Tabs Out | Space Age Pressure Pad #5: Already Dead Tape Club and what I’ve been listening to

Space Age Pressure Pad #5: Already Dead Tape Club and what I’ve been listening to
12.10.18 by Scott Scholz

Greetings, dear readers! It’s been a hot minute since the last SAPP installment, and I’ve just finished a whirlwind of organizing and computer upgrading with hopes that I’ll be able to do more writing in the coming weeks and months. A big part of organizing was figuring out how to comprehensively address tapes, which have been gradually accumulating into their own drawers and piles all over my house. They’re all comfortably nestled together in my studio now, in an innovative organizational scheme that I like to call “Scottological order.” Tapes present some different challenges than vinyl and CDs, in my experience: because tape labels and their clever curation are such a fundamental element of the cassette underground, it makes sense to do most primary sorting by label, and secondarily parse by chronology/catalog numbers rather than alphabetical order. But then there are always exceptions, particular artists whose bodies of work necessitate keeping them together regardless of label. And of course there are the odd-sized releases and compilations that present their own organizational challenges.

In the case of making my own space more functional, I found that I had to split three broad categories of material into their own separate shelving system due to the sheer volume of material. German Army and their many many many side projects required their own split-off storage space, and even the simple act of placing them together reminded me what a huge impact that artist has had on my own thinking about music and culture in the last five years or so. And two prolific labels necessitated their own more spacious housing, too: Constellation Tatsu and Already Dead Tapes.

A mere 12 hours after I finished putting the last Already Dead releases into their new digs, the label announced a fascinating new “Tape Club” concept for 2019, and the timing couldn’t be more perfect for my thinking about the scope and depth of their work. I was just musing to myself about what an unusual, singular label Already Dead is–they’re far more prolific each year than the typical label, and their curatorial impulses are much broader.

The idea of the Already Dead Tape Club is pretty straightforward: you make one payment up front, and you’ll get copies of every tape release they do in 2019 shipped straight to your door. You can read all about it and sign up right here.

For any other label, I would honestly be pretty skeptical about this concept. But I think Already Dead is the perfect tape label to pull this off: the combination of broad genre representation in the AD catalog, from avant-pop to jazz to rock/punk/hardcore to experimental to hip-hop and many points in between (all excellent specimens of their respective approaches), and the unusual volume of tapes they release each year, means that you’re going to go on a lot of adventures if you sign up for this club. And you’re probably going to learn about some new-to-you artists that you’ll want to keep following, and that’s just about the best thing about tape labels, if you ask me.

It’s that time of year where folks who write and think about music start forming “best of the year” lists in their heads, and just as an example of how killer Already Dead is, there are six AD releases from 2018 on my shortlist for the best of the best. They are:


Fuck Lungs – Honeysuckle
The second outing for this Curt Oren/Joe Hess sax/drums duo, “Honeysuckle” is a very different experience than their free-jazz blowout debut. These pieces still carry a certain free-improv informality, but this round digs deep into sound exploration. I’m not sure if everything is live with some loops or if there are some overdubs (I’m thinking overdubs?), but these jams have as much vertical density as horizontal at times. Take “Now Is Not the Time,” for example, which starts off in a sonic space between Sun Ra and the latest Bjork album, coalescing into some digitally-manipulated sound exploration, from tribal outer spaces to trippy innerspace in under four minutes. Album closer “You Live Alone” is spacious and anthemic, and you’d swear Oren’s horns are turning into synth pads. But if you were into the fire music freakouts of the debut, don’t fear–there are jams like “Honeysucker” and “Lunar Tunes” waiting to rip your face off.

The Myriad Ones – The Hardest Part
Sometimes the wide range of artists featured on Already Dead come together in new collaborations, and this one is absolutely fascinating. Prolific maestro Bob Bucko Jr. comes together with guitar ripper Storm Ross, along with a cast of other AD alums, and the results are fascinating. Many of the tunes are uptempo rock numbers, a bit more aggressive than BBJr’s recent song-oriented works, and Ross fires off some epic guitar runs and tuneful riffs. But sometimes the more drone- and pedal point-oriented approach of BBJr takes over, and we get to hear Ross take on more relaxed-tempo vibes than usual. I don’t listen to a lot of “rawk” these days, but I find “The Hardest Part” quite easy to put on, with some nods to classic rock and roll forms and tones, but with a forward-thinking and free approach. And that redemptive post rock-flavored album closer, “Samsara,” ohmigaga.

Schneider/Complainer – s/t
AD regulars Complainer, another excellent duo project featuring Mabel Suen and Joe Hess on horns/drums, took on a long-distance collaboration with Jörg Schneider of Jealousy Mountain Duo and Nicoffeine, and the results are near perfection. Schneider, one of my favorite drummers in the world, suffered a major setback a couple of years ago, with hand injuries that have prevented him from playing regularly and touring. As luck and perseverance would have it, though, Jörg can still play, as long as he limits his time behind the kit. As a long-time international road warrior, he’s met and played with great musicians all over the world in rock and jazz scenes, and he’s met his new circumstances with the brilliant idea of doing studio collaborations with folks from all over the place. These pieces were made by bouncing tracks between St. Lous and Hückelhoven, Germany, but you’d never guess they weren’t knocked out in the same room. Killer ideas and great playing all around. And by the way, I would be remiss not to note that Jörg is starting to rack up a number of these kinds of collaborations, which he’s making available digitally and on vinyl here if you’re excited to hear more.

