Tape Hiss is a (semi) regular column focusing solely on cassette releases. For the uninitiated, this feature was originally run on Stylus Magazine's website, but with Stylus shutting its doors, Bryan Berge is bringing it to Foxy Digitalis. So rejoice and all that, and check out some of these recent happenings in the world of cassette labels.
I like to begin reviews by establishing some kind of frame. Not to pin down the music, but to give the writing direction. No such luck this time around. "Pink Thorn," an ambient release from the normally prickly Impregnable, presents a number of possible angles, but—like all good ambient music—it drifts outside the cage of words. The tape evokes colors, moods; a wide range of impressions on the periphery of the mind that not only elude but actually suppress description. By minute forty, the listener is left a limp drooler, not particularly inclined to unnecessary action of any kind, much less the analytic hoop-jumping from which criticism is made.
But rather than dump a load of euphoric semi-syllables Finnegan’s Wake-style, I’ll have try to escape "Pink Thorn's" anesthetic pull. The A-side barely darkens the clouds; for the most part, you’ll find pure synth ecstasy: a warm sea of bobbing pink tones, some inside-the-womb primeval completeness shit. “Ornament/ Trophy” features string-like swells and gorgeous sterile oscillations (ala Keith Fullerton Whitman’s "Playthroughs") that gently bleed into a ponderous bass note that complicates the mood, introducing just the slightest note of menace. “Swallow Its Stem” is more elegiac, resembling vintage Stars of the Lid with its aqueous sheen and slow-motion sadness.
The B-side reintroduces us to noise. “Attraction/ Lust” was originally released as a C15 by the stellar Callow God label, and its harsher roots show. The listener is immediately scoured by a squall of rough, wobbly static, which is slowly undercut by pure tones that now have the vacuous pallor of sci-fi sound effects. It edges into the bass exploration of “Mature Scent,” which—while closer to the A-side material—maintains the brooding intensity characteristic of Impregnable’s darker material.
All told, this is a revealing turn for Jeff Witscher of Impregnable. He clearly has a talent for this sort of work, and he has lots of space left to explore. I just hope he doesn’t produce too much of this stuff. We’ll be reduced to a gaggle of grinning catatonics.
Time Life has trod an odd route since their first tape popped out of Night People several moons back. That one, "Gripstone," pushed the operatic drift of Heidi Diehl over the corroded trash-can clutter of Non Horse. But before you could say ‘psych-drone,’ a few lilting guitar lines made proceedings positively (post-post-)pop, and tapeheadz were scratching their noggins as to what the notion of a ‘crossover smash’ would mean in our parochial part of town.
But lo! "Double Blackberry" finds the group disappearing into the baffling fog of Non Horse’s tape loops. On this one, Diehl’s vocals lack the clarity of Time Life’s other work, often blearing into the mystifying source manipulations that are G. Lucas Crane’s bread and butter. On the whole, it’s an interesting direction. Diehl provides some tonal sugar to sweeten the otherwise morose fugue, and her melodic sensibility allows Crane the freedom to fetch some seriously weird sample from his dungeon. Guitars are pedal-grinded into a bleary paste, and the results sound much like a Non-Horse solo recording with some dusty chanteuse cassettes folded in.
If I sound a trifle disappointed, it’s because Diehl has the range to be an amazing vocalist, and I’d hoped that Time Life would become a bizarre showcase for her singing. The world could use more diva/drone hybrids. Hell, the world could use at least ONE diva/drone hybrid. But "Double Blackberry" zigs where I zag, lodging itself in hauntological limbo. While I won’t grow tired of this sound anytime soon—it’s dense, mysterious, and infinitely variable—I crave something different from Diehl and Crane. But who knows? Crews mutate so fast these days that TL’s recent material on Blackest Rainbow and Arbor may well shift back my way.
Waiting for Motorcycles
The Offices of Moore and Moore
Some releases fit their niche, and simply could not exist in another form without the music suffering for the change. This tape by Clovis Heald is a good example. It’s an unassuming batch of Morr-inflected bedhead beats that moseys between hip-hop and sweetheart downtempo. Were this to be released in a proper form by Mush or Anticon—which seems a possibility, given the guest spots by Odd Nosdam and Joni Wolf of Why?—the response would be a collective shrug. The arrangements are sparse, the melodies pretty but simple, and the beats solid but direct. And while the B-side (recorded live at a benefit for Dax Jones of Subtle) stretches the form and manipulates silence in a way rarely encountered in these genres, it doesn’t exactly break boundaries. In short, "Waiting for Motorcycles" would be another release to toss onto the heap.
Does that mean it deserves the same treatment on tape? While the music is the same, I’d argue no, because the expectations for the media are entirely different. The strength of this tape is its warmth, its self-effacing intimacy. Such a fragile and ineffable feature easily disappears in a full commercial run. As an audience, we expect a certain degree of professionalism from a CD. And by that, I don’t mean skill exactly. I mean a sheen, a distance, an assurance that this is not something done by just anyone
"Waiting for Motorcycles" gives the opposite impression. It doesn’t boldly proclaim or shift paradigms or any of that shit. It’s the work of a nice guy in a bedroom or basement or makeshift studio making beats with friends for friends. In this case, tape hiss is a magic bullet. It’s the rain outside the window, the blanket lit by a flashlight from beneath, the cornered whispers in a cozy county library.
Feel free to call my bluff on this one, especially if Isan’s not your bag. By its nature, this release is not for everyone anyway. But those with a soft spot for softness will go gooey over this.
please submit any tapes to be reviewed to the regular Foxy Digitalis address (found HERE). Thanks.