Goldtimers Tapes and Dirty Knobby Records are two very different entities ‚Äď one puts out tapes exclusively, the other vinyl; one works in noise and drone, the other puts out just about everything you can imagine (including noise and drone, mind you). But here they are, together, because I admire them both.
Hot damn are Goldtimers Tapes putting out some interesting schnizz these days. Their big-ass 2012 batch, a slobbering mass of impeccably designed cassettes, was a lot to digest, and I mean that it the best possible sense. With such a bulk of new output, it’s remarkable how much of it is, well, really, really good.
I consumed the first one, Zac Nelson‘s Improv(e) (GLD019), moments after receiving my package in the mail, and boy is it a doozy. If we’re to believe Goldtimers’ blurb, which comes replete with the standard florid, pseudo-supernaturalist language that graces any tape-label release, this cassette ‚Äúrevels in a mournful cave cry of crystal mobile chimes and yelps into the void.‚ÄĚ Far be it from me to trample on a good bit of titillatingly mystical promo-writing (hell, half my reviews read like that), because this turns out to be ‚Äď quite frequently ‚Äď one of the most absorbing cassettes of its ilk that I’ve heard. Over two lengthy sides, Nelson lets loose loops of tribal percussion, above which keyboards and multiple layers of percussion joyfully (or, sometimes, gloomily) interplay. Every so often the rhythms are dropped and things are left to glide more freely, and at other points the meter is vague or indistinct. Side A’s second track might be the tape’s greatest triumph ‚Äď simple in design, it is pretty and celestial and utterly gripping. This guy also has an LP out on Bathetic and silkscreens infinitely trippy patterns onto recycled t-shirts.
Moving along the stack of tapes, I happened upon an inspired split between Venn Rain and Past Utopia (GLD025), which features two tranquil sides encased in a beige J-card adorned with mythic woodcut illustrations. Looking it over, the images capture a variety of medieval themes ‚Äď ‚Äča robed old man entering a mysterious passage, a gilded Neptune swimming the seas, and an outstretched hand trying vainly to postpone death by tidal wave. Venn Rain’s side pivots around a tinny synthesizer loop, like some indecipherable excerpt from a wistful pop song of yore, above which various subtle accompanying sounds weave in and out of focus. It is melancholic and unabashedly repetitious, but mesmerizing in a placid sort of way ‚Äď there’s this feeling that you’re peeping in on something impossibly arcane and yet unexpectedly pretty. Past Utopia’s half is just as tinny, but less structured, instead centred around shimmering, clustered synths of a decidedly cosmic persuasion (I happen to be reading a Rudy Rucker novel as I read this, so that might be adding to the effect). It’s the sort of abstract new-age DIY-transcendence that’s flooded the scene over the past couple of years, which is to say it’s very engrossing when allowed to burble at your bedside in the pitch black.
I thought I’d turn to Mark Bradley next, as he’s someone I have some experience with, although I haven’t heard from him since at least a couple years back. He’s something of a mysterious dude ‚Äď middle aged guy churning out drone tape after drone tape on just about any label he can get his hands on, all the while leaking no personal details to the experimental hive mind. I even tried to interview him, but things didn’t work out (if you’re out there, Mark, I’m still interested!) Historically, his work hasn’t drifted far from the drone pantheon, conjuring up miniature experimental worlds with his keyboard alone. That method is still employed on this split (GLD022), although here the sound quality has improved, and a more pronounced use of beats plants this closer to techno territory ‚Äď with 4/4 rhythms and futuristic synths in the mix, this isn’t too distant from the robot rhythms of the early Detroit scene. Most striking is the three-dimensional opening track, which embosses melodies into its confronting ebbs and flows, sounding like soundwaves bouncing off of planets (I realize this is physically impossible). It’s one of the best discrete compositions I’ve heard on a tape release, period. As the side wears on, he tries on more experiments, often adding full-fledged dance beats to the mix. The last few tracks might be the most cosmic of the bunch, as they wed slow-burn rhythms to intergalactic swells of sound, even rolling into dub territory. Yet, much like Bradley’s past releases, this tape still seems like a collection of experiments from Bradley, as opposed to a coherent, sequenced album, even though there are several motifs that recur throughout the side. The way several tracks cut abruptly at their end, instead of fading out, serves to reinforce this angle (although this also adds a nifty eighties hometaper vibe to the sound).On the other side of his split cassette, we have Goldtimers in-house act No Mind Meditation who hold up their end of the bargain in terms of curlicuing interstellar synths and the like. Theirs is a rather in-your-face side, with a miasmal haze giving rise to free-floating synthesizer whirls that stretch in and command the centre stage. Unlike a lot of drone-related paraphernalia, this ain’t sleeping music ‚Äď it’s loud and eventful and constantly metamorphosing, even if the tempos lag at a dream’s pace.
