It's amazing how many cassette labels keep springing up all over the world. This ostensibly outdated technology, whose demise has been lamented in many mainstream news articles, is enjoying a very real renaissance. I wouldn't be surprised if a few manufacturers start building Walkman-style machines again to keep up with the demand.
In the meantime, there are zillions of decent used decks and portable machines floating around, and you can set yourself up for many hours of enjoyment with an hour or two's wages at your local pawn shop or thrift store. And sweet Jesus, you should get on it quickly if you haven't already, as a lot of the most innovative and inspiring music being created today is coming out in batches of cassette-only analog joy.
While I'm digging the collected output of a whole bunch of cassette labels these days--be on the lookout for upcoming reviews of stuff from Eiderdown, SicSic, Orange Milk, Planted Tapes, Crash Symbols, New Atlantis, Centipede Farm, Personal Archives, Constellation Tatsu, Words + Dreams and more--today I want to celebrate the back catalog of Field Hymns, whose frantic series of releases in a few short years have turned vast stretches of my life into fully satisfying synth-fueled hallucinations.
Field Hymns does things up in a most deluxe way--releases feature 4-panel J-cards, printed on both sides with excellent art by label mastermind Dylan McConnell (you can see more of his design work at Tiny Little Hammers). McConnell has a fun, recognizable style that brings continuity to the whole catalog, but he also squeezes in great individual touches that give each release an appropriate personal feel. This art is seriously beautiful. I've stared at these gorgeous tapes for hours. And I really admire the work put into these designs, while most tape labels are only rocking 3-panel, single sided J-cards.
On the practical tip, the pro-dubbed tapes of Field Hymns releases feature additional thoughtful design work on their labels, and most of the cassette shells he's chosen are the kind with screws, a nice practical feature in the event of an occasional spaghetti-tape catastrophe. You can fix yr analog "glitches," boys and girls, and have a little fun while you're doing it. And the whole label is seamlessly integrated with BandCamp, so you can have those squishy digital files for your iDevices, too, and place your orders using PayPal. It's a perfect marriage of old and new technologies: you get all of the best in www.convenience along with the inherent beauty of these albums as physical objects and analog wave-slinging vitamins via pony express just a few days later. Beautiful.
Onto the music: like most of my favorite labels, Field Hymns obviously invests a lot of energy in the curation process. These albums all feel like they belong together while leaving room for lots of diversity. Generally speaking, this catalog tends to focus on synth-based instrumental music, heavy on kosmische and avant-dance vibes, though there are some well-placed exceptions. Artists in the Field Hymns roster tend to focus on longer-form compositions that evolve patiently, but what I find unique in these selections is a shared sense of fun and adventure. While a lot of slowly-evolving, drone-oriented recordings assume fairly dark moods, I find almost every FH album I've experienced to be way more uplifting than the norm for these genres. And fresh--these albums don't want to be heard as 70s Faust outtakes; they have their own collective vibe happening that's still vital and playful.
Fortunately, all of these mood-enhancing oscillations don't come at the cost of frivolity, either. I pay special attention to any musical efforts that manage to be on the happy/dreamy side of the musical spectrum without feeling shallow or empty, and if I had to guess what curatorial standards for FH might include, they seem to recognize the significance of that difference. Another weird line to avoid in drone/ambient/electronic music is that sort of neutral, new-agey kind of inconsequential meandering--you know, that stuff on the Avalon Music comps you find on that endcap at every Target or Bed Bath & Beyond store. Needless to say, FH confidently steers well clear of that lack-of-vibe, too.
In the Field
I've listened to almost the whole Field Hymns catalog now, and while I like almost everything on the label, here are a few of my favorite artists/tapes I would strongly recommend checking out. Album titles should link you to appropriate places at Field Hymns if you want to explore them yourself.
Giant Claw - Impossible Chew
How does Giant Claw and Orange Milk Records co-founder Keith Rankin find the time to be so prolific? Hot on the heels of his film music comp on Constellation Tatsu, which I reviewed here, Giant Claw dropped a BandCamp-only EP, "Attorney Struggle," which made me feel like I was a kid playing Gogol-13 all over again, and the next cassette has already arrived via Field Hymns. If you're into previous Giant Claw efforts, you'll feel at home again in "Impossible Chew," with its many arpeggiator-fueled ostinato lines and characteristic swagger. Many of these short pieces feel like library music cues, but uniquely morphed over impossible combinations of eras: 70s Kraut synths simmer with mod wheels pushed up just a touch, but the rhythmic figures feel like exuberant mid-80s synth pop. Cluster fronted by Olivia Newton John? Amazing as always. The standout track for me is "Meal Brothers Theme," which feels like it absorbed a bit of 90s hip hop as well, with lots of portamento lines and repeated high note rhythms. A great addition to the Giant Claw discography.
