Listening in November 2017
This article by Zach Sokol talks about tapes and it gives me warm and fuzzy feelings.
An individual under the name Bluesmojo wrote about running a cassette label: I run a cassette label. It’s not a “hipster” thing (if you have a problem with how other people consume music, you’re the “hipster”). It’s not about being analog snobs; most labels have Bandcamps and you can just download the releases if you don’t want to buy the tapes. I think the medium is an artifact of the origins of this scene, which grew organically out of other movements that never abandoned cassettes (noise, punk and metal). At the end of the day, I think it’s about community.
Yesterday in Truck I saw a tape release by Laura Marling for 9 quid, which raised some questions
- does it come with a download?
- who pays 9 quid for a tape these days?
- and what are they playing it on?
Looking for more sensibly priced tapes I found A Giant Fern in Leeds which does cassette releases with accompanying streaming, FLAC and mp3 downloads. I found them via links in United Cassettes. Having bought vinyl for 20 quid and then only listening to the free download, a fiver for a download plus a nice physical artifact seems like a much better deal.
For hardware, unlike turntables not may people are making new tape decks — this TEAC is the only one I can see, and it will cost you 300 quid, and it has all the things that tapeheads supposedly don’t want like auto reverse. Unfortunately getting a s/h deck is a lottery — I bought a mid-range Yamaha Natural Sound deck a few years ago and its motor was knackered. The Sony I have now is low end (TC-WE435) but it’s OK and only cost me 30 quid. Anyone with 300 quid to burn on a tape deck should be looking at a secondhand Nak and a service anyway.
Anyway, the best thing about tapes are mixes from friends
The second best thing is the way tape, like vinyl, forces you to listen from start to finish (when I got a sony CDP with a skip wheel it was the beginning of the end).
The third best thing are the RYKO Bowie releases which are still good.
I also discovered my taste wasn’t completely awful:
It’s all about the physical artifact — just like vinyl, or a handwritten letter, or a RPG zine. But also while I appreciate vinyl as a thing, I don’t feel a nostalgic tug the way I do with tapes which are tiny and portable and can be made very personal.
Last, anyone who tells you that “cassette will wipe the floor with an mp3” is probably not making a fair comparison because they’re a tapehead playing their tapes through a Nakamichi Dragon and their mp3s from their laptop. Tapes have something magic, like vinyl. But playing tapes again made me appreciate my modern DAC and Amp.
In the summer of ’93 I discovered two new favourite things: Bowie and Moorcock.
Previously I hadn’t really gone for glossy, commercial ToTP 80s Bowie, although Bowie the actor was interesting in Labyrinth (and perversely Absolute Beginners).
But Suffragette City was sampled in Carter’s Surfin’ USM, which was interesting. That year Ziggy Stardust, Space Oddity and especially Hunky Dory were on pretty constant rotation in the walkman. Also, Suede. Speaking of which, here’s a nice picture of David Bowie and Brett Anderson:
Anyway, I was listening to Quicksand and The Supermen and Wide Eyed Boy From Freecloud and at the same time getting into Hawkmoon (in the big Millennium omnibus imprint) and reading about Granbretan’s masked armies and giant flamingo riders with flame lances over the Kamarg. Also, drinking short-dated beer from the Classic Deli and watching Orlando and Naked Lunch at the PPP. Speaking of which:
There was also Vampire, which became next year’s big campaign, through my finals year, where I laid the foundations for future gaming and friendships to this date. Some of those friends are no longer here. They are who I am thinking about right now, as well as all the friends I have made who are still here.
Anyway, David Bowie was there. I’m hanging onto the tapes.
Prompted by several recent discussions on music for rpgs, here’s some ambient music that I especially like that may work. This was originally just a few random notes but then started growing, so I’ve roughly grouped them into five sections.
1: Dark Ambient
A lot of Dark Ambient does the same thing — sounds of wind running through vast forgotten passages, distant bells, low drones, chanting, machine sounds. That being the case, just owing one or two albums is probably enough.
Atrium Carceri is from Sweden. Is Nordic Dark Ambient a thing? Probably should be. This is a good start if you want moody atmospheric stuff. For example:
From The Untold (2013).
Industrial and claustrophobic — from the first album Cellblock
A bit more restrained — the soundtrack to The Old City: Leviathan.
Good For: being stalked by something impossibly large while exploring a vast forgotten city of giants full of strange machinery
- Gustav Hildebrand’s Primordial Resonance which is even more bleak and oppressive
- New Risen Throne’s Crossing The Withered Regions
- The Cthulhu-tastic The Unquiet Void.