Curt Oren – For Sam, Forever Ago
Mr. Oren is probably best known for his bari sax prowess, having solo circular-breathed his way around the country many times in the last decade. But this solo album, dedicated to his recently-departed dog Sam, is a compositional and emotional tour de force, full of surprises and deeply-felt playing (a lot like having a dog!). Tender lyricism, rich orchestration, and great contrasts between small and ginormous aural spaces make this album feel like a real travelogue, conceptually lingering at those moments in life that spark complex memories of joy and pain intertwined. It’s not an upbeat-sounding album overall, flirting with a spectrum of melancholy flavors, yet somehow I always come away from it feeling rejuvenated and ready to make some complex memories of my own.

Comfort Food – Falling Up a Down Escalator
As I’ve mentioned here before, Chicago’s Comfort Food lays down a fascinating groove- and loop-based form of jazz that reminds me of the heady times in the mid-90s when you could be playful and serious and danceable and still be “jazz.” In addition to the RIYL references of Joey Baron and Sex Mob I made regarding their last outing, I’d add Critters Buggin to the list this time–grooves skitter and fragment, basses run through weird harmonizers, and strange synthetic drones cut in and out of the mix in a way I can’t remember hearing since the weirdest moments in the CB discography. But there were twice as many people in that band–Comfort Food is especially notable, I think, in feeling just as wild and unrestrained, while obviously having to do a lot more up-front compositional planning to make these arrangements possible with two people. But don’t listen because it’s a technical marvel–listen because it’s marvelously fun to chase this pair down some of the weirdest alleys that ever rocked a freaky beat.

Dotson – De/termination
Ryan already did a nice ‘lil writeup of this banger last month, but to expand on that for a moment: I’ve been following Dotson’s work closely since his first self-released tape, and his musical journey never ceases to surprise and impress me. On “De/termination,” I’m most struck by the relentless rhythms, which featured on tracks like “Compulsion” off his previous tape “Indifference,” but have grown faster, harder, and more prominent. And I love it. Some of Dotson’s earlier works spoke to me in terms of juxtaposing textural materials over relatively longer spans of time, while this tape hits with uncompromising immediacy. In “these troubled times,” as it were, the evolution feels right: these pieces have lots of subtlety to offer, but they come out swinging and pull you inside first.


So what might next year bring in the Tape Club format? There’s a tentative list at the bottom of their signup page, but the only way to find out for sure is to take the plunge and sign up.

Tabs Out | Space Age Pressure Pad #4: The Ataraxia meditation series on Crash Symbols

Space Age Pressure Pad #4: The Ataraxia meditation series on Crash Symbols
10.12.18 by Scott Scholz

During the first round of “cassette culture” in the late 70s and 80s, all kinds of less-commercial music that the big labels didn’t want to touch blossomed on tape. From noise/improv experiments, to homegrown weirdo songwriting, to new age musical mood stabilizers, artists and audiences did their own thing in the absence of outside pressure, and found each other through the mail. These DIY and DIO (“do-it-ourselves,” my preferred way of looking at it) scenes are often discussed in terms of the punk rock ethos, and that’s certainly true, but I think it’s also fair to say that the new age movement was even more punk than punk when it came to taking control of their own destiny. From these scenes, we were gifted with the beginnings of the mellow synth zoners, east/west sacred fusions, and serene field recording scenes we still enjoy today.

One area of the “cassette revival” that hasn’t reached back so much to the OG scenes, though, relates to meditation tapes. One can get on eBay to find the vestigial remains of guided meditation jams, often issued in series form on tape and later CD, that straddled a line between spiritual practices, self-help, and new-at-the-time tech ideas like subliminal encoding, but there hasn’t been a ton of action lately tapping into that stream. Enter Ataraxia, a new series from Crash Symbols!

The Ataraxia series was launched last year with “Heart and Insight Meditations” by Jesse Fleming, accompanied by the music of Electric Sound Bath. Fleming’s delivery, a gentle West coast seaside patois, is dressed in a bit of reverb, and combined with the subtle dynamic shifts of Electric Sound Bath, sounds especially good to me cranked through a nice pair of speakers. Lay down, close your eyes, and you can easily slip into an imaginary group setting and ride some peaceful waves with this very live-sounding recording. Or you can slump back a little in your favorite chair and vibe on the video Electric Sound Bath produced to accompany the A-side of this recording:

It’s no accident that this collaboration takes on such a fresh, extemporaneous kind of live feel: Electric Sound Bath and Fleming collaborated on a regular “Sunday Sit” mindfulness series at the 356 Mission Gallery in LA (RIP), and the music featured here was captured from the first two of those sessions in 2015. For those of us who live in places that generally don’t have a lot of sessions like this, this tape is a great way to feel connected to the contemporary mindfulness scene.

This year, Ataraxia Series #2 has arrived, featuring Chuck Pereda and Natalia Szendro as your meditation guides, with some deep synth zoneouts by Pulse Emitter as support. I found this one to be more effective as a headphone kind of jam–the voice recordings here are clean, dry, and present on this tape, and feel like they’re going right into your brain if you go the Walkman route. Daryl Groetsch/Pulse Emitter makes the perfect accompaniment here, with a beautiful, memorable thematic idea that’s quite soothing yet invigorating during the Introduction section, becomes more subdued and tender during the main Meditation, and returns gently to the theme at the Comedown.

