Experimental electronic curios…
Perhaps one of the most compelling mysteries of the current electronic music scene is the resurgence of interest in the humble cassette. For those of a certain age, it likely conjures memories of rewinding cassettes with the aid of a handy pencil – or attempting to retrieve tape that had decided to wrap itself around the heads of your Binatone cassette deck.
There was still a certain charm to cassettes, mainly encapsulated in the portability of music (in an era before iPods, this was essential). Plus, the vital art of the mixtape was something that became the secret language between friends – and potential love interests.
With the uplift in the interest in vinyl releases in recent years, it seems almost predictable that cassettes would follow on. This is despite the practical issues associated with cassettes and their use. Aside from the inability to jump to the tunes of your choice, the ability to play cassettes can only be achieved by having a cassette deck to begin with. In an era where CD players are being considered obsolete, this is no small issue.
Chiefly, cassette releases appear to be the reserve of small record labels (although larger outfits are still happy to play with the medium, including electropop pioneers OMD who released The Punishment Of Luxury on cassette in 2017). Many of these labels cultivate these releases so they’re as much artefacts as they are a music format. As with vinyl, it gives cassettes a certain kudos when measured against ephemeral downloads and digital releases.
Scottish label The Dark Outside occupies a more left-field position in this market that seems tailor-made for the unusual. The concept was originally designed as a site-specific 24 hour radio broadcast that performed sounds and music in a place where nobody might hear in the darkest place in Scotland. Or as the TDO team explain it: “On a Saturday in October 2012, 24 hours of music that nobody (or next-to-nobody) had ever heard was broadcast in The Galloway Forest to an audience that consisted mostly of goats, deer, bats, red kites, red squirrels and a handful of brave souls who made the journey into the forest to listen”.
Among the early contributors to this intriguing concept were a few well-established names in the electronic music community, including Martyn Ware, Scanner, TVO, Factory Floor, Blancmange, Imogen Heap and Gazelle Twin.
Although the concept included the idea that the broadcast tracks would be immediately deleted after broadcast, the idea that some of these tracks should be preserved for posterity led to the idea of producing limited edition cassettes (there are no digital releases of any of the tracks available).
The tape releases have blossomed into an ongoing archive that feature a wide variety of electronic music alongside some truly unusual compositions. Volume 3 of Music From The Dark Outside is a case in point. Featuring tracks from Curxes, Near Future and Machines in Heaven among others.
Machines In Heaven’s contribution, ‘Last Days of the Trams part III’, is a minimalist composition whose melancholic drone has an oddly mesmerising effect. By the time the solemn vocal element comes in, the whole piece takes on a hymnal quality that has a curious beauty to it.
Curxes sprang back into life recently with the 2017 release of new album Gilded Cage. Here, Roberta Fidora presents a demo track titled ‘Melt You Down’, a sober composition of brooding synths opening into a collage of clashing electronics and vague vocals.
Near Future is a collaboration between Blancmange’s Neil Arthur and Brighton-based musician Jez Bernholz (also co-founder of Anti Ghost Moon Ray art collective that spawned Gazelle Twin). Their contribution, ‘Dark 6’, offers a fractured slice of electronica with indistinct vocals.
Among the other curiosities featured on this release is the haunting tones of ‘The Archer’, an early Grimes-like tune from Versic. Elsewhere, ‘The Neverending Restaurant’ from Doomed Nudes lays down stark beats beneath an obscure vocal element.
On the more experimental side, the contribution from Me, Claudius ‘Benson and Hedges’ is purely George Benson’s ‘Give Me The Night’ overlaid with jarring drill noises. If you can get to the end of this without developing a migraine, then you’re a star.
Closing things out, Quatroconnection’s ‘Baria II’ is a melancholic reverie that also incorporates elements of birdsong.
The cassette also features worthy efforts from the likes of Alt Twin (cosmic spacey vibes), Yaki_Pony (sepulchral electronica) and Stephanie Merchak’s ‘Temporary Malfunction’ (glitchy electronics).
Wrapping things up, the design aesthetic is modelled on the classic BBC logo (often making them hard to discern from the real thing at first).
While the listening process is not always a comfortable one, there’s more than enough winners on the cassette to invite further exploration and other offerings are available from the TDO website. Meanwhile the debate on music formats, from vinyl to cassette and downloads, will no doubt continue for some time yet.