Jul 12, 2023

The Tape Label Report, July 2023

Welcome to The Tape Label Report, where we introduce you to five cassette-focused labels you should know about, and highlight key releases from each.

Run by George Rayner-Law and D O’Donoghue from their respective homes in South East London and Deal, Brachliegen Tapes initially launched in 2018 as a vehicle for releasing their own output. In 2022, after a slow start (fittingly, the label’s name translates from German as “lie fallow”), the Brachliegen roster expanded rapidly, picking up inventive artists such as Knifedoutofexistence, Sun Yizhou, and Axebreaker. With new releases from Distraxi, Stonecirclesampler, and a follow-up to the sociopolitical decay of Like Weeds’s first tape are on the horizon.

As a label, Brachliegen is equally at home pushing the live-wire, end of days, rhythm & drone chaos of Iceman Junglist Kru and the sound artist manipulations of Left Hand Cuts Off The Right as they are Opal X’s arctic blizzard, the ambiguously named Noise Against Fascism, or even the odd Christmas record. “Even though the material is reasonably diverse, there feels like a continuity in the sound world as experimental sound work or noise,” says O’Donoghue.

For reasons of sonic aesthetics as much as cost, the majority of the label’s repertoire is published on cassette. “Tape is a great medium for a lot of what we put out,” Rayner-Law says. “Slight saturation works really well texturally for noise, especially as a counterpoint to a digital version in contemporary listening habits.” Additionally, “working with cassettes allows us to put out a healthy number of releases without staring down the barrel of complete financial ruin every time we put out a new release,” says O’Donoghue.

With Brachliegen Tapes, they’ve created a home for forward-thinking, experimental artists. Familiar faces, including stalwarts of the noise game, crop up repeatedly, fostering a sense of respect for the past. But despite this close-knit community, the label’s music often invokes society in a state of collapse, reflecting back a withering Britain (where most of the music is from) plundered, debilitated, and divided. Through Rayner-Law and O’Donoghue’s eyes, the future isn’t just bright—it’s burning up in flames.

Perfectly encapsulating Brachliegen’s approach is Iker Ormazabal Martínez’s second outing for the label. Unlimited Dream Company is a juddering, mechanical throb, constructed from rhythmic belters forged as if by clubbing white hot metal lances across an anvil. His gravelly, guttural intonations rasp threateningly over searing drones, bit-crushed synths, and caustic, whipped beats. This is IOM’s assault on the baked-in sensibilities of apathetic Middle England, lighting a furnace beneath their cozy ideologies and recalibrating their weak moral compasses. His industrial noise may be politically fueled, but its gait and groove will rip chunks out of any dance floor bold enough to accommodate it.

Within New York’s vast avant-garde landscape are several record label impresarios on an indefatigable quest to document the moment. Brian Chase’s Chaikin Records and Elliott Sharp’s zOaR imprint are two linchpins of the scene. Infrequent Seams, the label run by James Ilgenfritz, is another vital pillar with a swelling discography exploring the fringes of new music, chamber works, and free improvisation.

The Brooklyn/California-based Ilgenfritz is a freethinking composer, improviser, and bassist who’s collaborated with the late great Pauline Oliveros, Roscoe Mitchell, and Anthony Braxton, just to name a few; his label’s origins can be traced back to a music series in Brooklyn. “Infrequent Seams started as a concert series at a Senegalese restaurant in the late 2000s and became a record label in 2012,” Ilgenfritz explains. “When I released my first solo album, I decided to rearticulate that practice of contextualizing my work by releasing the work of my colleagues as well as my own.”

Infrequent Seams found its raison d’être in practices pioneered by “William Parker (Vision Festival), Oliveros (Deep Listening), Thomas Buckner (Mutable Music), and John Zorn (Tzadik, Avant).” First releasing music on CD and digitally by experimental luminaries like sound artist Andrea Parkins; composer and accordionist Ben Richter; and pianist Eli Wallace, Ilgenfritz branched out into tapes—an art form he embraced as a radio DJ in college—when IS launched the K7 Commissions Series, a monthly subscription in which new releases are issued in a limited cassette run.

