tape culture

the botton line is that i love tape and they have been part of a time in my life where i was less unhappy thatn i am now. you can only find the most unusual rarities on those cassetes. right on brother….i mean in this case, sister…..by j.

Broken Circuits and Audio Cassettes: Tape culture as a promising new beginning.

The Beijing 'Egg'

According to the old proverb, we all meet twice in life. And so it should surprise no one that cassettes are suddenly back from the grave. As an epitomisation of the 80s, tape culture always seemed doomed for failure: Audio quality quickly deteriorated with use – and it was never particularly hot to begin with. Skipping between tracks was cumbersome and time-consuming while finding a particular piece could turn into a test of nerves. Compared to their post-stamp-size inlays, even CD-booklets looked like veritable artbooks. A couple of years on, these obvious faults are now turning into an unexpected advantage. In an age where everything is either measured in terms of practicability (MP3-files), cheap reproducibility (CD-Rs) or artistic beauty (Vinyl), tapes are the ideal medium for those wishing to express themselves outside of social conventions. It thus makes complete sense if the new label by an ambitious artist like Juan Matos Capote should seemingly defy the signs of the times and concentrate all but exclusively on a format considered outdated even by the most nostalgic of listeners.

Once you actually hold the first two Circuit Torçat-releases in your hands, however, the idea looks anything but improbable. Capote’s approach is quite clearly respectful rather than post-ironic, with even fonts and print quality emulating the golden years of the audio cassette. If your youth is as closely associated with the format as mine, then keeping some tissues or handkerchiefs at hand to wipe away those tears of remembrance seems mandatory. Even the label name’s initials (Spanish for „broken circuits“ and referring to Capote’s education as a circuit bender) are nicely in sync with those for “Cassette Tape“ – it is intentional incidents like this one which reveal Juan-Matos’ romantic inclination. To him, tapes should be regarded as a format of its own, with unique properties and qualities. One has to bear in mind, after all, that they were mostly either regarded as the small, portable brother of the Vinyl LP or as the lo-fi sister of the Compact Disc.  Here, on the other hand, they suddenly appear as independent as never before. Both these EPs clock in at around the twenty minute mark, a length merely echoed perhaps by 10inch Vinyl or the 3inch CD – both of which, too, are forever destined to remain outsider formats.

Even in terms of music, Circuit Torçat is clearly harking back to the early years. Arnau Sala’s “La Joia d’agredir”, for example, could well have been released at the very acme of industrial tape culture: Distorted frequencies, high-pitched squeals, abrasive textures and long vocal samples possibly culled from radio plays or movies combine into cold, alien landscapes of bleak moods and subcutaneous tension – not at all surprising considering the title of the release translates to „the joy of attacking“. And yet, Salau nonetheless manages to integrate some vital vocabulary of his own into the mix. Some of the extended exchanges of clashing sinewaves take on an almost atmospheric character and on „Triple Morro“, a Drum Kit is battling it out with a swarm of aggressive killerbees. „la força“ (not a Nelly Furtado-cover, mind you), meanwhile, is typical of Sala’s talent of mashing up completely incoherent elements in an outwardly random way and still creating something darkly entrancing: In the distance, two Recorders are joyfully whistling far away from their tonal centre, a primitive robotic beat is digging through a narrow tunnel and cymbals are crashing incessantly. Mysteriously, it all sounds entirely natural.

Capote’s own effort, meanwhile, is nonetheless a much more subtle and multilayered affair. Despite its inherent tendency towards discreet distortion and electric hums, „Jabal“ rather aspires to broken Electronica than fully-fledged, fetishised Noise. It is mainly through his set-up, involving an oscillator, a lot of customised devices, manipulated field recordings and contact microphones that the music attains a somewhat raw, direct and gritty live-quality despite its microtonal finesse on the level of sound design. Fragmented rhythm – rather than steady beats – play a minor part, with impulses joining into both regularly and irregularly repeated sequences without announcing themselves. But for most of the time, „Jabal“ revolves around an ambient interplay between chance and determination, between human intervention and machinal initiative, between strangely organic movement and alien timbres.

The real action is therefore, almost by default, taking place behind the outward emanations. It is in the way that structures carefully converge and then playfully bounce off each other, in the fleeting nature of pastoral melodies, in the gentle transformations taking place as pieces consistently travel to entirely different places from where they started. The devil is in the detail here, as there are plenty of references and associations waiting to be discovered: The title track has a tender sentimental touch to it, for example, while closing „Star Dust“ gradually and almost grudgingly distances itself from its Dark Ambient introduction. There are just four pieces on „Jabal“, but they all seem to be related to each other, which suggests they might well work best when played as an endless loop. Content and packaging have struck a formidable deal here: Holding an Audio Cassette in your hands again certainly doesn’t feel like a museumised act. With the releases of Circuit Torçat, this second encounter with tape culture rather feels like a promising new beginning.

By Tobias Fische

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