Tape Hiss
#005: Unspeakable Acts of Charity and Brutality

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.

Number None w/ Medroxy Progestone Acetate
Damp and Damned
[Sloowtapes, 2005]

Rarely does an object pass through three sets of hands and emerge pure. Making Damp and Damned a film-form Santa Maria, I suppose. The project between Chicago’s Number None and mysterious nowhere man Darren Bauler began nearly two years ago, when the first version of the material that would morph into this cassette slipped the speculative and grabbed hold of time. The recordings then met Mr. Bauler, who performed unspeakable acts of charity and brutality upon them before shipping the remains back to Chicago, whereupon Number None reconstituted the sounds into their final form.

Quite a trip, eh? Poor tape must be tuckered out. But I’ll be damned if this wasn’t recorded yesterday. From what I’d heard prior, Number None delivered measured, somber drone, clean loop exploration, and delicate mood architecture. A sound verging on professional. But here they’ve relaxed, indulged their sense of humor—and even, at times, a sense of camp—and produced a gleeful, grimy horror movie soundtrack. While Damp and Damned may not trump Number None’s best work, its orgiastic destruction, regretful reconstruction, and spooky posing provides a visceral pleasure lacking in the groups more cerebral work.

A shame this was released in December. It’s got Halloween all over it. Ah, well, I guess I can save it for my mad-scientist-lab Haunted House. Side A, “Solar Kraken,” would make a good accompaniment. Ghastly oscillations rising and falling like unnameable neon liquids through coiled rubber tubings, jagged arcs of light and sound splitting the dead dark, and, eventually the lurching rhythm of the reanimated creature plodding over a steel grate. Said creature then runs amok (surprise!), demolishing the track and leaving only a grumbling, crackling pile of ashes.

The B side reverses the process, starting at Ground Zero, and building back up. It’s certainly not the same by any means, but the frame helped shape the sudden violence and aural terror “King of Dead” seemed bent on.

Damp and Damned is a silly, sobering, ghoulish treat. Break out a skeleton costume, paint your face, and prance.

C. Spencer Yeh
Solo Violin 1-8
[Drone Disco, 2005]

Treating four C-10s like a 7” series, Burning Star Core main-and-mostly-only member C. Spencer Yeh brutalizes his violin over eight wildly diverse tracks. Each tape cites violin and objects, and the objects clearly play no small role, as one would be hard-pressed to find much resembling traditional violin sound here. Chamber music it ain’t, and thankfully so, for Yeh would be kicked out or orchestra for treating his instrument so rudely.

These eight pieces are noise curios, odd collections of scrapes, bangs, and squeaks, that would likely fall flat if not for their brevity. But in compact bursts, they come on like sidewalk lunatics, accosting passersby with drooling invective and otherworldly din before raging down the road, leaving onlookers slightly shaken but ultimately entertained. But neither tape nor madman provide pure mirth; they share a lonely, tragic heart that darkens the conscience.

A droner at heart, I prefer the slower, moodier pieces—the hissing vacuum of “1,” the richly timbred mid-range burn of “8,” the alien creaks of “3,” and the hollow void of “4.” The jangly, restless tracks have a way of seeming far longer than their allotted five minutes. “2” reaches the pain threshold in commendably brief time, and “7’ the threshold of boredom. Ultimately, this set won’t appeal to many, but it doesn’t need to. Yeh only requires a core audience of 50 to sell out the lot of these, and given the quality of many of these violin works, he probably reaches much more than that.

Various Artists
Sea and Sea Music Factory
[Not Not Fun, 2005]

I’ve often wondered if I’m critical enough for a critic. Most of my slams are half-hearted, and I reward effort more than I probably should. But the crisis has faded. Sea and Sea Music Factory has restored faith in my faculties. The tape is far from bad—the burgeoning LA undergound scene it documents houses its fair share of unearthed gems—but the line between winners and losers (to use an overly harsh term) looms large.

For every Big Nurse, whose exhilarating, skuzzy-surfer post-punk reminded me why I love rock, there’s a Hello Astronaut, Goodbye Television, who reminds me why I don’t listen to it much. But rock doesn’t fill the time on Sea and Sea. The majority of the tape lands in the hazy space where noise, rock, drone, and Charalambidean musings meet. Of these tracks, Hustler White’s vocal echoes and ritual drumming succeed, as does the decadent, Dead Raven Choir lyricism and Workbench/Hive Mind groan of Treetops. On the wrong side, Robedoor’s noise-by-the-numbers “Norway Swan” fell victim to my high expectations, and Pussygutt’s “Crustacean” squanders its organ-generated tension with plodding riffs.

The stylistic ground covered by this tape is vast indeed. Glorious, light numbers by Solitary Hunter and the Wolf Tracks would sound perfect on alternate-reality AM radio, but they shine far brighter surrounded by noisy murk. Optimists score again with ecstatic droning obscurities from Bobby Birdman and Recognizer.

No names stand out on this compilation, a rare blessing in an information-saturated age. Prepare for the thrills of undiluted discovery. If only for that feeling, Sea and Sea Music Factory transcends its flaws. At its best, it exhorts the listener to hop a Greyhound to the City of Angels to hear the now sound.

By: Bryan Berge
Published on: 2006-01-19
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