Tape Hiss
#023: Late-Night, Red-Eyed

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.

Medroxy Progesterone Acetate
[Black Horizons]

Though Darren Bauler claims no deep meaning lies behind the name, Medroxy Progesterone Acetate is an unwieldy enough moniker that one can’t get past it without some explanation. Here’s mine: so MPA is the chemist’s term for the drug Provera (no copyright disrespect, big pharm), a chemical synthetic of a female hormone that blocks the flow of estrogen. Let loose in the bloodstream, this foreign substance is received as if it were its organic counterpart, and the body responds accordingly. In loose parallel, Bauler’s MPA is also a laboratory recreation of the natural, in this case a meticulously produced depiction of a strange primeval perceptual state, a sensory flood unstructured by the categories by which we make sense of experience.

The lab comparison is not entirely metaphorical. Bauler begins an MPA piece with a host of environmental recordings—of drains, power stations, and empty fields rather than the usual birdsongs and river sounds. These tapes are then processed/ warped with solvents, magnets, and “modified recording equipment.” The altered medium is then integrated with home-made electronics and waspy synths to create an impenetrable mass of whirling sound. Fragments of the original recordings enter and recede, as do mystery voices, hidden music-box melodies, and uvular murmurs possibly human in origin. Despite this imposing density, the sound is constantly fluctuating, and few figures return after their introduction.

As with Matthew Bower and Marcia Bassett’s Hototogisu project, there exists a Zen-like quality to the cacophony of MPA. While the noise is ever-present and often harsh, the music exists in an eternal moment. Through sheer depth and sonic overload, both artists seek to demolish time, to reconnect our everyday lives to the pulsing oneness underlying the artificial distinctions created by our minds. While some receive this idea aurally as Om, Bauler and company hear in the universe a more chaotic compression of being and becoming, perhaps less directly religious but still spiritual in its late-night, red-eyed fanaticism.

But to approach such unity as a human is to edge to madness. And to listen to MPA is to dive directly into that madness. Bauler’s become a Dr. Frankenstein of sorts, and his tapes an audio projection of the mind of the monster overwhelmed by the flickering tumult of torches and townspeople. When a mind cannot cope, and necessary boundaries break, the senses don’t bleed; they hemorrhage.

Reticent to Manifest
[Abandon Ship]

Everybody’s got an irrational devotion. Mine’s to the tape. I despise CDRs. They feel too disposable, too close to their digital origins, and they tend to come packaged in thin, flimsy paper. Too often, they lack that critical third dimension needed to convince me that we’ve a musical object, a thing in-an-of-itself beyond the music contained within. Mine is the attitude of a collector, a person enamored by pretty things I can hold in my hand. I’d be the first to admit my idiocy.

A primary criticism being that I haven’t yet heard (VxPxC). Their recordings are proliferating like rabbits in springtime, and the critical praise has been growing along with them like some piggy-backing parasite population. Heretofore, these recordings have all solidified into CDRs, which I haughtily ignored. This was a bad decision. The disheveled jams of (VxPxC) have a joyful, airy quality that rewards repeated listens and manifests the passion for music that the Los Angeles trio clearly feels. By rule, all (VxPxC) documents are one-take affairs, an improvised stew of electrified drones, wind melodies, accordion swagger, and buoyant bass bump. Though some editing surely helps Reticent to Manifest stay focused, the tape retains the flowing, organic aura of good improvisation.

Nicely divided into two pieces per side, Reticent to Manifest exhibits tensions between form and freedom, between melody and texture, that make for an unpredictable listen. The A-side finds (VxPxC) at their loosest. The wheezing accordion of a moonlit absinthe swiller leads “Swooning,” trailed by a countrified acoustic raga and a sunglasses-at-night-styled electric guitar shuffle. Each player maintains freedom of exploration in the track, with the new directions of each instrument struggling against the gravity of group play, until the group collapses back onto itself in a woozy, half-speed flourish. The follower, “Down to Nothing” is a sparse affair, more of an interlude between the longer, epic tracks sandwiching it. The most overtly beautiful piece on the tape, “Down to Nothing” flirts with songcraft, its spacey incantations and lurking lead guitar forming a shadowy, unheimlich rock tune.

