Tape Hiss
#021: Musical Orbits

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.

Fifth Sun Visions
[Not Not Fun]

Certain musics exist in a forgotten past. Chief among them is that of the next-gen finger-pickers—your Jack Roses and James Blackshaws—whose music maps lost Appalachian towns; dew-dropped prairies unblemished by billboards and the arterial scars of transit; and a hazy, mystical East anointed with rose water and kohl. Part of the joy of such bygone raga-folk-whatever is the yearning sincerity of this vision, the possibility that the player is not merely paying homage to an old reality, but conjuring it anew through performance, using sound as a lever to separate some pure mental space from the vagaries of the secular.

Steve Gunn is no stranger to these musical orbits. As sole member of Moongang and one-third of the mammoth GHQ (along with the considerably higher-profile Marcia Bassett and Pete Nolan), Gunn has developed a musical language that draws heavily on the folk tradition, while pulling it from the sepia envelope of the past. Whereas GHQ amplifies the underlying buzz of the raga into an anachronistic approximation of hep noise, Moongang eschews drone abstractions in favor of a bracing blend of folk-psych gestures and metal ghoulery. Despite the touch of fantasy implied by such genre-hopping, Fifth Sun Visions remains of the world; its sonics do not so much create an alternate history as commune with the noise of the present, represented here by urban field recordings of construction racket and crowd roar.

Of the four numbered pieces, the first seems the most typical, but it best lays out Gunn’s modus operandi. In it, a warm breeze of moans carries jittery jackhammers and crumbling pavement, while a melancholic acoustic line unwinds beneath. Without the found sound, the piece is a straight-laced loner psych number, nice enough but too reminiscent of scores of others. But with the urban noise as context, the piece is far more interesting. This genre often suggests a transparent relationship between sound and performer; i.e. a rural cabin-dweller expresses his mystical natural philosophies and pastoral alienation via guitar and four-track. Gunn, however, scrambles the semiotics; his music is an inversion, a response, or a warning.

The second and third pieces find Gunn dabbling directly in metal. On the former, the elongated shuddering riffs of doom meet Dylanesque harmonicas, reminding one of another Dylan—Dylan Carson of Earth. Like Carson’s recent Hex, Gunn pairs sludge with country tones, finding a darkness in the heart of both. The latter is perhaps the worst on the cassette, owing to my distaste for the tortured, sibilant vocals that too often sully perfectly good metal songs. Needless to say, there’s a healthy dose on this track, and though not nearly as theatrical as most metal vocals, they kill my buzz a bit. In the closer, a pulsing cyclical drone—like the beam of a lighthouse whirling about the dark—anchors a dizzying collage of field recordings. The distinction between music and place found in earlier pieces vanishes here, as if Gunn has reached some meditative John Cage-ian fusion of the two.

On Fifth Sun Visions, we find a performer grappling with the present, and with the images and tropes associated with his music. Gunn struggles to create transcendent music that doesn’t transcend, that remains firmly situated in the world from which it emerged as another voice in the cacophony. While subversive escapism has its place, Moongang seeks neither the utopia of folk or the dystopia of metal.

Empty Vessel
World of Dew

Roy Tatum is keeping busy. A member of West coast drone and experimental acts Quintana Roo, Black Monk, and Insaniacs, Tatum also records and releases a slew of solo material while running the wonderful Buried Valley label. With releases on BV, Not Not Fun, Black Horizons, and Arbor, Tatum’s Changeling project has garnered much acclaim, but this solo release as Empty Vessel has slipped by quietly.

Wherefore the name change? After all, even drone freaks need some brand continuity, right? Which is exactly what Tatum’s protecting here, because this tape couldn’t come from Changeling, at least not on the crystalline skyward path that project’s been ascending lately. For every golden drop and wave of shimmer undulating in recent Changeling work, Empty Vessel adds an extra decibel and flange of distortion. Vessel is the tortured Changeling, the mishandled, underfed counterpart to Changeling’s aetheric wunderkind.

Within such opposition lies a similarity, a common ground that allows for polarization. Both Changeling and Empty Vessel follow a circular path, meandering around an oozing, ambient core with brief excursions outside its radius. In the case of Empty Vessel, the core consists of granular, churning turbines, and the departures of vengeful electronic abuse. While never venturing fully into harsh noise, Empty Vessel is certainly caught in its corrupt influence.

This tape is a classic grower. First listen turns up a dirty, ragged carpet of sullied tone. But upon closer inspection, the grime on the surface covers fractal arabesques, delicately rendered miniatures, and beautiful muted oranges and reds.

[Tectonic Rainbow]

Like most reviewers and fanatics, I wedge music into every available space in my life, but only for an hour at most per day am I allowed a pure listen undiluted by the day’s demands. As befits a rare commodity, I value these slots, and am known to schedule them a couple days in advance. But with the bleary bedtime bells of “Land,” Reggaee jumped the queue and screwed the routine. Largely the project of Florian Tositti—an associate of the amazing Ruralfaune label and key cog in the French noise circles—Reggaee crafts nocturnal sound, by turns somnambulant and narcotic.

Following the aforementioned dream smear opener, Tositti launches into the whispered guitar and roomtone “Iovonl,” with a low-slung melodic line that tiptoes gently like a child in a creaky, sleeping house. The second seeps into “lude” with a barely perceptible transition—just another blurred boundary to add to sleep and consciousness, dawn and dusk—before ebbing into hiss on the first side.

Usually the headphones have slipped off by this time, and my dormant lobes are whirling their own spools, but if I last until the B side, “Fonta” jerks me awake. With an oversaturated drone verging on noise and howls more tweaked than tranqued, Tositti undoes in a short few minutes the eerie lullabies so delicately constructed earlier. Borderline abrasive and literally eye-opening, the piece prevents Reggaee from lapsing into pure sleep music, a category that places function over form. Closer “Chlore” waxes liturgical, centered on cathedral-arched vocal reverberations and the subtle contributions of Vincent Fribault. The piece is darkly medieval, nightmare music for repentant monks in claustrophobic cells, whose feverish prayers vie with distant footfalls, owl calls, and mildewed drips for the last waking moments of God’s indifferent attention.

By: Bryan Berge
Published on: 2007-03-05
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