I always seem to write out Koppklys with two Ks instead of Ps, which is probably fair as I don’t speak a word of Norwegian. Undaunted, I asked Oslo’s Fredrik Rangnes, who runs the label, what the name means and was surprised to learn that I’m the first person to inquire. Go figure! It means jellyfish.
In case I’ve got any pirates reading, Rangnes is the guy who ran the Uaxuctum blog for several years. There, he posted Mediafire copies of out-of-print tapes for all the Internet to enjoy; now, he’s putting out those very scant-edition tapes he once propagated. His thoughts on the transition? Well, there doesn’t seem to be much cognitive dissonance about it – in fact, Koppklys’ inception stems from a long-standing enthusiasm for the very labels whose output he was disseminating. “I thought it was interesting how people often seemed to be buying tapes on the strength of the labels and not necessarily for the bands/artists themselves … Limited tape runs just seemed like the most natural [way] to go about it, because I liked the warm, hazy tape sound and I could get copies out without risking losing much money.”
Thanks to a lot of planning and “a healthy dose of OCD,” things have run pretty smoothly so far. “Putting out tapes can be really time-consuming, but it’s not exactly nanoscience. Anyone who thinks he can’t do it is probably fooling himself.” Nor is it challenging to squeeze dollars out of the tape-buying public. “The response has been pretty good, I’m pleased with it. There’s so much different stuff being put out, it’s not easy keeping track of the ‘scene.’ I’ve been fortunate to get support from blogs like Honest Bag, Guide Me Little Tape, Weed Temple and shows like Abstract Terrain on WZBC. All the releases seem to be selling out, albeit slowly.”
Still, one thing hasn’t clicked yet: “I am yet to find any of the releases posted on blogs, etcetera, though. Not enough pirating!”
Koppklys’ focus is on sounds of the relaxing/celestial/sleeptime variety, which reflects Rangnes’ current interests, but these are perpetually in flux: “Three years ago it would have been an endless string of shitty black metal tapes,” he speculates. The four tapes he sent me would suggest that he’s on the right trajectory. I started with relative newbie Venn Rain, who I fawned over in Unheard #8, and his short but potent Sympathetic Vibrations cassette (Koppklys #009). Given its brief duration, I’d like to see some of this tape’s ideas explored a bit more, but as a whole it is compelling and assertively listenable. It is bookended by “Cold Comfort” and its reprise, “Malady Remedy,” which sets the scene with a frail gossamer drone that floats along and seems to fill the room’s empty space with its nebulous, ill-defined self – like a gas, if you will. The centrepiece is the nine minute “Occultural Norms” (yuk yuk @ the title) that rides a spacey, faceless melodic loop underneath a hazy electric drone. It is longing and peaceful. But it’s a couple of two-minute drone taters that really shine here. The boisterous ambience of “Western Promise” swerves around brazenly like a hose being held by a baby, but it is satisfying in its density; there’s a sort of nineties TV crime drama timbre to it, crossed with that cosmic sunspotty tape label sound. Meanwhile, two-minute “Console” is a pretty, weary drone loop that Venn Rain would be wise to explore in longer form. I’d hit it.
Sky Stadium sits behind his synths and (perhaps) effects pedals and constructs brief drone fragments that feel like they should accompany a stroll through the woods in which some greater enlightenment is attained. Enlightenment – yes. Sky Stadium’s long neon chords feel like they can eke some epiphany out of you by will alone. I haven’t stumbled across my eureka moment yet, but I’ll keep at it. Pierrot Lunaire‘s side, meanwhile, comprises one fourteen minute composition, starting off all pretty and celestial but then becoming more and more evil, like a David Lynch film. Whereas the track begins with the treble way in the red, it then devolves into a tinny traditional Chinese instrumental all mussed up with tape distortion, before concluding in a cacophony of ominous, wordless moans. This split is a curious coupling, but on it you’ve got your pick of a quarter hour of ethereal bliss, or a fourteen minute devolution into depravity.