Henry Dawson‘s flamboyant The Thunder of Wonder (GLD029) is short but makes an impact. It’s certainly the loudest tape of the batch, and to be honest I haven’t got a clue how Dawson put together this deep, variegated, glitchy bit of treachery. Split into six tracks over two nine-minute sides, the beast is an urgent, nervous cavalcade of sound ‚Äď look here, it’s the sound of a thousand computers screaming out into the void (‚ÄúFrontiers of the Natural‚ÄĚ); over yonder, there’s a moribund dialtone’s last lament (‚ÄúDigital Needlework‚ÄĚ). Frames of reference range from Mouse on Mars to John Oswald to Christian Fennesz to Merzbow ‚Äď and just about everyone in between. In short ‚Äď baffling but awe-inspiring.
Other tapes are more of the cosmic amorphous droning sort ‚Äď like the ominous tones of Silvia Kastel‘s Something There (GLD026), which was crafted using the Tenori-on. Kastel’s reverb-plated vocals add a marvelously harrowing ambiance to the work, her calls alternating between authoritative and desperate as they’re dropped into the electronic void. I can imagine this bouncing off the walls in some crawlspace subbasement of an ancient estate ‚Äď it’s really quite unsettling and macabre. Bring it out on Hallowe’en. The White Prism / Wether split (GLD021) mines similar gold ‚Äď White Prism (aka Ben Billington and Josh Burke, who each go by about fifty other names) brings us a side of quasars exploding and trailing stars zooming past the mic. I won’t spoil the meat of it, but this is magnificent, heroic stuff that could soundtrack 2001: A Space Odyssey’s low-budget cousin. But it’s such a short side ‚Äď definitely want to hear more from these guys. Wether, of course, is Mike Haley, the hardest-working man in noise, and here he burps out ten minutes of subterranean burble ‚Äď the logical reciprocal of Side A. He records and puts out tapes which such effortless frequency that I kind of imagine he just excretes them from his body as us mortals do gas and fluids. Should we all be so lucky!
Having been through so much Goldtimers goodness, I approached Guenter Schlienz‘s Urban Tapes almost as an afterthought. To be honest, I picked it out because it was a longer tape and I wanted something to fall asleep to. But lying in the dark, I found myself transfixed. This entire record was done using a homemade (!!) modular synth, garnished sparsely with organ and field recordings. It sounds like something that would be emitted via pirate radio over a deformed, dystopian cityscape ‚Äď straight out of Repo Man. Schlienz, for his part, was a rock guitarist for many years before sidestepping into experimental sounds by way of his considerable technical knowhow ‚Äď he’s also a sound engineer for the Stuttgart opera. Some of the majesty of the opera seems to have seeped through into this tape, particularly on the subtly symphonic opening piece. But what’s most striking is the manner in which he integrates multiple layers of sound on top of one another while retaining a sense of simplicity. The tones and blips float freely in the air, twisting and curtsying around each other with ethereal ease ‚Äď in my para-somnolent state, it felt almost as though I was about to leave my body and drift out the window myself. This one gets my highest recommendation.
Dirty Knobby Records
I asked Tom & Emma, the folks behind the lively Dirty Knobby label, to sum up their mission statement. They got back to me: ‚ÄúWe don‚Äôt really have one and we don‚Äôt have a set aesthetic for the label, meaning we don‚Äôt have a ‚Äėsound,‚Äô don‚Äôt document a scene, and our catalog might seem a bit random. Really the goal has always been to put out records that we would enjoy.‚ÄĚ Case in point: They started the label by asking noise’s very own Campbell Kneale (Birchville Cat Motel, Our Love Will Destroy The World) to do a single for the label, and have since put slick records by poppy garage rockers The Fresh and Onlys, classic nineties grunge act Bloodloss, and New Zealand/Britain dronester Peter Wright. The records themselves are all over the map, design-wise, but retain a haphazard DIY aesthetic throughout.
I’m often skeptical of labels without a clear focus. Many of my favourite labels historically are ones that honed in on a sound, albeit sometimes a nebulous one, and built a discography around it ‚Äď Creation, (earlier) 4AD, Ninja Tune, Warp, Dischord… I’m still on the fence about Dirty Knobby’s philosophy, but I can’t truly disparage a label putting out weird and wonderful seven-inches like these folks do. I got my paws on a good chunk of Dirty Knobby vinyl recently, and figure’d I might share a few insights…
Evening Meetings (DK-014) remind me why I like the junked up rock of Half Japanese so much. Remember what Jad Fair said about knowing how to play your instruments? ‚ÄúThe only chord I know is the one that connects the guitar to the amp.‚ÄĚ Braggadocio for sure, but that same aesthetic informs this excellent single. The A-side, for example, teeters around a treacherous guitar riff as the band’s other members play haphazardly around the track’s jagged backbone. The entire song seems like it’s dangling treacherously over the mouth of an infinite precipice, with a nervous tension paradoxically layered into a ratty sense of not giving a fuck. ‚ÄúHello Mr. Evening,‚ÄĚ meanwhile, is a different beast altogether. Positioned around a metronomic drum-machine / guitar pulse rhythm, it evokes the disciplined hypnotism of Young Marble Giants, except (a) there’s a dude singing, (b) there’s no Wurlitzer jukebox mentioned, and (c) the distorted guitar sounds a lot more ragged than Alison Statton & co.’s measured compositions. Like the better things in life ‚Äď and I promise you this is NOT a dick joke ‚Äď it’s a grower. Meanwhile, the Scraps single (DK-011) is a bit more traditional, in a murky lo-fi noise-rock sense, with a little doomy, synth-tinged post-punk thrown in. Struggling against tape hiss, the fivepiece manage dark and impressively catchy songs ‚Äď ‚ÄúA Salty Sea‚ÄĚ wields deadpanned group vocals and an eerie melody that seems to take cues from Three Mile Pilot, while B-side ‚ÄúShepherd to Sheep‚ÄĚ is a grander affair, storming forth in a cavalcade of triumphant guitar chords.
