lot more given time to recover from ten minutes of psychic wounds. Also, Haunted Castle’s “Moving Through the Aeons” provides a suitable introduction to the ugly intentions of the tape. It makes no bones about its intent, immediately launching into a brutal Hototogisu-like stasis that festers for the entire side. The aggressive constancy of the track contains some glimmer of comment on religious thought: the idea of progress is rudely rejected.

Robedoor’s “Ishtar Slain” could be the desperate flailing of a dying deity. Beginning with windy circuits and ominous drum-steps that gradually get louder and culminate with crushing cymbal blasts and ferocious fire-howls, “Ishtar Slain,” unlike “Aeons,” follows a simple, savage logic: pain-death-silence, a crescendo swooping into the black sea like an aged gull.

And onto the black tape.

Yet another reason for the back-to-back Robedoor tracks: continuity, something openly mocked by audio terrorists like Haunted Castle. Sticking surprisingly close to the burnt script, “Pyre Calm” pairs pensive feedback with anxious cymbal work, sounding the perfect match for starving surveyors stepping out into a wasteland. The terror then amplifies, the volume reaching the point where the original paranoid calm vanishes, and the smoldering embers beneath the rumble reignite for one more go-round. By the end of “Pyre Calm,” the track is a legit contender for one of the most noisy tapes I’ve ever listened to, even in a stacked field, and expectation is yet again rejected.

By the end of the black, listeners will respond to the words Haunted Castle with a Pavlonian cringe. “Bythos Abandoned,” my choice of conclusion, starts slow—with long, jagged arcs of distortion stretched out over a black canvas. These arcs accumulate and clash, spawning skull-splitting whines (thankfully a notch below Merzbow territory) and truly ugly sludge drone. “Bythos” contains less convulsive bursts that “Aeons” and supplanted it as my favorite Haunted Castle.

Considering I’ve heard a large amount of Haunted Castle’s output, the fact that these two tracks rank at the top of their discography should recommend this tape. I suspect that Robedoor’s tracks would elbow their way to that throne as well, but I haven’t heard nearly enough of their releases to judge. While recklessly toying with heavy, metaphysical shite, these two stumbled upon some goddamn good god-damned sounds.

Spectre Flux
Spectre Flux
[Black Velvet Fuckere, 2005]


I’m beginning to think that the weird noise/drone hybrid algal-blooming on CDRs and tapes may have no intrinsic musical value, as far as such a thing is possible. Whereas one can peruse Beethoven’s scores and see the precise beauty they possess, or scan a Beatles song to catalogue rock innovations, much of this newfangled business stands in total anonymity, with an open mouth blaring a cacophony of fractured, atonal, arrhythmic murk, lacking conventional signifiers to latch on to. One could claim that different standards of quality exist, but I think the far more intriguing and revolutionary possibility is that no standards exist. The worth of a release instead depends on the unique intersection between person, sound, and circumstance. The music on the tape, without traditional structural elements confining its meaning, becomes an aural manifestation of a personal, emotional moment, an amalgam so volatile that, in a sense, the very sounds can change from hearing to hearing.

This Spectre Flux cassette is a wonderful example of the phenomenon. Pete Nolan—the man behind the faceless mask—has credentials. He’s a new member of the Vanishing Voice, drummer in Magik Markers, and part of GHQ with Double Leopard Marcia Bassett. Hell, he’s practically ubiquitous, a luminary in a world of flickering gutter-light. Yet this tape revels in total obscurity. Black Velvet Fuckere, an unreachable entity, gives next to no information about it, beyond the approximate time of its creation in a radio station, and the crackles and hums within evoke not so much humans as the post-industrial matrix of machinery and information enmeshing us. In short, Nolan makes sounds that are as unidentifiable as they are familiar, amplifications of emptiness, a charged space of ambiguous intent.

I’ve had several good experiences with this tape, walking in the aerosol drizzle next to neon-lit 24-hour donut shops, the bodyless sound syncopating with the hyperactive fluctuations of the fluorescent tubes. Brief electronic organs drifts seemed to flow from the old boomboxes on the backs of homeless men. The music so heavily depended on my surroundings—and my attitude towards them—that I was not at all surprised when I hated this tape listening to it at home in the dark.

But another home-listening bowled me over. Who knows the combinations of factors leading up to the good experience. All I can say for sure is that I’ve had way more good times than bad listening to Spectre Flux.


By: Bryan Berge
Published on: 2006-02-03
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