Music | Bittles’ Magazine: The music column from the end of the world
The humble cassette has had a lot of bad press over the years. From unspooling tragedies, to the fact that the song you want to hear is always on the other side, to those who see analogue as an obsolete technology, it seems no one is prepared to give the tape a break. Yet, over the last few years the cassette has been making something of a comeback. By JOHN BITTLES
For instance Cassette Store Day is now a highlight of many a music fan’s year, while the string of cassette-only labels has gone some way to raise the profile of this medium. And there is something undeniably anti-establishment and downright cool about the tape. To up and coming indie bands using old tape machines can be a cheap and functional way to record music. Elitists and LA scenesters also find that producing a limited run of them will highlight to a previously unfazed public just how underground and now they are.
In the US for example, the cassette is in rude health. For instance Cassette Store Day is now in its third year and has done much to re-energise the humble cassette in this vast continent. This year’s event was held on the 17th of October and featured in-store gigs, special concerts and special releases by Girl Band, Gengahr, Radio Soulwax, Spector, The Maccabees and more.
Yet, it’s not just the indie kids and those of foppish fringe that have been utilizing the power of the tape as a force for good. Many artists and labels in the dance community have grabbed the DiY ethos afforded by the tape to experiment, annoy, and try out new things. For instance, this September esteemed techno imprint R&S releases 55 5s by Sporting Life, its first cassette in nearly two decades. In October meanwhile Pye Corner Audio adopted his Head Technician moniker for Zones, a killer six track cassette which was limited to a mere 150 copies. Containing woozy techno for the unsound mind, this is something well worth tracking down.
In the US, Europe and the UK a string of cassette focused labels have sprung up which use the cheap recording techniques afforded by tapes to release music which may not be commercial, but which really needs to be heard. Imprints such as Sacred Tapes, Local Action, Ecstatic, Astro:Dynamics and Not Not Fun have run wild with the freedoms offered by cassettes to release fresh, exciting albums and EPs which may not rock your local Oceana, but which will sound amazing when listened to alone, or with like-minded friends.
One cassette well worth dusting out your old tape deck for is Bronco by Sasha Conda which is full of gorgeously woozy electronic pop. The tape is the result of MJ MJ Records head Sasha Conda working with writer Patrick Scott-Walsh III, and is out now on the aforementioned Not Not Fun. Through soaring melodies, vintage synths and experimental flourishes, the album’s seven tracks form a strange and alien sounding narrative which takes the listener deep into a fantastical and unusual aural world.
Another cassette-based release to rave about is the vaporwave classic, Dream_111 by Nmesh and Telepath. It is the latest release on the London-based label Dream Catalogue who have long been a champion of the humble cassette. Over the last few years they have released gorgeous ambiance, vivid sci-fi fantasies, sonic oddities and futuristic electronica by the likes of R23X, Vaperror, 2814 and more. Like Vangelis‚ celebrated soundtrack to Blade Runner, the label’s output is full of rain-drenched melancholia and oriental futurism. Available on the label’s Bandcamp page now, Dream_111 is haunting and exquisite, with the album’s 21 tracks conjuring images of a future Tokyo where everyone is lost and alone. Beautifully affecting and emotionally haunting, the music reaches right out of the speakers to caress the soul.
In my humble opinion though, one of the labels which has done the most to raise the standing of the cassette is the Not Not Fun sister label 100% Silk. Since its inception in 2001 the imprint has released a string of quality tapes which have high production values, are highly collectable and are funky as fuck. Label-head Amanda Brown perfectly illustrated their ethos in an earlier interview: »I love cassettes. I have a tape player in my car. I want to hear Silk on the go, that would make my drives through the LA side streets so triumphant and chic.«
This autumn saw the imprint release not one, but three fantastic albums on cassette. The first of these is the lush, downtempo electro pop on Trans Pacific by Mr. Bronson which is full of gorgeous slabs of laid-back house. From the Mr. Fingers-style groove on Spiralling Forward, the nu disco of Back On Track, to the proto-house of Underneath Your Self the tape constantly catches the listener by surprise. Dawn Of The Next Cycle by Roche meanwhile is full of trippy, mid-tempo grooves which will satisfy the inner house-head in anyone. Combining the best of Detroit techno with 80s style house the LP will get you dancing, woo hard to please hipsters and win you new friends.
Best of the three though is the stripped back acid of Virex by Nackt. Johnny Igaz adopts his Nackt guise to bring us seven dreamy house tracks which push the 303 to the fore. The album investigates a loose, contemplative side of acid which worms its way straight into both heart and brain. Recalling the emotional depth found in the work of Tin Man or Recondite, Virex occasionally touches on the sublime. The title-track is a fab slice of classic-sounding house, Full Coat shoves the 303s right in your face, Black Widow is a funk-fuelled dream, while Husk is so beautiful it caused a tear to trickle from my eye. By managing to inject a haunting sense of melancholia and feeling into his tracks Nackt has created a body of work which grabs the listener by the ear and refuses to let go.
With cassette decks going for peanuts in your local charity shop, junk stall, or car boot sale there really is no excuse for not giving in to temptation to revisit this neglected medium today. It will make the people at Apple, Spotify and Amazon unhappy, girls will dig you, and you will feel like you belong to some secret gang. So don’t hesitate in wiping the dust off the machine, rewinding the spool to the start, closing your eyes and gingerly pressing play. But don’t blame me when your favourite tape gets eaten alive!