My favourite band, with a very wide range of styles from industrial dance through to completely ambient and neoclassical by way of television commercials.
How To Destroy Angels is early Coil, very dark and deep ambient.
Black Light District and Time Machines were aliases for Coil in the 90s.
Good For: an alternate history Dungeness where sentries staff a coastal sound mirror outpost waiting for the Belgian zeppelins to attack.
Also see: Music to Play in the Dark I and II are brilliant — though maybe less useful for games.
Controlled Bleeding: The Poisoner
Good For: adding layer upon layer of tension
I don’t think Controlled Bleeding did other albums as purely ambient as this, though they recorded the gothic-sounding Songs from the Ashes, and Songs from the Shadows (as “In Blind Embrace”)
Like A Slow River by Lull a.k.a. ex Napalm Death drummer Mick Harris. For sparse environments (and games moving at a glacial pace?).
2: New Age Ambient
A lot of crossover and structural similarity with Dark Ambient, though it can be a bit more melodic (decide whether that’s a good thing)
Brian Eno: On Land
Eno’s Music for Airports is better known but On Land is my favourite of the Ambient series. For solving horrific murders while on holiday in rural East Anglia.
Apollo soundtrack, stargazing music.
Music for Films (and its sequel album) are small set pieces.
Also see: Eno’s catalog varies a lot. Late 90s he did the Shutov Assembly for an installation, and Neroli as “thinking music”, and more recently he released Lux. But though I like them I don’t think they’re as atmospheric as the three I’ve picked above which are absolutely must-listen. His work with Cluster and possibly Harmonia are fairly similar to to the above.
Of the two Harold Budd albums here Abandoned Cities is probably more suitable for a game being less distracting.
Lovely Thunder is my favourite album, and this is probably my favourite track. For announcing future badness.
Also see his collaborations with Brian Eno including The Pearl and The Plateaux of Mirror.
Tom Heasley: Where The Earth Meets The Sky
Ambient tuba! Seriously.
On the Sensations of Tone and The Joshua Tree are also worth a listen.
This is Below Zero. Good for contemplating the vast and empty cosmos, watching stars being born and feelings of awe and despair.
Stalker is Robert Rich with Lustmord (contemporary of members of Throbbing Gristle, pioneer of dark ambient) and crosses well over into dark ambient. Music for picking your way between pools of liquid helium on barren moons.
Alio Die has collaborated with other ambient artists (including Robert Rich). Music tends to be on the spiritual side of New Age. For temple rituals.
3: Ambient Techno
Tends to be heavy on samples (film and especially SF references) as well as beat oriented, so not always suitable.
Biosphere would be my first choice for electronic ambient on the dance side, and is probably good for a range of games (whereas others will only suit SF/Cyberpunk).
Substrata is full of sounds of wind, creaking wood and melting ice; perfect for polar expeditions under a perpetual sun (but also see Lull’s Like A Slow River, above). Polar Sequences (with HIA) is more of the same.
If you can find Substrata 2 you’ll get the remastered Substrata plus “Man with a Movie Camera”.
I have a deep love for Patashnik, but that’s a bit too ambient house. Still, samples from Cronenberg’s Scanners.
Hybrid’s music crosses over between breaks, ambient and orchestral soundtrack styles.
Soundsystem 01 is also worth checking out, though it’s a mix album by Hybrid rather than their material.
City of Prague Orchestra recording From the “widescreen edition” of Disappear Here.
Future Sound of London
From Environment 5
From Dead Cities
Mmm, back to Sweden. Solar Fields gets an honourable mention: the music varies between ambient and dance (like Hybrid) so some may only be suitable for action scenes, if you don’t find that distracting. These two pretty much cover the spectrum:
Until We Meet The Sky is ambient throughout.
Both tracks from the soundtrack to Mirror’s Edge. However annoyingly the action portions seem to be often mixed in with the slower bits, so buying the album isn’t terribly useful (maybe it’s possible to extract the individual tracks if you have the game?).
4: Nature Sounds
Pond by Tod Dockstader and David Lee Myers
For trudging through poisoned swamps on the edge of a rotting empire.
Just a quick mention of Fernand Deroussen — basically ambient nature sounds, and very nice recordings. Maybe not useful for games, but very handy for surviving the open-plan office. Here’s why:
5: Classical, Neoclassical
Dead Can Dance: Spleen And Ideal
DCD is right at the “neoclassical dark wave” end, but this particular album sits between their first (which was pretty much goth/post-punk) and later (which are more folk/traditional).