Sundrips like their synths nice and strong, springing effusive sustained chords below which variegated arpeggios and textures burble. Sure, their glowing Dream Studies tape (Koppklys #005) is the sort of thing you could throw on the stereo to accompany bedtime, but this prolific Montreal duo aren’t all gentle & delicate with their keyboards like so many nail-biting dronesters. Instead, their fluorescent synths radiate assertively as if electric – often somewhere between the throb of powerlines and the glow of an electric organ. When the cloud cover of dense keys opens up just a tad, as on the stellar second track of side B, your writer is compelled to reach for words like “transcendent” and “spiritual”… But he doesn’t, because if he did, he’d be gruesomely lame.
Last up, Daw Nusk‘s Hunter Gatherer (Koppklys #010) was originally birthed as a digital release through netlabel Pandafuzz, but its tranquil ambient whole simply demanded a tape run. I’m not sure where all the sounds come from, but your usual medley of subtle synths and meditative field recordings (birds cawing, children laughing) play a big role. I detect a bit of Substrata-era Biosphere in here, but the agility which which Daw Nusk is able to build grand, sprawling soundworlds out of a DIY set-up is, well, impressive. Some of the most interesting moments come when the long-held tones are jettisoned for passages when you can hear Daw Nusk’s Todd Klempner fingering the individual keys (e.g. on “Tarkovsky’s Mistake”), piercing the typical drone terrain of prolonged quietude. More so than many drone-dorks, Klempner seems to have an ear for the dramatic, as well as the melodic. Both attributes are admirable.
“I never thought that I would end up spending so much of my time and energy on such an invisible and thankless job, but I actually find great joy in doing my small part to support obscure experimental art and culture. It still feels important, even if nobody else seems to care.”
So says Matthew Himes, who has quietly put out a stream of tapes, lathe-cut records, CDRs, VHSs, and even 8-track cartridges since assembling Lighten Up Sounds out of Pittsburgh in 2008. Since then, he’s moved to a much smaller town (more on that later) but he’s upped his stats to comfortably above fifty releases, a benchmark few noise labels ever graze. The continued themes have been a fervent respect for artists and customers, and the time-tested value of making “something nice, that looks and sounds great and is worth grabbing and holding onto.”
Although my interaction with him has been filtered through the digital medium, Himes seems like a level-headed dude, someone with a clear vision of how things should be, but graced with a touch of disenchantment and a healthy chunk of cynicism. Perhaps this originates from his younger years: “I was a sort of destructive kid in general. I guess I have been drawn to the strange and ugly side of music from an early age.” This led him through punk, death-rock, and industrial music in high school, where bands like the Residents changed internal working model of musical order. Since then, his enthusiasm for the avant-garde as an expression of one’s innate artistic impulses has crystallized:
“I’m self taught musically, and love the untainted purity of un-schooled music, but I survived art school, so I have been professionally trained as a visual artist. It took me years of hard work to un-learn some of that stuff! So … music has been my more ‘pure’ art form, without any real training or theory, just a love for the sounds and a deep relationship with the sonic environment. I don’t know, I think it’s like an abstract painting. Like the picture of a polar bear in a blizzard with his eyes shut. I enjoy a good challenge, and would way rather rock out to somebody playing cassette tapes through a distortion pedal or grinding a microphone into an electric fan than some white-boy blues rocker dude playing a harmonica solo in a cover version of some crappy bar rock anthem, but thats just me. I find it infinitely more interesting.”
