Tape Hiss
#020: Autonomous Environments

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 us.

Being Being
[Black Horizons, 2007]

Obscurity is at the heart of Bodyvehicle, more so than most acts in the admittedly obscure noise underground. Hailing from Russia, the band mailed hours of music to small labels across the country a year or so back. Since then, that block has been carved into cassettes by several different labels, including Tone Filth and Night Pass. But perhaps the most definitive document of this output is this double cassette release, a wonderful audio-visual experience from the fine Black Horizons.

Not content to be of mysterious origins, Bodyvehicle also makes mysterious noise. Though most comfortable swimming in aqueous ambience, the band also draws on microsound and free improv for their dark-shaded, but weirdly fluorescent soundrooms. The sound emanates from bleak ocean trenches, where undulating eels flicker in the darkness and teeming, shrouded life scuttles towards the heat seeping from the earth.

The first side of the cassette finds Bodyvehicle at their densest, if not most effective. “Deep Strobing” crosses strong currents of Theater of Eternal Music just-tuned drones with crackled industrial ambience to produce twenty minutes of stunned swirl, consistently deep but occasionally static. B-side follower “The Sight” follows a similar path for a shorter time, before succumbing to “Breathable Gel-Filled Room,” a laudable experiment in fusing saxophone improvisation with pulsating, hallucinatory effects. The piece itself is somewhat simple, clearly an exploratory piece for a group looking for its footing in ungrounded music, but it shows undeniable promise.

My favorite material arrives on the second cassette. The aural landscapes therein are far less saturated, allowing a colorful array of micro-flora and –fauna to proliferate on the periphery. These sides are calm but dynamic, populated by colonies of pops, shivers, and blips floating blissfully in dim green undertones. These tapes show a stronger allegiance to avant garde Europe than avant basement America, trading bong rips for turtlenecks and laptops. The band’s voice emerges on these tracks. Each gesture is introduced with confidence and the results draw on a clear, peaceful emotional core.

This tape provides an ideal introduction to the varied world of Bodyvehicle. Due to the high production values, copies are terribly limited. But ‘twould be a shame to miss out.

Family Battlesnake
Frozen Womb
[Beyond Repair, 2007]

One of the fast-risers in the UK drone underground, Family Battlesnake has graced numerous CD-Rs over the past couple years, but Frozen Womb marks their first appearance on cassette. Not that this implies heightened expectations. By all accounts, the tape is as disposable as the CD-R; the artist needn’t feel the burden to release a definitive document. Indeed, the low stature of these formats creates small pleasures. Freed from the burden to make a Statement, the artists can attempt a variety of sounds and styles. Lest that seem like mere indulgence, also consider the advantage to the listener, who is able to approach a project from multiple angles and stages of growth, rather than as a monolithic entity. While this approach can lead to hyper-documentation, in moderation it fosters an intimacy between listener and performer that otherwise would not emerge.

If this tape accurately represents Family Battlesnake, they are an airy unit, intent on capturing the dust rising from the pages of dead books written in dead tongues. Like many contemporaries, their tracks have a ritualistic mood, greatly enhanced by the breathy moans filling the aural space. Beyond the vocals, the tracks are focused investigations of simple tones. Guitar notes are stretched into weak, wavering semblances of themselves, gently layered into a thin, menacing ambience. Though the tracks never grow too harsh, an ominous implied violence lingers over them. The sounds are those of quiet suffering in the aftermath of catastrophe: frail groans and achy creaks.

Neatly divided into two tracks on two sides, Frozen Womb creates much from little. While the austerity of the tracks can verge on stasis at times, most of the time Family Battlesnake operates like a good horror movie, giving chills through tension and suspense rather than explicit gore. It’s questionable whether this sound could anchor a full LP, but as a short one-off cassette, it fits the bill nicely.

The North Sea / The Rome Cell
The North Sea / The Rome Cell
[Vilaaaviivivi, 2007]

Ideally, the juxtaposition of artists on a split provides some clue to a common method or inspiration that would otherwise be hard to place. This split between Tulsa’s North Sea and French duo The Rome Cell fits that criteria. Both artists are concerned with the intersection between place and instrument and with the mediation of recording technology. To some degree, both sides are site and even time-specific. The recordings not only acknowledge this fact, but even go to lengths to this limitation.

Whereas the Rome Cell deals more intimately with space, the North Sea’s chief concern is time. His pieces (the project is the solo venture of ultra-prolific Brad Rose, head of Digitalis Industries and contributor to Eastern Fox Squirrels, Corsican Paintbrush, the Golden Oakes, and many other projects) are sparse acoustic guitar ventures sent directly to tape in a variety of outdoor settings. Though the guitar is close-mic’ed, often to the point of distortion, Rose goes to great lengths to capture the serendipitous sound around him. Though it’s unclear whether these recordings are improvised, the pieces harmonize remarkably well with the broader environment. But unlike the endless array of projects incorporating field recordings, the environment maintains its autonomy in these recordings, becoming not just another sound source to be manipulated by the author of the piece, but a fellow musician to be accompanied rather than controlled.

The Rome Cell recorded their pieces under a railroad bridge. They play the space as much as their instruments. Their interlaced, ecstatic guitar lines become all the richer through their reverberations, creating a glorious, thick sound for the listener. Unfortunately, the listener is also limited to a single perspective—that of the recorder. Upon listening to the Rome Cell, one cannot help but think about being there in the tunnel, with the freedom to move in space and hear the sonic changes created by the space. As such, the cassette is a form of paralysis, a single point in a whole field of possible sound events. Luckily, they chose a wonderful point, well worth repeated listens.

By: Bryan Berge
Published on: 2007-02-16
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