Mexico City DJ Chuck Pereda proves to be a very astute practitioner of the Yoga Nidra Meditation practice, delivering a very thoughtful English-language abridgement of a traditional Yoga Nidra script, and then translating the whole thing into Spanish for side B. Very awesome to think of how many more folks might find this tape useful from the bilingual approach alone! Pereda opens and closes the tape, with Natalia Szendro taking over the main guided meditation section in the center. It all sounds beautifully polished and utterly present and like the sort of thing you’d have to pay a month’s rent to experience at some fancy retreat. But you can still snag your very own copy of this one over at the Crash Symbols Bandcamp page.

I’m very excited about the future prospects for this series, and wondered what the Crash Symbols folks might have in store, so I fired off some questions to their HQ in West Virginia to find out. As expected, lots of interesting plans are afoot, and I learned about a couple of new-to-me labels worth checking out along the lines of contemporary aural meditations, too. Read on, friends, as Dwight Pavlovich spills the beans–and who doesn’t love beans?

It looks like you’re planning to nest the Ataraxia series within the broader Crash Symbols catalog, as opposed to splitting it off as a discrete sublabel. How do you see the series in relation to the more stylistically-dispersed discography of Crash Symbols?

Dwight, Crash Symbols: I don’t instinctively see a separate identity adding value for us or listeners. We do have specific intentions for the series within the catalog, but they overlap with our larger goals generally – I guess that’s why it seemed sensible to handle somewhat together. We’re trying to put out tapes and records that are fun, interesting, or engaging in different ways, and I think our take on guided meditation feels worth exploring alongside other sounds.

Having said that, I do think the overlap will make more and more sense as the series fleshes out.

I find the name of the series itself fascinating, as it points toward a kind of meditative experience that is more active than passive. Is there a particular school of philosophy or a specific meditative practice you’re drawing from as initial guidance?

No, but I’m glad that’s how you read it! We hope the name communicates that direction. Calmness, serenity, etc, that’s all fine, but it’s the element of balance between inner and outer spaces. If you just google around a bit I think the most satisfying short definition you’ll find is “robust equanimity.” Going back to your last question a bit, we like the idea of active renewal, and we see music and guided meditation as similarly connected to the sort of interior practices that build a rigorous awareness of context and self.

Are you planning to focus the series on guided meditations or will some installments be instrumental?

We will probably have some instrumental releases, and at least give more options for how to listen to each new installment. I think there are lots of labels that do ambient music extremely well, that live up to a genuine range of the associations and expectations listeners might have for that dimension, but not much I would compare to what we’re imagining.

We have had some pleasant surprises though. This year Matt and Ash’s wonderful Flower Room imprint has been doing some great stuff in a related vein. We’re just finishing up prep for a release with Matt, but we’re also hoping that we can all collaborate within the series before too long.

Thinking of the work of Electric Sound Bath on the first tape in the series, is there a bit of kinship with the Deep Listening concepts of Pauline Oliveros? I’ve long thought that portions of her catalog walk a very interesting line between high-focus listening and a more meditative experience, though still on the lucid side of things, which again makes me think of the state of Ataraxia. And of course I’m wondering if there’s any considerations along these lines related to subsequent releases as well…

Absolutely, and at this stage at least I imagine an instrumental experience would build on that premise of deep listening.

Folks like Fleming that do a lot of mindfulness work across multiple media platforms make me wonder about the nature of the Ataraxia series in terms of your own “vibe” around it: is it intended to feel like a bit of a “throwback” to the meditation tapes of the 80s that were quite common, a new thing, a bit of both, up to the listener…?

I think we connect our nostalgia for the “vibe” with our optimism around the practice. We’re not really aiming for a throwback, so much as a continuation, by connecting as responsibly as we can with what we can – in short, a bit of both!

There can be a fine line though. A lot of new age material has traditionally worked in a palette that’s meant to be accessible and encouraging, so occasionally it seems weird to see how labels or designers perhaps unconsciously enforce more dogmatic aspects of traditional practice.

Along the same lines, might there be any multi/intermedia projects in the future of the project, like including video images, incense or aromatherapy resources, etc, bundled with tapes?

Absolutely! Brian from Electric Sound Bath did some simple visualizations for volume one, but we are excited to think about more when the time comes. Soap Library is a groovy label that’s done some cool stuff in that vein.

Any future Ataraxia releases you can talk about yet?

We have a sort of multimedia stage meditation developing with our friend Jon Bernson in San Francisco. The final form may evolve, but we’re excited to see where he takes it.

We also have at least four more conventional pairings of musicians and readers.

This may differ on subsequent releases, of course, but is there a general plan to have one full meditation per side of tape, or should listeners plan to listen to both sides in relatively quick succession?

Right, generally we’re planning to have two sides of distinct content – whether it’s two meditations or one meditation in two languages. That may change case by case, but the goal is to give listeners something substantial with each release.

Tabs Out | Bus Gas / Amulets – split

Bus Gas / Amulets – split
9.18.18 by Scott Scholz

Two households, both alike in gritty ambience,
In fair Portland, where we lay our scene,
From ancient grunge break to new unity,
Where tape-loop’d sounds make playback heads unclean.
From forth the fatal loins of Spring Break flows
A pair of star-cross’d droners make their tapes;
Whose misadventur’d piteous overthrows
Doth with their co-release describe a nation’s soundscapes.