Ilgenfritz believes a communal link exists between the ’90s-era culture of DJ-made mixtapes to present-day improvised music. “I mostly focus the K7 Commissions Series around improvised music because there’s an associative quality to free improvised music that connects directly to the values of freeform radio,” he says.

That alliance-building is all over the K7 Series. Ilgenfritz loves String Noise’s Alien Stories, which features commissioned works by five African American improviser-composers; Kyle Bruckmann’s electro-synth double-length cassette Mesmerics/Hindsight; and Ekphrastic Discourse, his trio recording with guitarist Sandy Ewen and saxophonist Michael Foster. Tapes for each of those releases are nearly sold out, but it’s the bonds being forged that are the transcendent factor in Ilgenfritz’s mind. “Tapes, LPs, and CDs all embody this relationship between ephemerality and materiality. It’s never just about what’s captured on one particular release, it’s about the network that’s being built.”

There are many good reasons why Marc Masters included I Continue, the Infrequent Seams debut from Forbes Graham in the July edition of his Best Experimental Music column, but this much is certain: It rips. Recorded at Infrequent Seams Streamfest in 2022, a four-day festival of live performances, video/film art, poetry, dance, and theater, the four pieces that make up I Continue finds Graham spewing out otherworldly noisescapes on trumpet and electronics that ping pong from intensely bone-rattling to trance-level hypnotic.

Founded by Pardo—aka Michele Pauli, formerly of dubby trip hop act Casino Royale—in 2016, OOH-sounds is a home for experimentation that often thrums with warmth. The Florence, Italy-based label has put out projects from musicians including more eaze, Nick Malkin, and Oliver Coates, so one might assume that its catalog is entirely ambient. But it’s actually packed with a range of dynamic sounds, some of which quietly harken back to Pauli’s roots running the drum & bass label SHEE-BEEN in the ‘90s. “Rationality comes in a second phase,” he says, reflecting on how enthusiasm is the main factor behind an OOH-sounds signing.

Much of the OOH-sounds roster hails from English-speaking countries. Pauli has used his broad reach to bring the international avant-garde to Florence. In addition to his work with the label, he hosts the Hand Signed festival, which has booked Beatrice Dillon and Philip Jeck to perform in a historic monastery. Pauli describes his local underground scene as being, “very much in an expansive phase.” OOH-sounds seems to be in a similar period of growth, putting out increasingly impressive physicals like ornate scarves and trendy t-shirts, in addition to well-designed tapes. “I find the collaboration with the artist in developing a visual imagery of their work to be extremely stimulating,” Pauli says. OOH-sounds’s caring, nuanced ethos extends far beyond the music, into every element of a release.

It takes a pretty groundbreaking artist to get dropped in an Aphex Twin DJ set, and Holy Similaun is among those elite few. Built around white noise, crunchy tonalities, and disembodied voice samples, his 2019 EP, Hegenrax, is fluorescent and cerebral. The project uses electronic composition to contrast the motor disorder Apraxia and the chemical reaction Heterogeneous Catalysis. Centered on a sense of rawness, Hegenrax lurks at the challenging outer reaches of the OOH-sounds universe.

Rachel Taylor and Sean Armstrong, the co-founders of Berlin-based Rehberge Records, launched their label in 2022, three years after relocating to the city from Glasgow, UK. The idea came about while the two were walking through their neighborhood park, Rehberge (pronounced ray-bear-ga), in the Wedding district of Berlin.

“We’re always making music and then when you finish something there’s that question, ‘OK I finally finished this, first of all, who is going to want to release this weird piece of music,’” says Taylor. “We’ve both worked with labels and it can be a slow process, especially when you’re a smaller artist.” Both artists been tracking their own tunes onto tape and self-releasing on Bandcamp for several years, dating back to their earliest days of using boombox cassette machines and computer microphones for recording. Armstrong and Taylor are both members of the band Spinning Coin and Taylor is also a member of Hairband.

