There's a lot of jibber-jabber these days about the resurgence of vinyl, but if you ask me, that's a little too easy. Records look good, sound good, smell good. Chicks dig 'em, even. It's a no-brainer. You've got special editions, gatefold sleeves, coloured wax, it's Christmas everyday in vinyl-land. But what about cassettes? Cassettes suck. They hiss, they break, they're clunky and they sound like garbage. And that's why I love them.
They’re the underdog, the scruffy no-count of music delivery systems. They don’t even have the nostalgic value of 8 tracks. But they are spectacularly cheap and easy to make. They’re the punk rock of recordable media, and they are staging a glorious underground comeback as we speak. Dozens of cassette-only labels are springing up all over the place, releasing hopelessly obscure, aggressively weird music for (usually) $4 or $5 a pop, perfect for the financially-challenged and musically-adventurous amongst us.
Cassette-culture initially got cooking in the 80’s, championed by tape-obsessive magazines like Option and Sound Choice and pioneered by maverick musicians such as rake-player Eugene Chadbourne and Daniel Johnston, but the advent of the CD (ugh!) and am-pro recording software like Pro-Tools left the bedroom no-fi crowd in the dust. Then everybody went broke, and now the goddamn cassettes are back. Welcome to the post-apocalyptic music industry. It’s like Mad Max, only with 1/8” tape instead of armored motorcycles.
In this column, I will be pointing you towards the newest and noteworthiest of good, bad, and ugly cassette-only (or at least cassette-preferred) releases. All genres are fair-game, although as you will soon see, cassette music is pretty much it’s very own genre these days, one fuelled by desperation, poverty, cheap home recording equipment, drugs, and mental illness. It’s gonna be a sick ride.
**Night Sins **To London or the Lake (Ascetic House)
First of all, you can get this on vinyl on Avant! Records, but, you know, fuck that. Ascetic House is one of the strangest tape-labels out there. They operate from a shack in the desert and produce, design, dub, print, cut and assemble everything by hand. I think they might be a cult. Probably not on the Jim Jones/Manson level, but somewhere in that arena. They specialise in the “obscene, hideous, dangerous, and dirty”, and a fair amount of their stuff basically sounds like a nightmare. So does this one, really, but in a good way. Night Sins is a Philly death-rock band in the early Sisters of Mercy mode, but maybe even colder and definitely meaner. It’s a bleak landscape of stuttering drum beats and staticky synths with monotone vocals and a hazy, 3AM, am-I-dead-or-just-dreaming vibe. The “hit” is the first track on side 2, Bound Round the World, which is a green-gilled goth-club banger if I’ve ever heard one, but my personal fave is closer Neon Light Intoxicants, which sounds like something Eldtrich recorded for Floodland, but thought was too grim even for him. Best of all, Ascetic’s sun-baked all-black tape (initially released during their ambitious/suicidal tape-a-day January Program) is so pock-mocked and wobbly it sounds like it was fished from the bottom of some goth girl’s purse in 1987. Perfect.
**Gost **Self-titled (Graveyard Calling)
I’m not sure where pitch-black dreamwavers Gost are from, but it hardly matters. Let’s just say they’re from under your bed, or from your bedroom closet. Powered by a relentlessly 80’s-obsessed synthesizer, they make jarring-yet-catchy instrumental soundtracks for the bloody slasher movies in your mind. Tracks like Ritual are all hunt and kill, Cascade creeps around in the dark, Within eats you alive from the inside, and Ascension takes over your body and does unspeakable things with it. There’s a cohesion to Gost’s work that suggests they’ve mapped the whole thing out meticulously. You know, like serial killers do. There are parts here you can dance to, but most of the time you’ll be hiding under a desk, praying for morning.
Selfies Bad Blood (Fleshwave)
Fleshwave is a cassette-only label from Detroit that specialises in sleazy lo-fi drug punk. The Selfies is a side project from Drew Owen, the man behind Baltimore destructo-kings Sick Thoughts. Inspired by late 70’s synth-punk (Chrome, basically), he got really high and recorded a bunch of jagged post-punk jams and sent ‘em to Mike Prezzato, the mysterious misanthrope behind Fleshwave, who sang/snorted over the din. The result is a minor masterpiece of villainous, mean-spirited garage-punk. If cassettes had singles (they used to!), Bad Blood’s would definitely by the Black Flag-esque Police Dog, a minute and a half of woozy, unsteady, panicky menace. Elsewhere there’s lot of druggy bullshit about cults and death and a ragged, bloody stab at a new dance craze, Do the Void. I’m into these dudes. They sound like they literally killed the 1970’s.
Harsh Vibes Dead Collective Soul (Dirty Pillows)
I’m assuming these guys are too young to remember that there was a seriously annoying faux-alt/faux-Jesus rock band a decade or two ago called Collective Soul, but thanks for reminding me they’re dead. Harsh Vibes are from Philadelphia, and they sound like what woulda happened if shoegaze started during the height of the Vietnam war. Like Spacemen Three on brown acid. Four songs on two sides that stretch out to infinity (one’s even called Jam Forever) and will have you melting right into the couch, delirious and foaming at the mouth. Unless you know a really cut-rate dealer, this is as high as five bucks can possibly get you.