Shakespeare paraphrases aside, this new pair of jams might be better described as a tale of two cities. For many years, guitar- and tape loop-drenched cassettes drifted out of Austin as Randall Taylor’s solo project Amulets grew and developed. A day’s drive due north, a rotating cast of bearded characters in Lincoln, Nebraska were performing and recording as Bus Gas. In the last few years, both acts relocated to Portland, Oregon, where their paths would intertwine both geographically and musically.

The music on this “companion release” (a great way to describe a split that uses two tapes instead of splitting sides on one) would certainly make two fine independent releases, but Spring Break Tapes knows a good thing when they hear one, and there is an undeniable synergy found in bringing Bus Gas and Amulets together within one double-tall Norelco case. There is a shared approach to music, integrating live instruments and tape loops and processing to the degree that it’s sometimes impossible to guess the source of these pensive sounds. And the albums are further connected through a brilliant approach to artwork, designed by Bus Gas veteran Eric Nyffeler who combined images from 9 contributing artists, featuring a series of diecut panels whose fragments can be rearranged into new visual corollaries to the music.

The Amulets tape for this set, entitled “Mountains Past,” will feel familiar to fans of Taylor’s previous releases. A lot of the material is made from virtuoso-level manipulation of homemade tape loops, while synths create gentle pads and guitars sometimes rise through the surface ambience to articulate gentle melodies. Nobody is better than Amulets at making evocative, sometimes symphonic textures out of loops, while letting the grit and low-fi sounds of the machines working become part of the narrative. Some of the guitars, particularly on the title track, remind me a bit of Bus Gas journeys in the past, nicely connecting the albums.

For their part, Bus Gas connects right back to Amulets with an overall more subdued approach than their last few albums. “Immortal Yeller” is less post-rock and more ambient, with fewer guitar melodies and more emphasis on slowly-evolving textures and chordal work. Outside of occasional guitar arpeggio sections, it seems like guitar work here has either been rendered unrecognizable by effects, or transformed into samples that all three members of this latest lineup can deploy as needed. While synths and intermittent piano parts take a more assertive role, I must admit that my favorite pieces here still lean into guitar: “Hell’s Cape” has some heavy guitar playing that would be right at home on their last album, and album closer “Still Lifeless,” one of my favorite pieces in their catalog, takes on a tried-and-true post-rock shape, building to a climax about 3/4ths into its running time before coming to rest on some lovely fingerpicking passages.

It must be said that both Amulets and Bus Gas make perfect sense together as companions in a relatively uncrowded scene, somewhere between post-rock and ambient, gradually assuming the gravitas of minimalist classical influences. So many tapes that come my way fall relatively neatly into “modular blips” or “noise improv” or “synth zoner” camps, which is great, but these folks don’t sound like anybody else while being quite complementary to one another. Companions, indeed. I’ve long thought of both artists as lending themselves to a certain air of nostalgia, with their use of subtle noise, grit, and distorted/re-recorded materials evoking “aging memories” like fading photos and peeling paint, but I must admit to sensing an urgency in spirit now. In “these troubled times,” as it were, the stakes seem higher, trouble is looming around the corner, and I can’t help feeling like they’re exposing tensions and anxieties just beneath our collective contemporary surface this time around. But you’d best decide that for yourself: This double-tape sold out at source almost immediately, but you can still find copies at the respective Bandcamp pages of Amulets and Bus Gas right now. The release date is Friday, and you can still get in line for the zeitgeist.

Tabs Out | Space Age Pressure Pad # 3: Scoring rad decks

Space Age Pressure Pad # 3: Scoring rad decks
4.14.18 by Scott Scholz

This week, I thought it might be fun to talk about places to find cassette decks, as well as some principles behind picking out potentially good decks on the used market. Despite cassette sales rising considerably in recent years, there aren’t really any legit new decks. If you want noisy gadgets w/USB outputs intended to make mediocre mp3s out of your parents’ old tapes, sure, there are a few decks and walkman-style devices you can get on the cheap. But if you really want to hear what’s on those all those new tapes you’re wrangling from around the world, you’re going to need to think about strategies for finding old decks.

There are some online forums where you can find useful information about decks, but it seems to me that there are, broadly speaking, two kinds of “cassette enthusiasts” out there these days. The first is the audiophile/retrogrouch type of person, and that’s where most of the forum chats tend to gravitate. These folks spend more money on ancient new-old-stock blank metal (Type IV) tapes than it costs to snag the latest title on your favorite underground tape label. When they’re not comparing the differences between different years of Type II chemical formulations for popular blank tape brands of the 80s, they’re trying to make perfect copies of their pristine records on tape onto these godforsaken overpriced blanks.

But I think most of the readers of Tabs Out will fall into the 2nd category, which is a bunch of ladies and gentlemen whose main goals with tape are simply enjoying new music. That includes us here at the Space Age Pressure Pad, where the colloquial “we” think records and tapes are meant to be played, and blank tapes are for recording and dubbing brand-new music to get out there in the world. So there are going to be some practical considerations that might differ from the habits of home-audio(phile) enthusiasts: you want jams to sound as awesome as possible, of course, but you don’t want to spend your weekends rebuilding tape decks. You want to spend your money on new tapes and on music-making gadgets of your own, not rare cassette machines. And you might need to make small runs of copies at home on occasion, so dual decks aren’t so verboten as they are for the audiophile crowd. With those considerations in mind, let’s think about general cassette deck designs.

