For the adventurous music fan, the cassette underground remains increasingly difficult to ignore – and here are 20 stand-up reasons why.
Each month, Brad Rose, poobah over at Digitalis Recordings, reviews the essential releases emerging from the circuit in his Caught on Tape column. Although most of these records drifted further under the radar than a furtive angler fish, some rank up there with the best music released all year, anywhere, in any format.
The following are Brad’s picks of the year, from #20 to #1 – and if you’ve heard them all, we’ll gobble our bowlers. Turntable’n’axe combos, French coldwave, an album of Scientist refixes…these are the 20 best cassettes released in the last 12 months.
More 2014 End Of Year features:
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I am a sucker for projects that do a great job of mixing cold electronics and spoken word – a rarity these days. Ruth White’s The Flowers Of Evil is the pièce de résistance in this area, and while AU+ share some similarities, there’s also a strong minimal wave element at play. Emily may be a slight 16 minutes long, but each track leaves an impression, with closer ‘Room’ hitting the hardest. The short running time lends itself to repeated listens. More, please.
19. SUZI ANALOGUE
Chills + Thrills
One of these days, the inimitable Suzi Analogue is going to drop a proper debut LP and it’s going to be amazing. This Chills + Thrills EP is further proof of her unique voice, collecting some of her best songs from the past few years in one place. ‘Jump Rope’ has been on her SoundCloud for ages, and every time I’ve listened to it, I’ve tried to figure out why she’s not already a household name. The simple, infectious rhythm and overbearing bass provide the perfect jumping off point for Analogue’s intoxicating layered vocals. ‘See It All’ is steeped in urgency with frenetic synths running up and down the track, but at the centre of it all is Suzi Analogue’s voice. It cuts through glass.
Yeah, the ‘80s synth thing has been done to death in the past few years. We all get it. However, last year I became obsessed with the Aphasia label and the various artists surrounding it (namely Starforce and Perterubator), and D/A/D (aka Zach Robinson) fits perfectly into that neon world. The Construct is incredibly authentic and sincere, and consistently shows off Robinson’s impressive grasp of melody. So many of the ’80s revivalists are doing the whole thing with such an obnoxious amount of irony that I can’t be bothered, but D/A/D knows what’s up. One listen to the insanely catchy ‘Love Will Make You Stay’, a collaboration with USA Gold and Sharaya Mikael, and you’ll either be throwing up or in heaven. I’m the latter, of course, and once the tune gets to the overwrought guitar solo I am cooked. The Construct has high replay value.
17. DORVAL & DEVEREAUX
Dorval & Devereaux
It’s hard to go wrong when two of my favourite artists join forces, and such is the case with Crystal Dorval (aka White Poppy) and Beau Devereaux (aka Samantha Glass). The duo’s self-titled debut is a haunting tour de force, expertly combining the dreaminess of White Poppy and Glass’ dystopian sonics into something new. No Wave dread creeps throughout ‘Heavy Hands’, while ‘Early Morning Rides’ is reminiscent of early Peaking Lights submerged in cough syrup. Dorval and Devereaux take turns leading the charge and, save for the vocals, it’s impossible to tell who is contributing what; the album is impressively cohesive. I really hope this is more than just a one-off, because on this self-titled tape it’s obvious these two have tapped into something quite special.
16. M SAGE
Data in the Details
M. Sage already released an incredible double-album this year (on his own Patient Sounds label), so Data in the Details is a bonus. Presented as two separate edits of the same piece, both sides of this tape are rewarding in their own specific ways. The ‘Heads Up Extended Edit’ is fuzzy, meditative and slow, painted in a dozen shades of grey. It’s not until the flipside, the ‘Mover Isuzu Dub Edit’, that things become clear. The A-side is like a weathered, eroded version of the B-side. Where the dub edit traipses through rhythmically-inflected corridors, the extended edit is the same landscape without sharp edges and grooves. Props to Sage for presenting the album in this way, as it makes Data in the Details an even more memorable listening experience.