Good For: scenes with breathtaking sights of pre-human architecture.
On the edge between soundtracks and minimalist classical music. Good for gloomy journeys by train and wrestling with crippling cases of ennui. Also see The Blue Notebooks and 24 Postcards which are similar. Infra is slightly more electronic. Also worth looking at are his scores for film and TV (e.g. Perfect Sense, The Leftovers).
Glass’ Koyaaniquatsi has three recorded versions, and I’m missing the third version. Classical minimalism, serving a similar duty to Max Richter but on a grander scale, this is music to watch civilisations rise and fall.
I’ve played in a game where Solo Piano was used throughout, which was great. Worked well for high fantasy campaigns. Also like the Low and Heroes symphonies (with Bowie/Eno).
I recently discovered (thanks, social media) that every line of Stephen Lack’s dialogue in Cronenberg’s Scanners was re-recorded and used in place of the original. It explains how Cameron Vale’s voice is present in a subtly different way to the other characters, although maybe that wasn’t intentional.
I’d heard samples from Scanners before I’d even seen the film (yeah, I know).
On Biosphere’s Decryption:
Also on Among Myselves by Future Sound of London:
“They were drowning me.”
My playlist from the last session…
Alt-J / Breezeblocks
Thom Yorke / Analyse
UNKLE (with Black Angels) / Natural Selection
Sparks / I Married A Martian
Tubeway Army / Jo The Waiter
David Bowie / Always Crashing In The Same Car
Radiohead / Creep
Beck / Ramona
Divine Comedy / Party Fears Two
LCD Soundsystem / Someone great
Pink Floyd / Wish You Were Here
Queens Of The Stone Age / Long Slow Goodbye
1. The First Five Minutes After Death
2. Queens Of The Circulating Library
3. Titan Arch
4. Die Wolfe Kommen Zurück
5. The Mothership and the Fatherland
6. Triple Sun
7. Sex With Sun Ra (part 1)
8. Red Birds Will Fly Out Of The East And Destroy Paris In A Night
9. His Body Was A Playground For The Nazi Elite
10. Another Brown World
11. Lost Rivers Of London
12. Light Shining Darkly
13. Cold Dream Of An Earth Star
14. Theme From Blue
15. How To Destroy Angels
16. The First Five Minutes After Violent Death
17. The Dreamer Is Still Asleep
In semi-particular order, this is what I’m listening to today.
- Magnetic Fields/Everything is One Big Christmas Tree
- Sonic Youth/Candle
- Sultans of Ping/Xmas Bubblegum Machine
- Mr B/’Oh Santa!’
- Tom Waits/The Piano Has Been Drinking
- Tori Amos/Purple People
- David Ford/Have Yourself a Bitter Little Christmas
- Tom Lehrer/A Christmas Carol
- Low/Taking Down The Tree
- Sketches for Albinos/Let It Snow (whoops, can’t find a video. It’s quite nice)
- Babybird/It’s Not Funny Anymore
- Aimee Mann/Clean Up For Christmas
- Foo Fighters/Next Year
The iconic Clark Nova writing on its own and then in full BugWriter mode. In real life it’s a Smith Corona Sterling. For yet more typewriter porn check this page on Antikeychop.com for some pics of authors and typewriters — including Burroughs with the Clark Nova.
Re-watching Naked Lunch I noticed Optimum’s little promotional booklet of their other films — and was surprised to find Malcolm Tucker:
Welcome to Annexia, Malcolm.
I could talk about Burrough’s own recordings, which include Dead City Radio, his readings for Giorno Poetry Systems and the fantastic Spare Ass Annie and Other Tales (with the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy). But I just found this recording of Frank Zappa reading “The Talking Asshole”:
Since I’m on youtube and in a Burroughs mood, here’s Bomb the Bass’s Bug Power Dust:
Did you get all of it? The lyrics are easier to hear on the downtempo mix from the K&D Sessions.
And talking about the Beastie Boys:
…yeah. These must be the symptoms of withdrawal from a substance that doesn’t really exist.
It’s melodic, melancholic and generally less post-rock-y than the band’s other offerings. I’m a big fan of soundtracks and will take a punt on some albums even if I haven’t seen (or hated) the film, so my collection contains a few duds — but this one I feel confident in recommending to anyone who likes, well, ambient music. This one’s kind of tense, and kind of sad.
Oh look, it’s raining outside.