What decks are we looking for?

At the height of commercial cassette popularity, there were some truly astonishing tape decks produced. But there were also some budget and mid-priced machines that may do just what you need as a listener/microlabel operator today. For our purposes, let’s divide the spectrum of cassette players you’re likely to find into three categories: consumer decks, professional decks, and audiophile decks.

Consumer decks fell on the low to mid-priced spectrum, and you’ll find a wide range of quality among these. They tend to be built out of lighter materials, and they may have fewer features like direct pitch control, azimuth adjustment, tape type bias selection, or extended flavors of Dolby. They’re almost certainly 2-head (record/play) designs rather than having 3 heads, which allows you to do some real-time monitoring of recording quality. Most of these are dual well designs, where you can have two tapes set to play, or dub from one tape to another. Most have single capstans, which means the tape might get a bit more “wiggle” as it’s playing, but sometimes you’ll find double capstans, or maybe double capstans in the “record” deck and a single in the playback-only deck.

Semipro Tips: look for late 90s/early oughts models–these were often “deal sweeteners” thrown in for free when folks were buying speakers/amps/CD players at stereo and big-box stores, and they probably weren’t used much by their new CD-rocking owners. Or they just “came with” the overall stereo setup, that sort of thing. The decks from that vintage might not be as heavily built as 70s and 80s decks, but they’ve also spent a decade or two less in hot/humid conditions in attics and basements than their older siblings, with corroding circuit boards and dried-out belts and rollers.

Some probably-reliable brands: JVC (I have great luck with modest old JVCs sounding awesome), Technics, Yamaha, Sony, some Nakamichi, Technics, NAD, Pioneer, older Aiwa, Akai, etc.

There were decks marketed as “professional” decks, which you could often recognize by the inclusion of rack ears in their design. Generally in the middle to upper-middle price range, and intended to be good-sounding and mechanically durable workhorses for places like recording studios and radio stations, these machines were built to handle a little more use than your typical lower-priced consumer tape deck. Some of these are dual decks, and some are single. Most have double capstans.

Semipro Tips: I think the Tascam 202mk line is a pretty solid choice for doing home dubbing, and they sound pretty good for listening, too. But if you’re going to work with Dolby, be warned that the 202mkV was the last of the line with Dolby B–the VI doesn’t have it. And I have to be honest: I think Dolby B is a good thing for most program material. Almost all of the consumer-grade decks will have it, too, and it’ll keep most hum/hiss out of your quiet passages for your future tape-buying audience.

Brands: Tascam, Marantz, some Yamaha and Denon models, etc.

Then we have audiophile-grade decks. These mysterious creatures tend to weigh a ton, and they have enough knobs and switches to emulate an airplane control panel. These are gonna be single decks with double capstans.

Semipro Tips: Lots of bells and whistles means lots of potential problems. Proprietary parts. Complicated inner workings. No dubbing tape-to-tape. But if you’re got the scratch and they’re in great shape, you’ll have a great time listening to synth zoners and noise walls in the equivalent of analog technicolor, like some kind of cassette royalty. In general, I stay out of the fray in the audiophile scene, because there’s no way I can justify spending what these decks go for. However, if you find something like a Nakamichi Dragon at your local Goodwill for 20 bucks, you gotta go for it, obviously! Don’t even test that thing, just bring it home and figure out how to proceed later.

Brands: Nakamichi, Tandberg, Luxman, Bang & Olufsen, various top-of-the-line models from other companies.

Where do we find these things?

Now that we’re in the magical age of the internet, it’s never been easier to find old tape decks, or to find advice for fixing ‘em up on the cheap. Here are a few of my go-tos when it’s time to look for a new deck:

Thrift stores: in my area, we have a Goodwill dedicated to electronics gadgets. There’s a lot of junk, and a lot of broken junk, but every few months something cool shows up for a pretty good price. I’ve snagged a number of useful decks and walkmans there under 20 clams. It’s always worth a look at these places, especially if they have a testing area.

Craigslist: I’ve snagged a few good decks from CL postings–and sometimes it’s from seeing a cool deck in the background of a photo for somebody selling a power amp or speakers or other stereo junk. They may be planning to just toss the old thing, assuming that nobody would want to buy a cassette deck in 2018. Give ‘em an email or a call if you spy something cool.

Facebook marketplace: this is starting to take off, so keep an eye on there, too. Pretty much the same principle as Craigslist: peep those stereo gear listings.

Garage sales: you find cool tapes and records for next to nothing sometimes, and that happens occasionally with tape decks, too. There’s a fellow near me who seems to scrounge around rather successfully for old electronics, including decks, who has an ongoing garage sale nearly every weekend, and if you find folks like that, tell ‘em what you’re looking for and leave your number. They might have better luck than you!

Dumpster diving: I bike around more than drive, and I’ll see folks put turntables and tape decks out for the trash pickup sometimes. The price is right, no? Snag now and test later.

