Tape Hiss
#022: Paranoia and Discontent

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.

Serfs / The Whole Voyald
Serfs / The Whole Voyald
[Hearing Aid]

Sometimes a man sets to wondering about farm life. Late sunlight falling skew on swaying wheat leaves, dim moonlight flashing on taut guitar strings as fieldhands gather to pass a few lazy hours after a long day—sounds peachy set against the mundane stresses and surreal horrors of this life. And, yeah, that picture’s too good to be true, but, on some plane, dreams never lie.

A quick judgment says the Serfs feel this push/pull between reality and dream. The name alone creates a mixed message. Despite the obvious moral lapses of the system, serfdom enjoys a glows with nostalgia for a lost purity Chekhovian and vaguely tragic, an image incongruous with the brutality of the Revolution. A similar conflict exists in the British duo’s music. On their side of the split, the Serfs dabble in string-scraped tension, in aural recreations of such paranoia and discontent, before ecstatically embracing a countrified dream. The ascent to joy is sloppy and stumbling, tossing off and colliding stunning raga lines over a held drone that eases to harmony. A second guitar enters gently, like a deer into a clearing, slowly winding around the first and growing playful. Finally the two find abandon, and the tape ends in a buzzing shimmer of joy, the lasting impression one of wildlife at play and life unfolding in natural time. Undoubtedly, there’s blood in their earth, but the Serfs tend to focus on that which grows from it.

The Whole Voyald—despite featuring the folks from Serfs—is a different beast altogether. They lift from the word go, aiming for high-strung guitar moves and high-pitched drone accompaniments. Unlike the Serfs’, their side pushes for extremities, searching for the meaning of Voyald—a portmanteau of void, voyage, and world coined by Saroyan. Their voyage is somewhat bleak, closer to a gambit with a whirling abyss than a view of an epic vista, but though the journey is often bleak, one can sense the shut, lofted eyes with which this was played, an invitation to a rapture that almost arrives in the breathless final minutes of the cassette.

Sun Circle / Wind-Up Bird
Sun Circle / Wind-Up Bird

Usually those with an affinity for tapes embrace the frailty of the medium. Drone and noise are nothing if not texture, which is to say the aesthetics of the genres cohere with the grainy character of the cassette. For their heliocentric meditations, however, Sun Circle requires a clarity not normally associated with tapes. The duo of Greg Davis and Zach Wallace produces stately, vibrant drone lost in sitar-like fugues and Stockhausen/Part/Reich-flavored phases and phrases that betray their academic background. Against the general untidiness of the cassette world, such elegance is positively majestic, and one suspects these two are bounding to bigger pastures soon.

Sun Circle’s breadth of sound is breathtaking, likely to pin the headphoned to their beds. Though this tape is sold out at source, several CD-Rs are and will soon be available that—if this tape is any indication—come highly recommended.

Wind-Up Bird partners more naturally with the cassette. Joseph Grimm—brother of folk siren Larkin Grimm—dwells on the corruption of his pure tones, seeking the emotional resonance of interference and decay. With CDs on Music Fellowship and (soon) Spekk to his name, Grimm is no stranger to the finer details of electro-acoustic composition. Those doubting the emotional heft of academic music owe this a listen.

Tones ebb and flow like blood in old arteries, propelling an aching life bloated with memory. Over a crisp burbling, as of flaking tape and patchy time, Grimm introduces plaintive vocalic notes, creating a chorus of searchers in blighted light. The scene slips from touching to haunting as voices converge to eerie unison, a mood further intensified by the appearance of darting keys and squealing peals. The intensity never relents, and the finale—the whole mass is engulfed by crackled distortion—is a frenzied collapse rather than a resolution.

All told, this is among the better cassettes I’ve heard all year, one unafraid to approach its influences—the true giants of the avant garde.

If a Tree Falls in the Forest, Can We Record It?
[L'animaux Tryst (Field) Recordings]

Too much space up in Maine. People are liable to think no one’s watching them, that they can do what they please. Seems an unfortunate subset already believes exactly that, and that Maine has spawned a few experimentalists of a rude and deranged type. If a Tree Falls in the Forest, Can We Record It? gathers these liberated souls to share the needles of pungent pine and the caps of damp fungi. An oddity down to its torn-and-glued collage art, this tape creates unlikely collisions and hints at a scene far-flung (at least stylistically) over the massive state.

A few acts are of docile nature. Aphelion Shelter opens the proceedings with warm flows that quickly give way to jittery dada cutups of ID M Theftable and Crank Sturgeon. Though the schizophrenia of these two is initially off-putting, their pieces are surprisingly composed considering the mania therein. Pine Tree State Mind Control follows with rolling feedback noise indebted to Dead Machines and their ilk but not wholly ineffective. Battle of Polar Bear Teeth concludes the A-side with delirious mechanical birdsong and bizarre oscillations, something of a sped-up nature scene as viewed beside a noisy power generator.

The B-side features the bigger names, most of which surfaced in conjunction with Portland’s Time Lag Records. Labelhead Matthew La Joie’s Cursillistas project opens with distant, spacey folk-in-a-vacuum that slides nicely into the prayerful electric guitar lines with which Drona Parva (solo venture of Time-Lag Nemo Bidstrup) greets the dawn. The tape ends with the stuffy, shaky ramblings of Visitations and the stuttering, not entirely confident gestures of Bad Bus and Nancy Scott.

The compilation literally and figuratively covers a lot of ground, making a review a dizzying process. It’s difficult to mention the relevant names, let alone do each one justice. Definitely best to find a copy of this (or the shiny flat version on Avant Garde Farm) and feel it out for yourself.

Egyptian Conscription

With the harried release schedule down at Arbor, it’s surprising that Mike Pollard finds time for music of his own as Treetops. What’s not surprising, given his immersion in these twilit musical nether regions, is the eclecticism of the project. With a chest full of noisemakers—the tape screams of a clutter of pads, synths, guitars, and pedals strewn over stained carpet—Pollard tries his hand at a wide range of styles. The tracks are scattered over the tape like islands in a sea of hiss, but while one has to be nimble on the rewind to find them all, buried treasure abounds.

Amidst the chaos and searching, some patterns emerge as helpful signposts for the befuddled. The first side’s the busier of the two, with Pollard unloading on all fronts, matching bobbing synth shrieks to barely-there guitar plucks, chants to neon whirlygig FX and aged ,earthy crumbles. While affairs often come unhinged, that’s the point. These tracks sprawl, but they visit interesting terrain with the glee of the natural traveler—happy to be there but itching to move on.

Pollard finds his restraint on the B side. These pieces pare the excess of the first side, exchanging clamor for composure and gobbledygook for grammar. ‘Tis debatable whether that approach sounds better—different is the word I’m looking for, maybe as a mild euphemism. As far as youthful works go, Egyptian Conscription shows a lot of promise. At the very least, Pollard has staked a lot of territory in need of further exploration.

By: Bryan Berge
Published on: 2007-03-16
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