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.
NONZOO – WAZOO
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.