Ebay: maybe it’s come to this? You’re going to pay more, no doubt, but if you see what you want and you can swing it, save yourself some time. Be aware that these decks are just as likely to have near-failing parts as something you find in a thrift store, though, even if the seller says it’s all tip-top. And shipping old machines has a way of rattling parts loose, so you’ll want to do a good once-over on your new deck upon arrival. But there are deals to be found even here, especially if you’re looking for “sleeper” models that don’t have the kind of reputation folks associate with old Naks and that kind of higher-end mania.

Semipro tips for testing decks on the fly

Take a peek in the tape well with the little light on your cell phone: is it pretty clean? Do the rubber parts look dried out? If the heads look shot, it’s probably not worth screwing around with it, unless it’s a fancy audiophile deck. And even then, just resell it at a silly profit on ebay to some tinkerer audiophile type and buy some more tapes.

Take a quick look at the power supply cord and the buttons–if you have broken stuff or frayed wiring, best to just move on. We don’t want to be here all day evaluating junk, do we?

Bring along a tape you’re familiar with to test decks–you’re listening for sound quality, background noise, sound stage, etc, hopefully both through headphones and through some speakers if possible. If that tape features a recording with prominent acoustic piano or mallet percussion, so much the better–you can check for wow and flutter if you hear instruments like those wavering up and down in pitch. And if you want to get really picky, stick your metronome with a tuning “A 440” note in your pocket (or maybe a tuning fork, or a tone generating app, whatever you’ve got), and bring a tape that has lots of A-notes with you. Then you can see if the deck is running fast or slow against a stable tuning pitch.

If the tape has Dolby, give that a try, too.

If you find yourself without a tape, but you’re at a thrift store, take a gander around–they probably have something that will work. Just be aware that if you hear a problem, it could be a janky tape, too. Maybe grab two of ‘em before testing.

If it’s a dual deck and you’re going to be using it for some dubbing, bring a blank tape, too, and dub a bit of a side. Same deal: you’re looking for good sound, low noise, faithful stereo field reproduction, stable and true pitch.

Light maintenance issues

Upon bringing a new deck home, you should plan on doing some quick-and-dirty maintenance stuff just to make sure things are running as best as they can. I’ll often do some basic cleaning while the machine is still outdoors–you never know where it’s been, after all, so taking a look under the hood and searching for signs of insect life is probably a good idea. Then it’s a matter of a little compressed air, and you’re good to go.

I’m not a wildly mechanically-inclined person, but there are some pretty painless basic maintenance things you can do to keep your decks working well without having to be a major electronics tinkerer. I keep a bottle of Rubber Renue on hand for rubber parts–just get a little on your rollers with a q-tip and let them dry off. For heads, very gently clean them with as high a percent isopropyl alcohol that you can find and another q-tip (don’t mix those q-tips up!). For various motor noises or just general upkeep, I use some light sewing machine oil–open the case on your deck, and look for the oil intake spot on your motor(s). Put a drop or two on a toothpick, and let it run down to the proper spot. No biggie, really.

Beyond that, you might occasionally find yourself needing to replace a belt or an idler tire or something of that nature. These are pretty easy operations, and you can find tips on those cassette forums or by watching youtube videos. The parts tend to be super cheap from online supply stores, too–you’ll probably pay more for shipping the belts you need than the belts themselves cost. If things get more involved than that, I usually leave ‘em to the pros, but you can extend the life of these things for nearly nothing with just a little practice. And hey, if you found the thing for cheap and you make a mistake, it’s not too hard of a hit.

There’s another thing that tech-oriented folks sometimes get hyper about, and that’s demagnetizing. Do you need to demagnetize the deck you just picked up, or do it on a regular schedule? The answer is often “no.” If you’re using a 2-head deck, you demagnetize the heads every time you take the machine in and out of record mode. If you’re worried about it, pop a tape in and hit “record” for a few seconds, then stop, and you’re back in business. In most normal situations, your deck needs an occasional cleaning more than a demag, which gets those magnetized particles out of there. However, if a machine has been sitting around for years with bits of tape oxide gunk inside, it’s possible that the heads will need a demag (and maybe even capstans with magnetic particles stuck to them for a long time). After the initial round, though, just keep things clean, and you’ll be good to go.

Happy hunting, and more importantly, happy listening!

Tabs Out | Space Age Pressure Pad #2: Already Dead Tapes

Space Age Pressure Pad #2: Already Dead Tapes
3.31.18 by Scott Scholz

This week, I’m firing up the analog time machine and taking us on a trip back in time. That’s one of the great things about cassettes: you can pop these little audio documents in your deck any time you’d like, and the memories come flooding back as though it were yesterday!

Some of you may be too young to remember 2017 in great detail, so let me set it up for you: it was a heady, tumultuous year where it seemed like almost anything could happen. There were loud, public fascist dopes, folks struggling for justice in the BLM and #metoo movements, nuclear missile tests, cyber attacks, gun massacres, intense weather events, and a total solar eclipse. And it was Donald Trump’s messy first year in office, and we all know how that turned out…

In 2017, as the media trendies were careful to note, cassettes were making a comeback, which is totally different than a combover, and tiny cassette labels the world over were hawking their creative wares through the magic of the internet, often releasing tapes in “batches” of 2 or 3 or 4 at a time. Except for one brave label: just as they’d been doing since 2009, Already Dead Tapes and Records released a massive slew of killer tapes, nearly one every week. Instead of modest batches every few months, it was like Already Dead had simply left a faucet on. And in my own modest life, I had set a goal to review a healthy few of my favorites.