15. DOUR TONIC INPUT & DJ VOTIVE
This is magical stuff. Dour Tonic Input gets things started with gamelan-style samples, providing the perfect mix of Eastern-tinged scales and forward-thinking electronics. It’s utterly hypnotic and impeccably pieced together – easily 30 of the best minutes of music I’ve heard all year. DJ Votive offers up the antitdote with half an hour of expertly mixed gaslight shimmer. The breaks are perfect, the atmosphere sublime… Dead Roads is a work of wonder, making for an astounding 60 minutes of music.
A Song That Can Exist
(Jehu & Chinamen)
This is such a strange tape that I can’t stop listening to it, trying to unravel what the hell is going on. Comparisons to Angelo Badalamenti & Scott Walker might be stretching it, but at least provide a jumping off point. Scammers (aka Phil Diamond) lays everything out, getting personal to the point of making the listener uncomfortable. That is the greatest strength of A Song That Can Exist, though. Every time I listen to this it gets better – it’s an album full of ghosts and Phil Diamond is letting all of them go. One of 2014’s most unexpected treats.
13. GUENTER SCHLINZ
The great-synth-jammer-burnout of 2011 did a great job to separate the really great stuff from all the nice-enough-but-don’t-really-need-it jams. Anyway, Guenter Schlinz definitely falls in the former category, and the hour-long Treehut Visions will likely scratch whatever nu-age synth itch one might have in 2014. His music is deceiving in that it sounds very simple on first listen, but the more one gets drawn in, the more obvious it becomes that Schlinz is truly onto something beautiful and cathartic. The 30-minute title track is one of my favorite long-form compositions I’ve heard all year.
I am so drawn to FOODMAN’s music because, for the most part, it totally baffles me. Every time Japan’s footwork guru has a new full-length, I prepare myself for total confusion and, without fail, DRUM DESU delivers. As always, FOODMAN comes in with short, concise bursts. With each weird and unexpected combination of sounds, the album becomes more and more engaging. I try making sense of the sequencing, but the further down that rabbithole I go, the more I’m convinced that in FOODMAN’s world, everyone is forever lost and forever thrilled about it. On top of all that, DRUM DESU is ultimately his finest work to date.
11. HIRO KONE
Fallen Angels throws a lot of ideas at the wall and, fortunately, they all stick. From the jarring opener ‘Jungle’, with its relentless percussive attack and buried melodies, to the fuzzy ambience of ‘Recall’, Hiro Kone (aka Nicky Mao) keeps the listener’s expectations at bay. Pop influences mesh with industrial nods to create an EP that is strangely beautiful and infinitely engaging.
10. DE LEON
Aught made multiple appearances in the column this year, and this self-titled gem from De Leon is the best of the bunch. While both the artist and label here continue to be shrouded in mystery, I’m not sure it matters at this point. De Leon’s gamelan-infused techno is minimal to a fault, but finds a way to worm its way into the brain space that won’t allow it to be forgotten. It’s not exactly catchy, but it’s stunning in both form and approach; nervous energy permeates throughout, like someone scrambling to find a way out of a maze that’s slowly closing around them. But really, he/she had me at ‘gamelan-infused techno.’
09. THE FUN YEARS
One Quarter Descent
(Spring Break Tapes)
For the past few years, The Fun Years have been one of my favourite bands, and One Quarter Descent keeps that momentum going. There aren’t many (any?) turntable and baritone guitar duos out there, but the potential novelty of such a setup is utterly irrelevant in such capable hands. Bottom line is that these guys make incredibly smart and engaging music. The narcotic guitar loops, the lonesome vinyl crackle… it all melds together to become an endless series of soporific interludes, content on massaging out the last knot of tension from anyone willing to listen. Beautiful.
