Tape Hiss
#012: Perpetually Raised Eyebrows

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.

Forest of Three Trees
[Tone Filth, 2006]

Tombi describes his label Twonicorn—and by extension, his own music, which makes up a large chunk of Twonicorn’s discography—as “basement new age crawl.” Damned if he didn’t hit upon the right words. Forest of Three Trees wafts from a leaky, musty cellar full of armless mannequins and unplugged refrigerators overflowing with unidentifiable rot. The air of seclusion, murk, and mania—as well as the crud sound implying improper storage of miswired gear in rat-holes—pervades the tape, practically pinning the listener inside a claustrophobic, windowless room. But despite its gruffness, Forest of Three Trees doesn’t tow the muscular, masculine noise line. Behind the hiss and sludge, a feeble ambient mantra lies hidden, battered but alive, tenacious amidst the grime.

The titles are primed for yoga—“Beauty Haze Release,” “Future Cloud Isle,” “Endless Amber”—but stretch to this and risk a pulled hammy. Read through that list again, and tack on the last track “Headfog,” and the titles morph into odes to cheep beer refills and lung-taxing bong hits.

The relationship between blitzed headspace and chill-out comps played to infants clarifies when ambient is taken into focus. Ambient music emphasizes sourcelessness, delocalization, sound without physical referent. A certain aural confusion, woozy music from everywhere and nowhere. Despite its dark, anti-humanist connotations—ambient music, in its essence, denies the existence of the composer—the genre has been tamed into a cheap psychological opiate, a cool-down for overwrought executives and traffic-addled soccer moms.

Considering the identity blur that takes place in states of extreme intoxication, one can see the appeal of ambient for the sloshed producer. But not in its usual, anesthetized form. Ambient needs to be mussed up a bit, made less smooth, less affluent. Here poverty is its own reward: Tombi’s smashed synths and analog recording gear add a much needed layer of grit to the sleek exterior. The DIY, lo-fi scum of Tombi’s work is a positive limitation.

Tombi’s heavy metal meets Eno sound would be an odd fit for most noise labels, but Tone Filth stands out from a scene increasingly roping itself off from innovation behind its own shtick. Label owner Justin Meyers, an active participant in the wider noise community as Devillock, has already demonstrated a fondness for greater circumspection and gentle risks with his own Glass Organ and Sound from the Other Room releases, as well as the bracing sinusoidal beauty of Robert Beatty’s Three Legged Race. This tape further demonstrates his commitment to a noise music that communicates with and enhances other genres. Combining that with the imprint’s ridiculously high production values—cases, inserts, and tapes are hand-silkscreened—has made Tone Filth one of today’s premier tape labels.

[Blood Red Cassettes, 2006]

Some genres don’t do division. Pop songs and battle raps slip comfortably into the three-to-five minute range, but drone and doom metal? Best left to side-long excursions, to give the smoke proper time to rise and coil, to allow the tension to ease out before the abrupt return of reality.

With slow-mo metal, as played by Caves, time is of the essence. A C-15 can’t capture the quality of the Caves experience. Their tempo is only just established by the end of the run. Sure, a fella can queue up the sides again, but the disappointment remains.

It’s not as if Caves couldn’t bring it for longer. By the end of fifteen minutes, they establish a unique trope within doom metal, dragging in acoustic guitar delicacies rarely dared by anyone without the stature of Dylan Carson. The martial drums have more mettle than Earth, and the tunes some avant garde oomph with the A-side’s rumbling electronic textures and the B-side’s swooping waveforms. What’s more, the compositions are far from static. The bass bulge grows a cymbal and creates some fine patterns, the knobs are twisted from low to high and back again, antiquated terms like crescendo and climax regain meaning, but the glorious come-down is cruelly truncated. Give us a few more minutes.

Though the total anonymity of this tape smacks of the one-off, one can certainly hope for a brighter future from the band. They’ve got the tools to put out a record for longhairs, headbangers, and eggheads alike, if only they’d allow themselves more time in studio, or bedroom, or abandoned building, or wherever stark, scary sound escapes the addled brain.

Maths Balance Volumes / Gas Shepherds
Trashcastles Vol. 1
[Self-Released, 2006]

From the US to the UK, it seems the kids today fancy that flat-on-yr-back, dead-eye sound. Minnesota’s Maths Balance Volumes were at one time a collective, and they likely still are, but “collective” conjures visions of multiple hand drums, fiddle, banjo, mandolin, etc. At the very least, a collective includes multiple people playing together in some fashion in some space, and that fact should be reflected in the recorded sound. But this MBV release collapses space, compacts drone, drum, and gibberish into a dense fruitcake of sound. Perhaps one member of the collective has gone about devouring the others whole, growing proportionally in the process, so that the entire group now stews in stomach juice, and one grotesque, overfed giant remains as the public face. The MBV side on Trashcastles would then chronicle the thirty-minute burp from the beast. Instruments are garbled and lost, voices cry out in pain or rapture, oscillators struggle to oscillate through layers of unresponsive fat, and all of the above are unified and oppressed by a sticky coating of coagulate. Thirty minutes is quite a long, disgusting burp, but the sheer oddity of it holds the attention. Same goes for MBV.

The UK’s Gas Shepherds, proud inhabitants of the other side, stretch their limbs a bit more, but their environs are scant more pleasant than our clumsy cannibal’s innards. They strum skeletal in a humming hospital waiting room, where the fluorescent lights burn through the skull and the PA is permanently activated by a lazy night watchman’s sleeping elbow. The antiseptic, buzzing atmosphere makes for a bizarre setting for some surprisingly pleasant guitar, bells, and always-welcome warped tape effects. Ever the proper gents, the Gas Shepherds look down their noses at the caveman primitivism spreading through the America, opting instead to play the black-clad, death-dealing physician, surveying his lurid antechamber with steely calculation. To add another mark to their tally, the group also has the decency to break their side into distinct tracks, a blessed return to normalcy after MBV’s test of sanity.

Trashcastles is not nice, and girls won’t like you if you listen to it. Neither will boys. And you might like yourself less and question your motivations after enduring a rather icky experience. All the same, I’d recommend it, if only for the perpetually raised eyebrows the thing induces.

By: Bryan Berge
Published on: 2006-05-12
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