The fact is, I couldn’t even keep up, because so many of the tapes were so damned good. I’d listen to one of ‘em a dozen times and start taking copious notes, but then there was already another amazing tape. And another. And so on. Before I knew it, I was a very happy listener, and a very overwhelmed writer.

But now I have this column, and we have this “time machine” trope to gather around, dear readers, and we should count our blessings, because I had been thinking about using frame tales as a literary device instead. And not just any frame tales, but hardcore John Barth-style postmodern prescription-strength frame tales, and we’d be here all day. Maybe 1001 days, as these things go. Time machine it is, then: here are 9 of my favorite tapes on Already Dead from 2017, and as luck would have it, quite a few are still available in physical format, and all of them can be snagged digitally via the Already Dead Bandcamp page.


BBJr – Decelebrate
I’ve been a fan of BBJr’s (Bob Bucko Jr) work for a long time. He excels as a gritty songwriter, a visionary guitar improviser and standard interpreter (exhibit A right here), a wind instrument daredevil, and an all-around sonic maven. Within his vast discography, though, Decelebrate stands out as a singular release, an album of keyboard-driven pop songs chasing themselves into dark corners. Keys have rarely played this dominant a role in Bob’s work, though folks who have seen him tour with his guitar rig in recent years may recognize some of the distinctive effects these ‘boards are running through, melting into a rich, drone-y stew of Electro-Harmonix oddities. Sparse electronic percussion and slow, pensive riffs remind me of early trip-hop through most of the album, like Bob channeling Portishead or Pre-Millenium Tension-era Tricky into his own unique songwriting approach. And these tunes are incredibly memorable. Last winter, I had this tape in my walkman on most mornings when I cautiously walked to work because of icy roads, and the final tune “Everything That Exists” in particular pops into my head automatically now on chilly mornings. A tender, heartfelt, and truly unique album in an already-stellar discography. The physical copies are sold out, alas, but hit the Bandcamp for digital, or keep an eye out on Discogs.


Dotson – Indifference
I’ve been following Matthew Dotson’s music for a while, too–get caught up my thoughts regarding a previous release of his on Already Dead here if you’d like. With Indifference, Dotson has dropped his first name from the j-card marquee, if you will, and accordingly he’s changed up his approach as well. Indifference is an EP that feels transitional, with a new emphasis on beats and assertive riffs. The opening couple of numbers could literally get a dance floor moving, pulling in more traditional IDM/EDM textures mixed with subtle psychoacoustics one continues to discover on repeated listenings of these jams. Then the title track arrives, referencing the textures of the debut Dotson release “Excavation” a little, vibing like a downtempo distillation of some of that album’s more serene moments. The B-side is even harder to pin down, as beats and riffs continue to play an important role, yet the music is a more contemplative experience than a “body music” routine. My favorite piece here is “Compulsion,” which features clouds of atonal piano lines interacting with complex and rapid-fire percussion. It’s hard to be indifferent to Indifference.


Crown Larks – Population
As one of the most interesting bands currently playing on the Chicago scene, it’s been a joy to hear the progression of Crown Larks from their debut full-length (also available from Already Dead) to their glorious, near-perfect sophomore album Population. We seem to be enjoying an especially fruitful period for acid/psych/garage acts nowadays, and while Crown Larks will totally satisfy your need for some well-placed organ riffs and flute lines right out of the late-60s psych playbook, Population finds them digging hard into jazz and free-rock disciplines, too. Truth be told, the horn playing here, executed by core member Lorraine Bailey and a handful of excellent guests, is so ripping and so naturally integrated that I think this album will feel like home for folks into progressive fusion explorations just as readily as it will be loved by psych rock audiences. At their core, these songs rock hard and groove even harder, anchoring the album with a formidable gravity that makes excursions into progressive and free areas all the more powerful as the band strains to reach escape velocity. Spoiler alert: they frequently make it to orbit, and there is more reverb on vocals out there, and you have to listen louder, and you’ll feel better for it.


Michael Potter – Garden Portal Almanac
You may already know Michael Potter’s excellent Null Zone label, but if you haven’t heard his own jams before, you’re in for a major treat. Garden Portal Almanac is one of the more transcendent albums I’ve heard in ages. This arrangements on this album are massive, making for a wall of sound that could give Phil Spector a run for his production money (though Potter and crew lean on a lot of warm gnarly reverbs for some added oomph). Potter’s band proves to be a formidable Wrecking Crew, too, playing acrobatically across a wide swath of rock and pop idioms with confidence. As a guitar player, I’m particularly impressed with these tunes, as Potter turns out to be one of those players who always finds the perfect tone and approach to keep every tune distinct. These pieces are as harmonically complex as they are orchestrationally dense, too–there a lot to take in here. Fortunately, there are frequent and beautiful vocal/guitar unison melodies that gracefully guide listeners through these redemptive-feeling tunes. Besides the killer originals, be sure to check out the intense cover of Santo & Johnny’s classic “Sleep Walk,” a lap steel classic rearranged for this rock lineup and slathered in oodles of overdrive, delay, and reverb.


