The fourth International Cassette Store Day just happened last weekend, bringing together listeners, labels, and artists obsessed with the format for several special releases and instore shows from LA to London to Tokyo to Auckland.
The various reasons for the format’s resurgence as a force to reckoned with are now well documented – cheapness of production, ease of distribution, that candy-like pocket charm – but above all, the music speaks for itself. The artists at the bottom, powered by cassette tapes, are getting connected over the internet from all corners of the globe. They can now cram together forming likeminded gangs of tape labels, distributed most often via wonderful user friendly platforms such as Bandcamp or Big Cartel, and physicalising new strands of musical genres unbound by bigger financial concerns – such as Vaporwave. In short, tapes aren't only for Cassette Store Day.
Here's a handful of the labels making the format work in a new context.
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Since releasing its first tape back in September 2014, UK-based Seagrave has ascended through the ranks of budding labels to become something akin to the cassette underworld’s equivalent to the legendary Warp records. Seagrave has hosted a massive array of electronic music ranging from funkier beats, avant-house, and neo-dub to even a few albums of outright noise and musique concréte. Digging into the stellar roster should have anybody stumbling across an explosive extended family tree of other labels and previously released records, making it an essential keystone for anybody interested in seeing what the state of modern electronic music production sounds like behind closed doors.
In addition to dozens of tape releases, the label periodically releases digital-only compilations – such as the recent Abacus and Simoom – showing off upcoming new artists soon to appear on the label.
Several designers, for example Nico Stephou from Greece, have contributed to the label's strong visual aesthetic including the art for this recent highlight of a release from June this year by Tallahassee-based artist Kyle Lyon (embedded below). This release embodies Seagrave’s deepest core – searching to blend the post-rave adoration for club music with the endless possibilities of experimental music.
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Slick, clean, and incredibly well connected, Geographic North is a tape label based out of Atlanta, Georgia with arguably the best quality control of any cassette label in existence. The label’s remit is pretty broad, having issued Christmas shoegaze by Philly’s A Sunny Day in Glasgow, neo-exotica by noise rock drummer David Jacober, plus dreamy excursions by Deerhunter side projects Moon Diagrams and Lotus Plaza to name but a few.
The interlocking heavyweight and brightly coloured cards of the label’s artwork is also no small joy to witness. The label’s most recent release is ten track compilation of Halloween inspired tracks, including a haunted, digitally warped cover of 'I Put A Spell On You', and a rare contribution from Michigan’s legendary ambient duo Windy & Carl. The tapes sold out almost immediately, but the album can still be heard digitally via Bandcamp:
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Based out of Bratislava, Z Tapes dedicates an increasingly busy catalogue of spools to lo-fi rock music and bedroom pop, attracting submission from all over the planet. Founder Filip Zemčík seems keenly dedicated to the DIY philosophy, using designs from anybody from himself or a friend to the bands themselves, and utilising the tape duplication services of a friend from neighbouring Czechia.
For the most part the music’s a joyous mix of jangly vocal-driven guitar pop, recorded in basements and bedrooms from Sydney to Madrid to Massachusetts. The latest tape comes from San Francisco’s High Sunn, compiling tunes from the project’s life-affirmingly slacker-happy back catalogue for a micro-edition of 25 tapes.
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One of the few tape labels dedicating spools to hip-hop artists, Deathbomb Arc has been the pretty madly open-ended project of Californian Brian Miller since 1998. In that time it’s put out a mad array of experimental musics, but most recently it’s been issuing experimental rap from an emerging contingent of artists such as LA’s own clipping., Signor Benedick the Moor, Baltimore’s JPEGMAFIA, and even Death Grips.
Out this month is a typically bizarre tape in the form of the second full length album by rapper Hareld. Dream pop, sweeping choral samples, Residents-like spoken word, all riding a hip hop skeleton… Does it work? You decide:
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No English tape label has come anywhere close to matching the success of Teesside’s magnificent Opal Tapes. More often than not housed in monochrome bleak imagery, Opal Tapes has long since ventured into vinyl, yet its cassette tape arm remains its most adventurous and celebrated facet. The roster is littered with key artists from a global experimental underground, including Karen Gwyer and Huerco S., alongside Basic House (the heavy electronics project of Opal’s founder Stephen Bishop) and most recently Iranian hardcore techno producer Sote.
In short, Opal Tapes is the perfectly balanced gold (or rather grey) standard against which all other labels delving into experimental electronics or feeling up the dank decaying corpse of club music are held – whether releasing on tape or not.
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Words: Tristan Bath (check out regular tape-based reviews, broadcasts, and other missives at Spool's Out)