Agitated Atmosphere: Year-End Cassette Review

As major labels continue to exist behind the times, artists and labels with little capital and lesser reputations are producing some of the most innovative, interesting, and inspiring music. Whether it’s creating a new niche in digital technology or looking to once obsolete formats, