Note: This feature runs down our 20 favourite cassettes of 2013, excluding a handful that made it onto our overall best albums list. We’ll be running the 50 Best Albums of 2013 next week.
In 2013, some of the strangest and most forward-thinking music around was released on cassette – and we’ve diligently kept track of it all in our monthly Caught On Tape column.
In a medium where the production costs are low and the edition sizes small, it’s easier to take chances, and considering the amount of great, weird sounds coming out on cassette in the last year, it’s wonderful to see so many, across every genre imaginable, taking advantage.
The following is FACT’s pick of the 20 best tapes – with the exception of those which will feature in our impending Top 50 Albums of 2013 list – released over the last 12 months.
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Tether is the moniker used by Lauren Pakadrooni after retiring her previous pseudonym PAK (a really good project in its own right) and Guest Bed is the project’s debut. It’s a doozy. Guest Bed is almost like a moving sound installation that drifts from place to place, idea to idea. Industrial-tinged bass blasts out holes in the concrete on opener ‘Well Lit Void’ while Pakadrooni howls on the surface. Everything but her voice is subterranean. Elsewhere tape loops are mangled into mesmerizing sonic detritus. ‘High-Heeled’ rips through hypnotic drones with a buzzsaw-like rhythms acting as aural bombs. All the edges on Guest Bed are rough as fuck and honestly, that’s a big part of its appeal. I hope there’s more of this stuff infecting my eardrums and soon.
The way Puls is divided into two side-long pieces is what makes it work so well. While there’s a multitude of different ideas throughout each side, the singularity of the whole thing pushes the album to a higher level. Flow and sequence is so often a mere afterthought, but when done well it can change the face of an album. With Puls, Laica’s Dave Fleet is determined to paint aural landscapes with pummelling rhythms and harsh electronics. Fleet takes care to allow moments of introspection through to take the edge off – and that softness, though fleeting, has kept me coming back to Puls throughout the year.
18. GARETH FLOWERS
A Beginner’s Guide To Lucid Dreaming
Every time I think I’ve got this tape figured out, Flowers throws another curveball before forcing me to give up and just enjoy the ride. Scratchy electronics and hushed drones float through the scene like a boating party so far lost, they’re dead to the world. Horns paint rustic pictures of ugly scenery while barely-there beats glitch up the works. At a massive 60+ minutes, A Beginner’s Guide to Lucid Dreaming is unsurprisingly dense. Somehow, though, Flowers keeps it oddly accessible (well, as accessible as music like this can be) with a skillful hand to guide each piece of music through its rise and fall. Weird, beautiful tape.
17. GORDON ASHWORTH
Public Loops Vol. 1
Gordon Ashworth is probably best known for his work as Concern, but he released a gem of a tape under his own name called S.T.L.A. a few years ago. Public Loops Volume One is hardly a follow-up to it, but it’s a wonderfully disorienting ride all its own. Described as ‘street performances by unknown musicians,’ this tape is reminiscent of Aaron Dilloway’s killer Nath Family album from 2005. Ashworth takes unassuming field recordings and mangles them to pieces via all manner of tape manipulation. Polyrhythms appear out of nowhere, building on top of each other until they form rolling drones, turning the streets of Rome, Athens, & Istanbul into alien planets. Public Loops Volume One is short but sweet and shows an artist that’s always pushing his craft, looking for the next pathway to traverse.
16. WAXY TOMB
I’m a sucker for weird electronics paired with heavily-processed spoken word. While Infra Shape is obviously no Flowers of Evil , it’s still great. Waxy Tomb’s attention to detail is the most impressive aspect of this tape. Musically, it shifts between multiple modes with ease. From the sparse dystopias of ‘Stuck on the roof of a very large building/That thing’ to the woozy, vaguely pop-infused ‘Gradient Based Exchanges’, Waxy Tomb does it all well. Randomness is only teased at, but after multiple listens, it’s obvious that each abrupt change, each bleeped-out squelch, is intentional. Add to that the ghostly robotic vocals, and I am all-in. The more I hear this, the better it gets. Really great stuff.
Mesh N2 Air
Within the first 10 seconds of Mesh N2 Air, I knew I was going to dig this tape. It wasn’t until ‘Body God’, though, that I was completely absorbed. DYNOOO drifts between the spaces that producers like Rustie and even James Ferraro occupy, but manages to meld those gross-out sonics with a sense of calm. Even with some of the rapid fire rhythms that pop up on Mesh N2 Air, this music is relaxing. The aforementioned ‘Body God’ is the stand-out, the synth melodies hovering just a notch beyond “totally spaced out” even if the beats rolling underneath do their best to divert the listener’s attention. It strikes a delicate balance. DYNOOO is really onto something here and I can’t wait to see what’s next.
14. MATT CARLSON
It’s been too long since we heard from Jason Anderson’s (Brother Raven, Spare Death Icon, etc) Draft and Gift labels, but a new batch from the former showed up at the beginning of July to heavy applause, in this household at least. Unsurprisingly, all three tapes are great and, similarly unsurprisingly, this new effort from Matt Carlson is at the top of the heap. Sparse electro-acoustic compositions shift microscopically, revealing the music lurking in empty spaces. Field recordings add layers of texture that tinker with the mind’s perception of what it’s hearing. This is music that is everything and nothing, constantly challenging the listener to remain deeply engaged and present. Carlson always seems to save his best work for the Gift/Draft axis (his Gecko Dream Levels is probably my favourite tape-only release from the past decade), and Certainty continues a rewarding partnership.
13. BLACK HAT
Seattle’s Nelson Bean is a relatively new name to me, but this first full-length effort is a doozy. Electro-tribalism kicks things off on ‘Ashe’ with minimal, dub-infused basslines crawling along beneath layer-after-layer of smoked rhythms. ‘Jaune’ skitters through greyscale landscapes, looped harp samples circling around glitches in the mainframe. Those same scattered beats return on album closer, “Singing Point,” acting as the anchor for Bean’s penchant for experimentalism. It all takes on the feeling of ghost radio stations transmitting from some other realm while the dense thrum of ‘Arabesque’ keeps the proceedings grounded. Covalence is a horror soundtrack from a bleak, distant future.
12. BEST AVAILABLE TECHNOLOGY
Excavated Tapes 1992-1999 Vol. 1
Best Available Technology aka Kevin Palmer first crossed my radar with his excellent Further Tracks tape (on Further), but this collection of “synthesizer percussion tests” was eye opening. It makes sense that two of the tracks here include ‘Prmtv’ in the title because these eight pieces are purely elemental. Palmer thrives in such confines, pulling out every last inch of an idea from these deceptively simple pieces. Both B.A.T. and Astro:Dynamics had quietly stellar 2013s and this is the perfect example of both.
11. ASTRAL SOCIAL CLUB
Uh, wow. Neil Campbell’s Astral Social Club has consistently been one of my favourite projects for the last 8 years. His turn into maximal electronic music is a natural progression and a welcome one. Destiny Snfu comes at just the right time, pushing chaotic machine music into strange new realms. Noisy guitar squelch detonates on ‘Romeo Challenger’ while ‘Wet Chemicals’ is the soundtrack to the sicko lounge of a future that hopefully does not (but will) exist. There’s also a bizarre funk element at play here that is gross in the best way. Closer and centrepiece ‘Rumbling Kern’ is 17 minutes of maximum thrust, building and building until the pressure has to explode in beautifully disgusting ways. Vivid sonics burst forth, no longer contained, rumbling and chiming into a death spiral oblivion indicating that its time to queue it up and start all over.
(Self-Released – email to order)
I admittedly don’t know a lot about this project except that it’s the work of Oakland resident Adam Keith. Medium incorporates a lot of ideas and different sounds, but Keith’s got the skill to push and pull everything into cohesive shapes. ometimes it doesn’t entirely make sense, but that is more of a compliment than a complaint. From the industrial-tinged opener ‘M.S.G.’ to the ghostly-minimalism of the title track (I think, anyway – I tend to zone out when I’m listening to this tape and lose track of which song is playing), Keith is always in control. Elsewhere Keith’s work reminds me of a stripped-down Pye Corner Audio with ‘Lovers’ Theme”'(it also calls back to those killer leads on ‘Medium’) whereas we get a heady dose of early electronic abstraction and tape manipulation in the form of ‘Regurgitator (Two Tapes).’ Great stuff all around.
Orange Milk continues to be one of my favourite labels in the entire world. Their recent 4-tape batch is all very good, but Ventla’s Smuggled is in a league of its own. This sucker is straight-up weird. With 28 songs, only one of which clocks in over a minute, there are a ton of different ideas presented here. Think funked-out basslines, vocoder, shiny synth leads, random samples, Japanese vocals, and then some, yet nothing seems out of place. My friend Lars described this as Dilla meets J-Pop, and that’s not too far off. Constructing an entirely new sound world, Ventla is a revelation.
08. HOLLY WAXWING
This got my attention initially because of Brenna Murphy’s cover art (I’m a huge fan of hers), but the music itself is even better. Delicately composed electronics roll over smooth beats and swim inside laid-back flows. Impressively, Holly Waxwing avoids all the bad new/nu age tropes and ends up somewhere tropical and refreshingly new. Bonus points for the bundled download, coming with a bunch of great remixes (hey FOODMAN!). There are so many things about this tape that, if not so well done, I’d absolutely hate, but Holly Waxwing manages to bring it all together in a delightfully original way.