PLVS VLTRA - Yo-Yo Blue
Field Hymns brings us the sophomore album by Toko Yasuda's PLVS VLTRA solo project, and it's one of those rare albums that has a strong appeal for both pop and weirdo music scenes. There are plenty of trippy backwards edits, startling punctuations of Bollywood flourishes, and modular synths galore, but most of these pieces are very beat-oriented and almost always melodic. Without being derivative of Bjork, PLVS VLTRA masters a similar unity between experimental soundscape work and very catchy songwriting. My favorite track, " " (pronounced "Cho Cho"), has a great beat, reverse reedy-sounding synths, and a chill vocal from Nico. A great summer night jam while keeping all of your strange-music cred fully intact. This should be huge.
Black Hat - Covalence
This record is heavy on sonic contrasts, frequently traveling into darker corners than a lot of Field Hymns releases. At first it presents itself as a percussion dominated early industrial album, but the drums get out of the way by the second track, revealing wide vistas of sound incorporating lots of orchestral instruments. I don't know if they're samples or performed just for these pieces, but strings and horns and harps combine with delicate field recordings and synths to produce great pieces like "Jaune," a nurturing wash of slowly-moving melodic ideas that stays just a touch pensive. By the time percussion reappears in "The Lattice and the Comorant," the ambient textures themselves begin to absorb rhythm, flexing and pulsing in time. Using a wide dynamic range and sound sources from the conventional to pure electrical hums, "Covalence" is a sophisticated and rewarding listen.
Jonathan James Carr - Well Tempered Ignorance
If you're in the mood for a full-on psych synth blackout, "Well Tempered Ignorance" is your jam. What sounds like a warehouse full of synths begin to breathe together as Carr nests beautiful legato melodies atop the whole organism. I sometimes wish that more psych/drone albums found ways to incorporate virtuoso playing, and this album really delivers on that front. Field recordings that sound like they alternate between exotic locales and suburban back yards blend perfectly with the music, often sneaking in to delineate between musical transitions. And those sounds--pretty much every crazy patch you might hope to hear from an armada of ancient synths makes an appearance somewhere. Confidently performed and thoughtfully paced, Carr's solo debut is a real treasure.
Boron - Aria Statica
I reviewed Boron's most recent online-only effort here a few months ago, in which I lamented not having heard this sophomore release. Since then, I tracked down a copy, and I'm so glad that I did. As its name implies, this album is made of many slices of granular synth textures. Overall, it's a quiet, subtle collection of ideas, with occasional bits of radio sound or possibly other found sounds I can't quite identify. It feels like an extension of early electronic and musique concrete disciplines, suspended in time and just waiting for the right audience to catch up. Compared especially to Boron's Beige album, the hermetic focus here on a narrow palette of static-y buzzes feels a little clinical, but I get the impression that's part of the intended vibe: synths as mad science.
Mattress - Lonely Souls
This sounds like a slaying underground mid-80s album that never happened but should have: Suicide jamming with Nick Cave on vocals. Edgy vocals are draped in harsh reverb, the synth choices have the perfect amount of organ stops opened into the mix, and the whole recording is toasted to mid-fi mono perfection. Some awesome, simple-and-savage live drums surface in a few tracks, along with some gnarly live bass in the very no-wave instrumental "Dead Ends." Big organ riffs keep propelling these tracks into the rock and roll retrofuture--these are seriously great songs that anybody into Birthday Party or Love & Rockets or name your own postpunk guitargoth poison-of-choice will totally enjoy. While this isn't my usual kind of thing, it's so well executed that I find myself listening to it more than the actual famous bands I've namedropped above. A sweet surprise.
Bastian Void - Fluorescent Bells
This baby is sold out everywhere, but it's so damned fine that I just have to mention it. One of a few projects that Moss Archive's Joe Bastardo is currently rocking, Bastian Void makes intrepid synth soundscapes that unite solemn oscillating goodness with toy keyboard drum patterns and uptempo arpeggiator cycles. While this is by no means a jazz record, its earnest pace and synths that often sound like they're pumped through an overwhelmed tube PA remind me more of the urgent passions of 70s fusion than relaxed kraut ambience. And the 20-minute, 5-section ride of "In Common Outlets" approaches a prog level of compositional sophistication, though it's the most abstract and soundart-oriented section of this gratifying album. And for what it's worth, this tape has joined a small number of records receiving the "what is this, I love it" phone call award from a random listener on my radio show. This is probably my favorite Field Hymns release to date, and while the physical release seems to be sold out, you can still pick up the digital edition from the Bastian Void BandCamp. Be sure to check out the recent releases from Bastardo's other projects while you're at it: the new Homeowner album on Orange Milk, and the new Looks Realistic release on Constellation Tatsu, are both exquisite as well.