08. SETH GRAHAM
I’ve sung Seth Graham’s praises to anyone who will listen for the past few years, especially his part as ½ of Cream Juice. His solo work has always impressed, but never more than Goop. His penchant for quick edits and random cuts gets turned on its head with the sombre, slow-moving opener ‘Piano Goop’. Those features return on ‘No Overdubs’ (and all over Goop), but there is a deeper feeling of control and contemplation present throughout. His sample sources are always a bit fuzzy, but Graham pulls sounds from all over the spectrum to create something new and bizarre and wholly his own. This is an artist whose work continues to push boundaries, and will only get better from here.
07. JEFRE-CANTU LEDESMA
Songs of Forgiveness
Songs Of Forgiveness is a meditation to love lost and lives that never existed. Recorded during a harsh New York winter, the record shows JCL’s heart on his sleeve, his emotions laid bare through mournful tones and washes of white noise. Gaze into the hiss, and imperfect images become clearer, self-reflection becomes vital. Overwhelming to the point of breaking, Songs Of Forgiveness is a way forward without bridges ablaze and inclement destruction left in our wake.
I can’t get enough of Still/Alive. There are so many elements at play here, things that I am normally not attracted to, but Gus BC’s skill as a songwriter pulls everything together. The cut-and-paste nature of these songs immediately stands out, but there’s a cohesive thread that runs throughout the album. Bewilderbeast’s songs are catchy without being slathered in aural syrup. Sinister undercurrents flow beneath the R&B-infused production, but even in the brightest, catchiest moments they’re still there, waiting.
The Barley Bridge
Absolutely stunning compilation of oddball minimalist works from the likes of Graham Lambkin, Call Back The Giants (who continue to be one of the best bands in the world), Moniek Darge, Vicky Langan, and others. The diversity present from track to track makes this an intriguing collection, but the cohesion and flow between songs push it into essential territory. If only more compilations were this well thought-out. Get it.
Canada’s 1080p Collection has emerged as one of the most reliable labels on the planet, and the quality of all the tape releases they’ve dropped in the past month is testament to that. Khotin’s music is particularly polished, and sounds as if it was beamed back from a future Japanese space station via a hacked Nintendo console. Even the dubbier elements are otherworldly.
03. THE SPOOKFISH
Who is The Spookfish, and does it really matter? Living Room is a haunted journey through living rooms and rural alleyways. Album opener ‘Swimming In The Lake’ grabs hold and never lets go – the synth lead is so sugary, so catchy, that the pulsating beat is almost an afterthought, even though it’s really the star of the show. The Spookfish covers a lot of ground, getting acoustic and contemplative on ‘Black Ghost With Red Eyes’ before reviving mid-’90s tape scene vibes on the closer, ‘Snake Song’. Living Room is aptly titled as The Spookfish draws the listener into his home, cooks dinner, and sets the world on fire. Great tape.
Reconsiders The Vampire’s Curse
Normally I’d be pretty nervous about someone attempting to “reimagine” such a stone cold classic, but knowing SEEKERSINTERNATIONAL is at the helm, we can all rest easy. Nobody can deconstruct dubs and turn them into some nascent, transcendent form like him. The parts that are recognisably Scientist get stuffed through his soundsystem matrix until we’re left with something wholly, confidently SKRS. For an artist who has such a distinct process, it’s impressive to hear how he’s able to alter said process and push it in new directions depending on the source material, without sacrificing what makes it so memorable. SKRS is the truth.
01. RANDALL McCLELLAN
The Healing Music of Rana
While the recent New Age revival has seen a number of mediocre works reissued & celebrated, last year saw the pinnacle of essential spiritual listening with the I Am the Center box set. While this collection from Randall McClellan isn’t quite on that level, it’s wonderful all the same. McClellan was a co-founder of the electronic music studio at the Eastman School of Music in 1967, and The Healing Music of Rana represents the entirety of his recorded works. These deeply meditative pieces are an expert take on how subtleties and concentrated listening go hand-in-hand. There is inherent beauty here, but it’s the deeper aspects that make the biggest impact.