Tape Hiss
#019: Dub Noise

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.

Altar of Flies
Dead Air / Broken Wings
[Self-Released, 2006]

Dub has thoroughly infiltrated modern music, so it shouldn’t be surprising to come across Altar of Flies, a dub/noise hybrid. The two cultures seem to clash, but perhaps they differ less than image implies. Dub developed in a tumultuous urban environment, surrounded by industrial debris, senseless violence, discarded humanity, and the absurdities of power—long objects of morbid fascination for noiseniks. In other words, physical violence serves as a context for dub and a thematic focus for noise. While the nature of the relationship to real-life violence differs for the two genres, they offer a similar response to violence: a world of pure sound.

The aesthetic difference between the two genres lies in their proximity to bloodshed, decay, and the like. Dub provides a needed alternative to highly politicized reggae. Its message: relax and fall into sound. The first dubplates blueprinted a new, immersive echo chamber, a stress-free simulation of often-dangerous physical spaces. Noise, however, is largely made and heard by male, middle-class members of successful industrial nations. Motivated by this disjunction, noise acts as a visceral sculpture of violence, an attempt to remind audience and artist that despite the sanitization of their daily lives, violence and power still constitute reality. Noise often fetishizes violence, precisely because noise artists live so far from it.

Altar of Flies (a solo project from Sweden’s Mattias Gustafsson) wisely focuses mostly on sonics, though the requisite morbid images abound. The boundaries of the tape are grainy and crumbling, akin to a rusty warehouse that amplifies and echoes the sounds within it. Every sonic gesture reverberates in this environment. Most are sudden and high-pitched—the whine of wind cut by shattered windows, the piercing calls of rats searching red-eyed in the dark—though Gustafsson makes great use of relatively soothing metallophonic percussion. Like dub, these sounds recede to a vanishing point, but they do not simply fade; rather, they corrode as they enter the toxic climate, becoming distorted and base until they mercifully disappear.

In another gesture to dub, Dead Air/Broken Wings makes liberal use of stereo-panning, jumping between channels in a woozy, nauseating rhythm. It’s an interesting touch; by preventing the listener from completely sinking into the paranoid soundscape, it undermines the very aesthetic of dub from which it is derived and adds an extra layer of separation between audience and artist. This effect, among others, points to the compositional and conceptual acumen of Gustafsson. All told, he creates an inaccessible world that no one would be willing to inhabit anyways.

Brothers of the Occult Sisterhood
[American Grixxly, 2006]

Something of the flagship project of the explosively productive Australian collective Musicyourmindwillloveyou, Brothers of the Occult Sisterhood have only slowly percolated onto the American continent, and in the most inauspicious of ways. Beyond their one pro-pressed CD, Goodbye on Digitalis, this free-psych group has popped up only on obscure CDR and cassette labels. Each of their releases, however, begs for wider distribution, and Mutact is no exception.

Comparisons to a host of jam bands are not completely out of line, keeping in mind that the tie-dyed stalwarts act as a hopelessly staid version to which Brothers of the Occult Sisterhood are delightfully unheimlich. Some bands talk about frying their brains, or encourage their fans to do so, but others actually are fried, and their sonic psychosis scares away potential imitators. Such is the case of Brothers of the Occult Sisterhood.

A-side blazers “Skull Aperture” and “Our Glorious Transubstantion” flirt with free-folk bucolia, but no matter how welcoming the wind-blown instruments and how nice the melodic structure, the band layers a frightening wealth of instrumentation over top. These layers destabilize the base, rendering these songs a warped facsimile of the standard folk tune. The guitar work is appropriately fuzzed-out for the psyche lovers looking to expand their collection, but the drumming plays its own frenetic time, speeding into and out of spaces, alive with a jittery fear of the mania that envelops the tracks.

The B-side opener, “Snakes Grow Fin Fingers,” operates more rigidly. The song follows a propulsive, Kraut-like beat that slowly accelerates to frenzy, dragging only with it wheezy electronics and lightly plucked strings nearly collapse from the harried pace. The drums finally withdraw, however, leaving the remaining instrument to stagger in their wake, bleary and weak from the workout, before a pattering of percussion returns for a halting, uneasy finale. Unsurprisingly, finisher “Mournful Tentacles” takes a different tack. Faint, echoic cymbals pester swaths of violin noise, as woodwinds cold-wind drift through the eerie space. It’s near-ambient, and admirable in its appreciation of space, especially given the claustrophobia of earlier tracks.

Time and time again, Brothers of the Occult Sisterhood have slipped free from classification. As the limited-release world crowds with hordes of new acts, a great temptation exists to develop a signature sound for the sake of differentiation. BOTOS has cornered the most versatile and intriguing of guises: the chameleon, capable of transforming into anything over release, but consistently good.

By: Bryan Berge
Published on: 2007-01-26
Comments (6)

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