His sonic trajectory, coupled with some unsavory dealings with other labels in the past, have produced an uncompromising and unwaveringly committed musician and label head. The four assiduously-crafted releases I had the opportunity to dissect reflect these values…
We’ll start with the first ‘official’ release for Pittsburgh’s Lord Bird Golden Cobra, a self-titled C36 (LightenUpSound #048) that is actually a reissue from a limited-to-15 CDR the band put out way back in 2006 (ah, those were the days…). This one’s been given a 50-copy issue, which should offer some relief to those who were deathly worried this document might have completely evaporated into obscurity. Opener “Untitled” sounds like a recording of a massacre, all grainy and clamorous – it starts off with mic fuzz and a bit of clatter before turning up the aggro feedback bedlam. Part of me wonders if they did lasso a drifter and subject him to thirty-six minutes of torture for this composition. Instead, I’ll bet this was just three dudes fiddling with a table’s worth of effects pedals and contact mics – how delightfully mundane! As the tape rolls on, its clear that their favoured timbre isn’t a guttural, deep bass-y noise, but rather a tinny, trashy abrasiveness that’s even more sumptuously aversive. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre to your Halloween, if that makes any sense. The rest of side A, including eight minute “Phil Supernova,” grinds along with similar abandon. Meanwhile, side B’s entire self is dedicated to an eighteen-minute, previously-unreleased composition that maintains the band’s signature sound – shoddy recording, angry, gritty noise, and some good ol’ high-pitched power electronics squall. These three chaps hate you, but they hate your ears even more.
What’s the deal with all these folks putting out lathe-cut records? For so long, Peter King was the only nerd in town, but in the past few years Scotch Tapes (RIP?), Corporate Records, and 2208 Records have joined the game. I can’t believe it took so long for people to copy the blueprints for themselves and build their own lathe record-cutters. Anyway, Lighten Up Sounds’ Men of Science single (LightenUpSound#053) is a joy to behold – the champs at 2208 Records have taken ‘sexy’ illustrations of nurses and pressed them between the two sides. The result is a hefty, thick, square picture disc that plays like a champ (and ends, on both sides, in a locked groove). Men of Science is comprised of noise stalwart Andreas Brandal and Himes himself, with each side of this release featuring the sounds of one reworked by the other – a teaser for a full-length cassette the duo have in the works. Side A leads mournful, droning strings through a tinny miamsa – it is subtle, but well suited to the narrow sound quality of the lathe format, as if somewhere a lonesome violinist sits in a room, transmitting his solemn lament through arcane radio frequencies. The B-side is more conventional noise/drone, with rough abrasion alternating with hushed ambience – it’s equally melancholic, but more visceral. 25 copies only! [raps knuckles with ruler]
Mole Hole, the solo work of Himes himself, brings us Seclusion Tactics (LightenUpSound#50), a triple-C20 (!!) birthed out of Himes’ own self-imposed seclusion, living for three years in “a very small Minnesota river town of only a few thousand people.” Such an elaborate package for what could have just been one 60-minute tape, I felt compelled to reach out to Himes to get a handle on the project. A “somewhat voyueristic glance into [Himes'] own personal neurosis and obsessive personality” (what album isn’t?), it began as a response to personal isolation but eventually tracked his research on the scientific elements of seclusion – namely, its use in mental health settings. The audio itself is successfully isolating because of the faceless sounds it is built on. Several tracks achieve an ominous, industrial drone, sounding something like a warehouse full of machines chugging, grinding, drilling, churning, etc. But it’s all electro-mechanical – there’s no identifiable human elements within the acoustic space, aside from the realization that, at some point, people had to build the machines and set them into action. This is a harrowing and alienating sensation. However, over the course of the tapes, something interesting happens. The machines take on oddly human characteristics. On side B, the machine drone is overlaid with high-pitched electric cries, which pierce the emotionless void, adding an element of deep-seated sorrow. Elsewhere, side D begins in an ominous but non-threatening mood, but as it reaches its end, the machines rebel, increasing the chaotic factor like mechanical switches and gears yelling desperately into the void.
Things do change, though, and quite dramatically, on the final tape. Eschewing the machines, side E loops a backmasked sample, which includes a few tense synths, behind which eerie TV-drama audio (is there anything more isolating than television?) and the sounds of someone rummaging around (what I imagine as) their bachelor apartment enter the sound field. Side F is a dreamy, foreboding drone that cements one’s unease in place. It’s hauntingly spot on, and serves as a nice cap to the sixty minutes of seclusion Himes has built. In the end, even the triple-cassette format has an explanation, channeling Himes’ longing for companionship: “The series of cassettes exists so that they can keep each other company, because nobody else is going to be stopping by later, that’s for sure. All alone together.” Ltd to 44.
