Long Distance Poison
VCO Records cassette 005
Brooklyn based analog synth performers Long Distance Poison craft two side length drone-based compositions on this cassette out on VCO (buy via Discogs).
Both “The Meadow” and “Aethelred” contain drones with an edge – no mushy ambience here. What’s more, the static connotation one can associate with the term ‘drone’ gives little idea of the pliability and motility of the held tones here. Overtones abound, gradually accumulating; but the group holds off on punctuating the sound environment with melodic or noise-based interjections until a sense of the spaciousness of the grounding material is firmly established. The belated arrival of contrasting elements, many in the treble register, creates pointed interjections and a rousing response to the already rich sheen that has accrued. This is music that one is glad to have linger in the air and sad, at its conclusion, to have evaporate all too soon.
Those who think that, in our digital rich age, cassette must be a compromised medium with which to share audio need to hear this: it will likely disabuse them of that notion. Analog synths thrive in this analog medium. Long Distance Poison proves that their gear and its method of distribution needn’t, despite this tape’s title, seem ancient. What is old makes decidedly new sounds on Ancient Analogues.
A sampler’s paradise and a vivid musical time capsule, Lixiviation is a compilation of analog synth guru Suzanne Ciani’s commercial work, as well as studio and live excerpts, from 1969-1985. It includes numerous clips for Atari, TV commercial spots (with clients ranging from Coca-Cola to PBS), a clip from a live concert using Buchla gear in 1975, and excerpts from her contributions to film scores (including the title track, a collaboration with mercury sculptor Ronald Mallory).
The versatility of projects represented is matched by versatility of sonic approaches. Indeed, it’s interesting to hear such a wide chronological swath of the synthesist’s work. A decade and a half, particularly in these relatively early days of the development of synthesizer technology, encompasses multiple generations of gear; as well as, for Ciani, a significant evolution of aesthetic orientation and artistic approach. The general move is from a more ambient, slowly evolving, and improvisatory approach to leaner, tauter structures (as befits working within the constraints of corporate project time frames). The CD makes apparent the debt owed to Ciani by new age, bleep, glitch, sci-fi scores, ambient electronica, and those spearheading today’s analog synth revival.
A (small) caveat: Lixiviation is not curated from a chronological vantage point: its tracks are arranged somewhat more whimsically, perhaps to demonstrate the diversity of approaches adopted by Ciani. Nor are all the tracks precisely dated in the liner notes. Those looking for more a accurate provenance for some of the music will have to do a bit of web sleuthing (in the name of pop musicology) on their own.
Bryter Layter is the synth duo of Joseph Raglani (who records for Kranky) and Mike Pollard (who records for Arbor). This is their second release (their first, Imprinted Season appeared on Arbor in 2009). Like many recent analog synth sets (particularly those of the short run variety) Bryter Layter isn’t averse to soundscaping and even occasionally luxuriating in a warmth bed of synth drones (see “Second Light”). But before one relegates them to the “synth drone” set, there are also several cuts here that focus on small wisps of melody, accumulating them into linear tapestries that bustle with motion and revel in the power of the ostinato. Indeed, “Understanding Independence” adopts a graceful balletic groove, over which are laid in succession several memorable and diversely hued melodies. “The Shadow of Your Smile” – which in no way resembles the standard by the same name – instead is filled with anthemic music for an alien imperial court: the type of sci-fi soundtrack that you wish more of the original analog adopters had thought to make. Recommended.
One of the reasons why recording buffs may be leaping onto the tape bandwagon: the “scavenger hunt” factor. Let’s face it, there are fewer and fewer “brick and mortar” places to browse for music. Where’s a record head to go to experience the thrill of the chase? Instead of browsing the stacks, are we consoling ourselves with searching the internet far and wide for that elusive short-run cassette (1 of only 30 or 40!)?
In the case of the Aloha Spirit’s “This is Water,” their debut release, the music is a hefty part of the equation too: an ambient mix of analog synths, field recordings, and loops aplenty. I’m still in the hunt for a physical copy, but in the meantime, the stream on their Bandcamp page has whetted my appetite for more from this Austin-based project.
Gamma Graves is a prime example of the kind of release that has helped to fuel the cassette resurgence on the indie/experimental music scene. Produced by a variety of sources, from bedroom DIY collectives and small tape-only labels to established imprints like Ecstatic Peace, the audio cassette format, long thought extinct, is back. Tapes have been unassumingly encroaching their way onto the shelves of connoisseur collectors and music critics (no less than Steve Smith is a devotee): even record sellers such as Insound and Other Music have made room for them again.
The Brooklyn triumvirate of synthesizer performers Nathan Cearley and Erica Bradbury and prepared guitarist Casey Block comprise Long Distance Poison. Armed with vintage gear by Moog, Arp, and Roland, they create experimental soundscapes with a sense of history, referencing everyone from David Borden and early Philip Glass to Keith Rowe, Alva Noto, Ryoji Ikeda, and Derek Bailey. Drone-based foundations are overlaid with coruscating ostinato loops and distressed with pointed interjections.
Gamma Graves is the type of music that would have been just fine to distribute digitally (or via CD). Indeed, some purists might argue that cassette is an inherently inferior audio format to hi-res digital played through good equipment (by no means do most consumers play their MP3s through good equipment). So, why do I like having it on cassette? I find the noise imparted by tape and deck to do no harm to this music: in fact, it adds another, subtle, layer of drones to the proceedings that is consonant with the musical intentions of the work.
The tape as artifact yields something important too. Limited runs of handmade cassettes are often lovingly attired with artwork more expansive and, obviously, more tangible than any JPEG can provide. They are a reminder of a bygone era in which the physical release WAS the release, in which tape-trading and digging in bins for rarities was a hobby to enthusiastically pursue: not something simulated in online forums and furtively grasped at brick and mortar outposts now few and far between. Long Distance Poison (and Ecstatic Peace) acknowledge their debt to history not only via musical reference points, but through the resonances found in a cassette as relic and artwork. Try finding all that in a computer file.