07. GIANT CLAW
I’ll just go ahead and put this out there to start: I’m as big a Keith Rankin fanboy as you’re likely to find. The brains behind Giant Claw as well as one half of Cream Juice and Orange Milk label, he’s a renaissance man after my own heart. Giant Claw has released so many awesome albums it’s hard to keep track. And yet, with Max Mutant, he’s reached the project’s pinnacle. The same staccato, ADHD-esque beats and melodies that are the foundation of Giant Claw’s side are still there, but Rankin turns those elements on their collective head, breaking them into tiny pieces before reassembling in new, confounding ways. Max Mutant is Giant Claw deconstructed and it’s just about the best thing ever.
06. BASS CLEF
(Magic & Dreams)
Two things: 1) I love that Bass Clef calls this an EP even though it’s an hour long. 2) I’m amazed this wasn’t immediately pressed on vinyl because it’s just so damn good. Acid Tracts is a maze of acid minimalism and groove machinations that pulsate for just the right amount of time before fading into oblivion. Twenty-minute centrepiece ‘Lower State of Unconsciousness’ is worth the price of admission alone. Growling basslines nestle between beats with their own gravitational force, pulling down everything in their path. Like the entirety of Acid Tracts, it’s one hell of a maniacal ride.
05. WIZARD OF
I’d heard a few Wizard Of things prior to this, but none of them really caught my ear. Midnight/Never Die is a different beast, though, with the bass sprawl turned up to 11 all the way through. Divided into two separate suites (“Midnight” and “Never Die”), each side of the tape is its own experience. ‘Midnight’ plays like a collage of long-lost UK garage jammers, complete with well-chosen vocal samples and heat-seaking leads; I’d be more than happy to get lost inside the club that blasts this 24/7. Never Die is in the same vein, but with a softer edge, treading in mellow waters even on the more anthemic actions of ‘Part III’. Midnight/Never Die really is one hell of a tape, and it’s kind of a shame it’s only an edition of 35!
04. WHITE POPPY
This tape is beautiful. I totally missed White Poppy’s (aka Crystal Dorval) tape on Not Not Fun last year, but I’m glad that Drifters Gold was my introduction to her work, because it’s just about perfect. The seven gauzy, shoegaze-laden songs on this tape are the sound of the summer I always dream of. Everything there is a little bit blurry, as if experienced in a constant, near-intoxicated state. I float on the whimsical assurance of Dorval’s voice on ‘Who Are You’, wrapped in a cotton-candy cocoon where beauty and horror intermingle. ‘In The Sun’ is the perfect kind of aural haze, and ‘Silver Eyes’ sounds like it’s been beamed in from another dimension. It’s all stunning.
Shadow Musick Vol. 1
Witchbeam is a member of the mighty Telecult Powers, and on this, his definitive solo effort, he sheds new light on the magick that makes Telecult tick. The craft involved with Shadow Musick Vol. 1 is evident from the looped chimes that open the tape, quickly pivoting into blacked-out tribal percussion. Liquid electronic layers explode and recede in short order, puncuating Witchbeam’s proselytizing, and the whole effect is hypnotic – I’m ready to buy whatever he’s selling. Things shift gears on the flip, where drawn-out oscillations bleed out any hint of melody, finding the darkest corner to fester in. Witchbeam brings it all back home on ‘Good UFO/Bad UFO’, letting the listener into the personal headspace that is the drive behind Shadow Musick Vol. 1 before devolving into a noisy, rhythmic black hole.
02. KATIE GATELY
Gately’s 12” on Public Information was my first introduction to her work and made a lasting impression. With Pipes, though, she turns that up a notch. The 14-minute title piece is constructed entirely of vocals (and effects) and is one of the most stunning compositions I’ve heard in 2013. Dense layering and broken rhythms become an all-encompassing horror ride that I never want to end. What’s most impressive is that this would be an amazing piece of music regardless of the instrumentation used, but taking into consideration that it’s nothing but vocals, my mind is totally blown.
01. SK KAKRABA BAND
Look, the label had me at “Son of world-renowned master xylophonist Kakraba Lobi, S.K.” But SK Kakraba Band doesn’t disappoint in any way. Sunkissed melodies repeat to infinity until they end up as an infection you’ll never want to shake. SK is the centre of the universe here with his gyil (“a Ghanaian instrument constructed of wooden slats placed atop Calabash Gourds”) and all the grooves hiding underneath are just icing. This music has serious soul. Everything about these tunes is purely ecstatic.