In stark contrast to Mole Hole’s monument to desolation, the final Lighten Up Sounds tape in my possession, a self-titled C52 by The Gili Gili Men (LightenUpSound #049), revels in activity. From the press release: “The Gili Gili Men is an elevated West Coast snake-charmer trio featuring…” Wait. What? Snake-charmers? Well, slap me silly, this little number actually delivers – and in a curious manner. Here, woodwinds (sax and clarinet, specifically) were recorded direct to a lathe-cutting machine, which was used to produce freshly-grooved plastic records. These records were then played back and improvised over, often getting stuck in locked grooves along the way. So in all this bedlam, you hear the hiss of the records, you hear the multiple layers of sound, the seemingly endless loops, the ominous, antique quality to everything. It doesn’t always work, but when it does, it’s leagues more mesmerizing and sonically fascinating than your typical noise release.
The latest triplet from Chicago’s Retrograde Tapes, who impart an alluring minimal design on their lovingly dubbed cassettes, might be the most texturally focused batch I’ve encountered lately. The work of Parashi, a.k.a. Mike Griffin, can be a challenge to wrap your head around – even Retrograde’s Adam Harris href=”http://retrogradetapes.blogspot.ca/2012/02/rgt-07-parashi-silenus.html”>doesn’t get it, but he’s put it out anyway. It’s noisy without being particularly aversive, attacking with an ever shifting armament of low-end sounds (effects pedal feedback, etc) punctured by the squee and squeal of sharp high-pitched stabs. There is a lot to digest on his new C28, Silenius (Retrograde #07), which often seems to revel in its own unpredictability. I’m not sure how I feel about it. I sit here, amidst the rumble, imagining industrial vistas and rusty machine parts churning away, and it’s not unpleasant, but I’m not fully pulled in. Twiddling the volume knob helps, as this tape is dubbed at a fairly low volume (which, for the record, is a good thing!), but there is something about Griffin’s work that sometimes pushes me away – most consistently on the amorphous side B. That said, the most alluring moments are those which build rhythms out of the molten grumble. The bulk of side A revels in this, composing an evil subterranean stone-monster boogie complete with what might be a harmonica made of bones slowly dying. Played real loud, it almost makes you want to divest yourself of your skin and get wiggly.
I’ve been impressed by what I’ve heard in the past from prolific Italian noisehound Nodolby, who also runs the lovely Dokuro label, and this untitled tape (Retrograde #08) lives up to expectations. He’s added a synth to the mix, so we’re already headed towards more accessible territory than the noisespaces offered by Mr. Griffin, but this ain’t Heaven 17. Here, shrouds of rich synths coat the background as pellets of feedback and electronics collide overhead. It’s tranquil but mesmerizing, each sound following an evolving and more or less unpredictable path. At one point, a soothing Dobro guitar enters the fold, spotlighting a dichotomy between the random peripheral sounds and the tasteful discipline of the carefully-stroked strings. At high volume, I find myself drawn in deep to this release, particularly when submerged in darkness; Nodolby’s shimmering synth tones are warm and inviting, and assimilate the tape’s more dissonant elements nicely. As a result, it strikes the right balance between sun-drippin’ new-age mysticism and less ‘accessible,’ disquieting noise. This is the best of Retrograde’s recent batch, and a model for how-to-make-a-tape-Michael-will-like.
…but with all that said, don’t let me discredit Arizona’s J. Morales – who’s deftly managed to hide his full first name from the internet – nor his tape, Crumbling Portals (Retrograde #06), which he’s recorded under the Abusive Consumer moniker. This is a solid cassette unto itself. It falls more under the ‘dark ambient’ tag than the other tapes, meaning it makes you feel like you’re in an elevator shaft. And its ominous, claustrophobic sound is pulled off with the confidence and remorselessness of your darkest industrial act, meaning that when the odd glowing synthesizer is thrown into the mix, it really feels like a ray of hope piercing an otherwise hopeless reality.
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