2 from Crash Symbols, plus the destiny of cassettes?

I've been listening to a pair of recent cassette releases from Crash Symbols for a few months, and I just remembered how quickly one must strive to turn out reviews when they pertain to small-run cassette releases--my favorite of these releases is already sold out on cassette. Apologies. I'm still going to review it, because it remains available digitally, because it's very much worth hearing, and because the proceeds go to charity. I don't think I could have reviewed these any quicker, as my relationship with both of these recordings evolved through repeated listening. And I've been thinking a lot about cassette distribution in general--stay tuned for a little prognostication following these reviews...

Ender Belongs to Me - Memory
I hadn't heard of this project before receiving this for review, and I'm glad to have checked this out. Ender Belongs to Me is apparently a duo, according to their press info, and they mostly focus on electronic pop drying itself off from a bout of melancholy. All of the tracks feature danceable arrangements, especially in terms of percussion programming, though the tempos stay a little short of high-energy dance music, and there is an extremely introverted vibe that indicates dancing alone might be more appropriate. Or moving your legs under the table. Go for it--no one will know.

The introversion is the real strength of this EP, in my estimation. So much music incorporating the kinds of percussion and synth sounds found on this recording carries a sort of timbral demand to join some kind of anthemic party. But this music is enjoyable while keeping to itself, making no demands that you match its mood. It's conversational rather than manipulative. Sonically, many sections reminded me of the Nihiti full-length I recently reviewed, minus occasional full-on intimations of gloom. While there are glimpses of sadness that surface in these tracks, and minor keys are the order of the day, the textures are gentle, the songs evolve carefully, and you get the feeling that the redemption these songs work toward isn't far away.

In terms of orchestration, I really like the way piano sounds are blended into synth textures in many songs, such as the album closer, "teddymuffin," where envelope-filtered synth tones move around a pedal-point piano in the first section, shifting to half-note piano chords with piano/synth melodies treading lightly above. The mixture of male/female combo vocals on the track work very well, too, creating melodies that transcend gender considerations. And the artwork fits nicely with the project, an abstract palette of blues and golds fractured by a diamond matrix. This one, I'm happy to report, should still be available from Crash Symbols here.

Power Animal - Exorcism
As I've mentioned a few times before on my blog, I was a huge fan of Power Animal's 2010 debut, People Songs, which remains available via Bandcamp. For the last decade, I've followed a lot of Philadelphia-based bands with an appreciation for the unique sense of fun and joy that Philly's fine citizens seem to impart in many genre-bending projects. To my ears, People Songs sounded like a continuation of the fun that Need New Body had been spreading in the first half of the '00s, making deconstructed/reconstructed pop that simultaneously celebrated weirdness and togetherness. In particular, I adored the song "Copernicus," which I still return to frequently for a pick-me-up from its repeated phrase: "Love is alive and well."

I was very excited to hear the new Exorcism EP, and Crash Symbols was kind enough to send me a copy for review. To be honest, it's taken me a while to warm up to it, because I had particular expectations in terms of orchestration: People Songs was a very organic record, full of live instruments, and Exorcism is much more sample-based. Both recordings started as "bedroom" demos made by Mr. Power Animal himself, Keith Hampson, but the circumstances of their completion differ significantly. People Songs was taken to Denton, TX, and its songs were converted into ambitious full-band affairs courtesy of collaboration with Sleep Whale, while the music of Exorcism remains in a sort of sample-based state that I guess I imagined would go through a similar "workshopping" process.

While I still prefer the orchestrational creativity of People Songs, I continued listening to Exorcism, trying to approach it on its own merits instead of hoping it would compete with, say, Whales and Cops. And it grew on me tremendously. Hampson's enthusiasm and steady optimism remain fully intact, and his melodic sensibility is no less powerful. It just reminds me how significant the role of timbre has become in modern music--it can be just as important as melody, harmony, and rhythm to the reception of a given piece of music. Ordinarily, I don't listen to much music that works with the kinds of textures on "Exorcism" compared to the more acoustic instrument emphasis of "People Songs." But the music was there when I worked through my own feelings about the kinds of sample-edited juxtapositions that predominate here, and now I really like the record.

Considering how sample-based the original recordings already are, it's interesting to note that this EP is  supplemented by remixes on the B side of the cassette, recontextualizing the framework of the songs and even further deconstructing their many samples. Most of them are gentle with the songforms themselves, bringing out different percussion textures rather than obliterating the original melodies, so considered together, they form an alternative look at the album rather than heavy-handed deconstructions.

Sadly, the physical version of "Exorcism" on cassette has already sold out, but you can still get it digitally here.

The future of cassettes--is the end near?
While researching Power Animal in general, I came upon this recent interview with Hampson that includes some interesting details about the process of building "Exorcism." Many of the samples he works with in its songs were made by playing cassettes through a talking book machine. These machines can play conventional cassettes, but the audio formatting of the tapes intended to work with them is 4-track mono at 15/16 ips, rather than the 2-track stereo 1 7/8 ips of commercial cassettes. As a result, you can get ultra slowed-down and backwards audio effects out of these players if you put a commercial cassette in them, and you can drop the results into a sampler for further use.

This is tremendously interesting to me, because I work at a talking book library. The reason for these specialized-format cassettes has to do with protecting copyright--audio versions of many books are made by the National Library Service (NLS), a division of the Library of Congress, to be used by visually and physically handicapped people around the United States. In order to protect the copyright of the books, they were made into specialized format cassettes so that they can't be used on a regular cassette player.

Much has already been written about "cassette culture," and I'm not going to get into it here other than to say that I share an adoration for the humble format, and I treasure its significant role in reducing the grip major labels had on the distribution of all music back when vinyl was the dominant format. But I may have some news of interest to the many labels, artists, and fans who are participating in the current revival of cassettes: the end may be near.

When commercial cassettes declined in popularity, NLS continued to make books on cassette for its collections around the country, and the millions of cassettes they use were enough to keep some cassette manufacturing and duplicating places in business. But talking book libraries are transitioning to a new flash memory-based format right now. No books have been produced on cassette for several years, but magazines have continued to circulate on cassette, still requiring a lot of cassettes to be made.

That is likely to change within a year--there is currently an rfp being offered for companies to produce magazines in the new digital format. Once that happens, NLS will no longer have a need for cassettes, and the already-diminished number of sources for blank cassettes and duplication (which NLS was already monitoring in 2005) will probably disappear very quickly. So if you're a tape label, or a fan of tape labels, my advice is to make 2012 your best year ever. If you're relying on new cassettes and professional duplication, I wouldn't delay your projects. Get those tapes out this year, or you may find yourself trolling thrift stores for tapes and boxes in the near future.

--also published at Killed in Cars

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