On a very different tack comes a record from Jaime Fennelly, recording under the tag Mind Over Mirrors (DK-015). Fennelly, whose last name describes how I like my pork sausages, uses a pipe organ and Indian pedal harmonium to compose layers of throbbing, rapid chord sequences which metamorphose unpredictably over each side’s brief lifespan. It’s a fascinating and rewarding listen ‚Äď there is melody in droves among the harmonies, but it’s embedded deceptively within the hurried walls of sound. This is smart, original, and engrossing ‚Äď all one can ask for in a single. Added bonus: you can turn it down to 33 RPM for a whole new experience. Prolific dronester Peter Wright (DK-008) steps even deeper into the abstract on his The Terrifying Realization We Might Be Wrong 45. Side A’s ‚ÄúTerrifying Revelation‚ÄĚ has been put together using a contact mic and a bulbul tarang, a rare South Asian string instrument. The track starts as a menacing, industrial drone, buried deep in contact mic abrasion, before gradually shedding the harshness in favour of the bulbul tarang’s twinkly drone. The second side is much less noisy ‚Äď ‚ÄúLittle Voices‚ÄĚ twiddles a guitar prettily under eight thousand layers of tape hiss (or, more accurately, ‚Äúa bucket of compression‚ÄĚ), while ‚ÄúFolksong for Degeneration‚ÄĚ is a brief, beautiful stretch of 12-string drone that’s been treated with a liberal drizzling of reverb. A nice smattering of stuff here, although I’ll admit I prefer Wright’s mellower moments in general.
In the not-so-enthralled category, The Drills‘ Skull Death 2 (DK-001) manages to be both a clever stunt and a pile of crap. The story: two ex-hippies discover hardcore, enlist a couple local punks and attempt to carry the genre to its logical extreme (see more here). And the corn on the cow-pie is that the whole thing’s been recorded on what sounds like a broken Walkman. Song titles include ‚ÄúI’m Normal,‚ÄĚ ‚ÄúNo More Beer,‚ÄĚ and ‚ÄúSkate Tough‚ÄĚ and the lyrics don’t venture far from those witticisms. OK, so they do a fair job of underlining the simplicity of the hardcore gambit, particularly on their gnarly send-up of thrash (‚ÄúGreat Thrash Great Trash‚ÄĚ). Still, without the earnest intent of The Shaggs or the unintentional genius of, well, The Shaggs, the whole thing is only mildly compelling, and one is left wondering how on earth Dirty Knobby ended up fishing this one out of the archives for release. Apparently these folks play free jazz now. Go figure.
But the biggest release from Dirty Knobby thus far has got to be Bloodloss‘s Lost My Head For Drink (DK-013), a hidden grunge nugget that sat on a shelf since 1996, and is now up for co-release between Dirty Knobby and indie juggernaut Sub Pop. An unholy union between Seattle and Sydney, this fourpiece included members of Mudhoney, Lubricated Goat, and Monkeywrench, and certainly recalls all yer fave grunge pin-ups ‚Äď but then they’ve slathered saxophone all over the thing, which really brings to mind some of the less manic moments in the Cows discography (conceding that it’s sax and not trumpet here). Yet, it’s the guitars and vocals (which are handled by a rotating cast of band members) that really steal the show on Lost My Head ‚Äď riveting ‚ÄúHot Air Drives,‚ÄĚ lit up in punk and metal and scuzz, thrives on seething shards of gunked-up guitars and the vocalist’s lizardy, mean croon (think Christian Slater). Other tracks catch on to that about-to-explode sensation and hang horns and even viola on the carnage (‚ÄúA Bottle and a Grin,‚ÄĚ buzzing instrumental ‚ÄúDeclination‚ÄĚ) But it’s the dark, less raucous tracks that really catch the listener off guard ‚Äď tense ‚ÄúBarber of Civility,‚ÄĚ with its hectically clever lyrics, and viciously plodding (and well titled) ‚ÄúBones of my Ass‚ÄĚ stick out. Fans of Homestead Records, myself included, will dig this shit out of this.