Excessive Visage – You Are Lost Anyway
If the Crown Larks album above is your jam, you totally need to check out this sophomore album from German psych-prog maniacs Excessive Visage, too. There are classic psych atmospheres throughout You Are Lost Anyway, but to my ears they’re closer to a mix of the original Rock In Opposition bands with the attitude and urgency of a band like the Cardiacs. Of all the band-type projects included in this column, vocalist Larissa Blau is the most gifted singer, and her voice sits accordingly high in these mixes, giving this tape a bit of a commercial edge. Your normie-music friends are likely to dig this album, while leaving listeners with more adventurous diets plenty of unusual riffs and startling dynamic shifts to chew on. And this is a great example of what little tape labels are all about: curation. I imagine it’s unlikely I’d have heard of this band had their album not appeared on Already Dead, but I’m sure grateful for the opportunity to get lost with them.


Moonrace – Lunar Dunes
Drummer Joe Hess is apparently the person you want to call if you have a great idea for a duo project. Formerly the drummer in the the noise/punk/tech duo Spelling Bee with vocalist/guitarist Mabel Suen, which is now the equally amazing Complainer, Hess is also working with bari sax badass Curt Oren as free jazz duo Fuck Lungs. I love those projects a ton, but I think the debut Moonrace album, Lunar Dunes, deserves some attention, too. This album realizes a whole other conception for a small-but-mighty duo, with Hess supporting great synth work by frequent AD album art designer Curtis Tinsley. Compared to the raging approach of those other duos, Moonrace is a subdued affair, with repeating synth riffs and melodies right out of midperiod Kraftwerk, though the drums often boost the energy level with ecstatic high-velocity IDM-style controlled freakouts. At the most intense drumming moments, I’m reminded of Deantoni Parks’ work with Astroid Power-Up, a comparison I never thought I’d be making. Tinsley also took the opportunity to create a very cool comic book of sorts with the 8-panel foldout j-card for this album, which looks great and fits the music like a space-racing astronaut’s glove. Mighty fresh and mighty fine.


Neuringer/Dulberger/Masri – Dromedaries
As luck would have it, Ryan’s review of this album ran yesterday, and as he said there, he turned over his copy to a Moroccan art dealer, who then put it in with a few Master Musicians of Jojouka demos he sent me. (Ryan: was this an American dealer of Moroccan art, or an art dealer from Morocco? We gotta get our stories straight if Haley asks us) So: a hard-hitting ultra deep free jazz album on Already Dead? Damn right. Dromedaries is the real deal, one of the best jazz albums of 2017, hands down. I’ve been a huge fan of alto sax master Keir Neuringer’s double LP of solo work, “Ceremonies Out of the Air,” for the last several years, and it’s a delight to hear his ensemble playing on this tape (also be sure to check out his recordings with the mind-meltingly good new band Irreversible Entanglements if you haven’t). Then we have Shayna Dulberger on upright bass, whose work I’ve long admired in the Jonathan Moritz Trio alongside my favorite drummer, Mike Pride. Her thoughtful, balanced playing really keeps this album flowing, switching between supportive and assertive countermelody approaches at the perfect moments. Behind the drum kit, we have multi-instrumentalist Julius Masri, whose work with circuit-bent electronics I really enjoyed alongside Dan Blacksberg in Superlith a few years back. He proves to be a sensitive drummer, too, spending stretches of the album playing in a restrained, lowercase improv-like capacity, and taking command of the full kit when the need arises. Excellent playing all around, and this is a particularly good recording, too, where the subtlest of details in quiet moments come through perfectly.


Ak’chamel, The Giver of Illness – Death Chants
I have to admit that I find myself both fascinated by the work of Ak’chamel, and a little frightened. Why do I always feel like I’m coming down with a cold after a hard listening session with these folks? A mysterious ensemble of unknown (and unknowable?) membership, Ak’chamel trade in murky-sounding folk/primitivist sounds that I sometimes think are sampled and manipulated for their low-fi grittiness. But at least on Death Chants, the most fully realized album I’ve heard from them, I suspect virtually everything is through-played, with an occasional haunted chorale flown in or otherwise conjured for good measure. If you like your freak folk on the blackened tip, with some ecstatic world music and black metal flourishes on the side, you’re going to want to try some Death Chants on for size. Suck it up (maybe pop some echinacea just in case) and tie it on.


Though all of these tapes are stellar (as are many others on this prolific label), I’ve saved my favorite for last. WAZOO, the debut of Chicago quartet NONZOO, is simply the most exciting post-noise rock record of the last several years. The daring compositional stunts and courageous performances found throughout this album recall the halcyon days when Skin Graft and Load bands ruled the underground. Though the album contains enough raw, relentless playing to make 20 normal records, many instances of quieter, more solemn passages underline a commitment to making this album a deep experience, taking as much advantage of studio magic as stage energy. The liner note thank-yous allude to an arduous recording, mixing, and mastering process to finish this record, and every second sounds like the struggle paid off. Imagine if early Guerilla Toss had tracked an album that took full advantage of a studio environment, or a “headphone album” that will crush your skull through a pair of innocent-looking earbuds, still leaving you with a mad urge to spin it immediately again, hoping to tease out a few more details from a near-endless supply of fearless arrangements, and you’re getting somewhere near the power of this album. Word on the street is that NONZOO is in the early stages of tracking the followup to this C58 of magical mayhem, so you’d best snag one of the last remaining copies of this insanely good debut and get ready for round two.