While filled with strong pop melodies and nods to the old-fashioned songwriting style of guitar-based music cherished in Glasgow, the releases of Rehberge are also abstract and free-flowing. “What we’re doing, it’s not obvious what genre it is,” says Taylor. The music is pure and unfiltered. Songs range from layered spoken word poetry and field recordings over droning synthesizers to hushed lullabies reminiscent of unreleased Elliott Smith songs. “It’s a space for music that is maybe a bit adrift,” adds Armstrong.

Forces stemmed from a chance encounter between Taylor and Spalding. After their meeting, Taylor began looking after Spalding’s child while she worked on her music. When the album was complete, Taylor and Armstrong offered to release the album on cassette.

Throughout Forces, Spalding’s soulful voice glides over sparse arrangements. Standout track “Pearl River” is an acoustic arpeggiated waltz that dissolves into a field recording of rain drops. Each release is hand-dubbed in editions of 30 cassettes.

2008 was a watershed year for the experimental musician Daniel Voigt, head of Frankfurt-based label SicSic Tapes. He fell in with members of the Saarbrücken collective Datashock, started booking experimental shows around Frankfurt with the DIY production outfit Phantom Limbo, and began making his own music under the name Hering und seine sieben Sachen. This was still the heyday of the experimental music blogosphere thanks to sites like Foxy Digitalis, Microphones in the Trees, and the now-extinct fangsandarrows, all of which helped fuel tape-tradings’ serious comeback. “I got heavily into trading tapes,” Voigt says. “And having a label means that you have enough material to trade.”

So in 2009, Voigt started SicSic Tapes together with Johannes Schebler. In its early days, it acted as a vehicle for releasing their own music. (The name, spontaneously chosen, comes from the Inuktitut word for ground squirrel.) The first several releases were splits between Hering und seine sieben Sachen, Schebler’s personal project Baldruin, and various overlapping collaborations involving Voigt, members of Datashock, and Tobias Schmitt. It didn’t take long before Voigt was hooked, and SicSic’s roster expanded to musicians well outside of Frankfurt, then Germany altogether.

“There never was a clear vision in the beginning on how to shape the sound of the label in general,” he says now. “Rather, it should emphasize a certain kind of volatility that reflects the heterogeneity of the music I listen to and collect.” Among that variety: an intriguingly sampled and layered mixtape from Housecraft Recordings chief Jeffry Astin; Köhn’s beeping and pulsing sci-fi-scapes, recorded live using a Dark Energy synthesizer; searching ‘70s-minded ambient from Athens-based Lunar Miasma; and undulating “presentations” by Günter Schlienz made with reel-to-reels and an electric organ. In 2012 SicSic issued a collection of cavernous and percussive live recordings by Limpe Fuchs, the composer whose decades-long career—first as one-half of Anima Musica, then on her own and in collaboration with Theo Jörgensmann, Sebi Tramontana, and more—has made her a pillar of the German musical avant-garde.

Produced and distributed cheaply, Voigt “never made a profit” selling each tape release for five euros a piece. SicSic is DIY, and he’s proud of that. “I like a DIY approach, the process of failing, tape hiss, insecurity, flimsiness, a youthful carelessness prone to imperfection,” he says. “That’s something I want to share with the listener through my recordings.”

Easily one of SicSic’s most immediately accessible tapes, Digest 54 is pure retrofuturist synthesizer music from Cray, aka the Melbourne, Australia-based composer Ross Healy. Patiently constructed using an array of analog machines (including a DSI Tetra, the long-discontinued Roland Jupiter-6, the Buchla 200E, and a Moog Voyager), Digest 54 fluctuates between dusky, Vangelis-esque synthwave and quaking sound collages, with Idiosyncratic Geiger counter crackle and tinny, wobbling frequencies fueling its most melodic moments. Space is the place throughout, but particularly within the midnight-drive-on-Jupiter plateaus of “ugly martian,” itself comparable to the more meditative side of Robin Ogden’s OGRE Sound. You don’t have to be lost inside the neon-lit grid to enjoy it, but it probably wouldn’t hurt.