#015: Barnacle Encrusted
e 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.
For a band named after a tropical state in Mexico, Quintana Roo doesn’t sound too warm. Blending rolling cymbals with cavernous, anesthetized drones, White Earth doesn’t speak of bleached beaches but barren ground, devoid of even dead things for color. While the tape doesn’t contain much in the way of humanity, its austere landscape possesses an alien, desert beauty.
Both sides stretch to the limit of the thirty-minute cassette, and both fit the same sonic niche. Unlike many drone purveyors, Quintana Roo removes the menace from their murk, instead focusing on slow and formal builds of dignified gloom. They craft great wide spaces of chill wind and distant howls, appropriate for isolated cabins built on Indian burial grounds. This is a lonely record, peopled only by haunted voices lurking on the margins.
Consider White Earth a great entry point into the bizarre world of cassette drone. The diminished scare factor will please the newbies, and the imaginative world evoked is consistent and immersive enough to sustain the attention of any music fan that survived post rock. Though lacking pyrotechnics, Quintana Roo still understands dynamics, even if their work never strays far from the dark and depressing.
Were I to one-day build my noise name generator, the first moniker it would reel off—setting the ideal numbers of words in the string at two—could very well be Phosphorescent Cadavers. Hell, the odds of cadaver appearing in one of the two slots skews to well over fifty percent. Phosphorescent? That one’s a bit more off beat, and so we approach the modus operandi of Jared Ellison, the Massachusetts resident behind this unassuming album. His noise is that of the dilettante, of one who likes to dabble with broken instruments and atonal structures as a break from more conventional musical pursuits. Hardliners will scoff at the gentility of this project, but given the abuse my ears have suffered over the past several months, Ellison’s de-clawed pieces sound candy sweet.
The tape’s best feature is its near-twee wonderment. Gold-flecked gurgles rise over deep, muted drums lacking the gusto to overwhelm the music. Cracked electronics cycle like lazy cicadas, sounding strangely summery despite their gritty surface. Even the vocal drones—a common signifier for this type of music is there ever was one—aim for hope rather than despair, a residue from the happy hymns in the liturgy rather than the black-robed. An honest-to-God acoustic guitar even cameos late in the game, and—as if that weren’t enough—it’s conventionally tuned rather than flanged and molested in the Tetuzi Akiyama mold.
So does this still qualify as noise, or rather as dormant instrumental rock/ambient? That’s a question best left to taxonomists, who can feel free to write the composer and plumb his thoughts on the matter. The tape’s a category-straddler for sure, combining noise with standard songwriting without forsaking one for the other.
Future is Bright
[Matching Head, 2006]
This tape is all about melodies; it’s absolutely jam-packed with them. The initial piano line here manages to lodge in the head after only a few moments. Its noticeably lo-fi cheapness is both tinderbox dry and (as it sucks you in) astonishingly jaunty. Layers of slowly forming notes phase out that first passage, but the tides continue to divide for yet more great parts. Further shoals flow across one another like a Satie family recital warm-up, while harp-like flourishes and strobes of white light noise zip around like fireflies with busted taillights. The tape hiss here actually aids Future is Bright by putting a little bit of distance between the ‘constructed’ sound and the listener, making it that little bit more magical.
Graveyards / Lake Bottoms
April Eight, 06
[American Tapes, 2006]
With both sides being recorded on the same date in April in a marathon split session, this is excellent documentary evidence for Wolf Eyes obsessives. Three Graveyards jams are shat straight to tape and broken up with studio banter, giving a little insight into the trio’s methodology and sense of humour. The first untitled piece comes in from the outer boondocks, riding waves of gong hum and bell toll on the back of a crippled comet. The sharp-edged drum kit bursts into engine noise and early Black Flag frenzy whilst melodies are subconsciously discovered and dumped. The disconnected rackety cello machines gun punches ragged holes in the horn’s constant searching—like Ayler riffs riddled with shotgun pellets.
The second track is a busier road kill smeared freeway, all three players following an imaginary invisible bandleader sweating a trail of light beer. Sounds scurry into the cassette’s corners before hitting a long running dry hump climax that shows the groups (possible) jackboot roots. The final track is a cross between Captain Ahab’s whaling gun theme and Tom Waits’ squalling sin city “Midtown.” This deranged chase scene takes corners at right angles on its spindly-legged spider stumps, skittering along the sidewalk. Both the sax and cello merge here about as perfectly as they’ve ever done before on a Graveyards release.
The Lake Bottoms (a duo of John Olson / Lisa Colwell from Michigan’s now defunct Basketcase) keep it aquatic with an underwater core rhythm trapped in a shitty hand-cranked PC. There are low notes, possibly horn based, that create a mildewed and unhurried moaning bed. The expanding clicks and mini-boom depth charges shake the music, leaving barrel shaped holes in the mix. As toy town whines and scratched guitar strings begin to compete, the song’s electric foundations peek out from the barnacle encrusted equipment. There is a delicacy here in the way the Coke can percussion and jazz silt nudges along on the whispery bed. A bingo ball beat forms from nothing, seemingly rising and falling with the invisible currents until the tape clicks off. Graveyards are proving themselves to be one of the consistently best bands of this decade so far. Don’t let the format put you off.
By: Stylus Staff
Published on: 2006-06-23