The opener on the B-side, “Icy Spectral Fingers,” though characterized by a poignant, plinking keyboard line, represents a victory for drone. The melody is ingested and regurgitated by a crackly low-end grumble, which though not as soft on the ears, has a muscular urgency to it that dominates the piece. This victory is consolidated on the closer, “Hard to Stand,” a disorienting swirl of vocal flutter and ominous guitar exploration, that, while still a product of group dynamics, congeals into an immersive whole.

From my experience at least, Reticent to Manifest is an excellent introduction to the band. For those so inclined, much of the group’s output is available on CDR and digitally on their website, and for primitives like myself, they’ve a tape coming soon on the excellent Buried Valley label. All transmissions should be eagerly anticipated.

Xenis Emputae Travelling Band
[Beyond Repair]

Xenis Emputae Travelling Band is the alias of Phil Legard, an Englishman deeply engrossed in the Druidic past of his native land. XETB claims to channel the spirit of historic sites, where much of his material is recorded. While I certainly don’t doubt that history leaves a psychic footprint on a place, or that people can experience this condensation of time, memory, and emotion—whether that experience be ‘real’ or imaginary (if that matters)—I find this to be an incomplete description. XETB is certainly no empty vessel or mere medium; on Gamaaea at least, Legard is also deeply engaged with finding the soul of the instrument, its relationship with place, time and performer. While his melancholy guitar arrangements have been explored by countless windswept British folkies over the years, the most interesting material on Gamaaea probes the harmonium or reed organ.

If he intends to channel a space, the harmonium provides the perfect mechanism for such a process. It shapes and plays the very air of the surrounding environment, transmogrifying it into beautiful, brittle wheeze. The sound is one of mortal fragility, something easily forgotten and always on the verge of ceasing. The instrument has long been prized for this grim quality—from Nico’s dire ruminations to David Tibet’s mystic apocalyptica. Legard takes a more delicate approach. His harmonium works—gently complemented by pennywhistle, guitar, and a light falsetto—glow with reverence. He treats the instrument as a gardener would a rare flowering plant.

It would be easy to treat this release as another bead on the freak-folk necklace first strung by Incredible String Band and Vashti Bunyan. Legard makes no secret of his love of folk, but his music is far too personal to reduce to a genre description. While the chic may have moved on from such a sound, the passionate feel no need to retreat from themselves.

Live at Extra Sucky
[Jelle Crama]

Belgium seems like a sweet place to be right now. For example, they have events like Extra Sucky—gatherings of happy-go-lucky youngsters who celebrate strange music and strange art by playing strange music and making strange art. Nothing wrong with that! This tape documents a risky collaborative endeavor from the festival. Different musicians arrived to perform one-off gigs under a made-up band name. The idea could’ve easily gone awry. Perhaps on the other tapes in the series, it did, but Laserquest features three sure-fire winners in Laurent Cartuyvels (best known for his work in the drone group R.O.T. and for his Veglia label), Ignatz (whose stellar second album on Kr-aa-ak deserves your attention), and the unknown-to-me Koen Vandenhoudt.

These three certainly aren’t shy around one another. The twenty minutes of Laserquest are ripping, unbridled displays of the dual-guitar-and-drummer setup that gleefully forgo subtlety for speed-psych bombast. Feedback riffery and amplifier worship abound, and the guitarists aspire to the godly. Unfortunately the drummer is made merely mortal, relegated to a murky thud deflated in the mix, despite his lofty aspirations. It’s a straight jam session, but one conducted the right away, and one I’d be happy to bootleg.

Luckily Jelle Crama already did the work for me, with a sweet silkscreen cover to boot. But that’s not all! The backside preserves the original tape—excerpts from the symphonies of Gustav Mahler. How exquisite! Despite their wacky trappings, the good folks of Extra Sucky are nothing if not tasteful.

By: Bryan Berge
Published on: 2007-04-04
Comments (3)

Today on Stylus
October 31st, 2007
October 31st, 2007
Recently on Stylus
October 30th, 2007
October 29th, 2007
October 30th, 2007
October 29th, 2007
Recent Music Reviews
Recent Movie Reviews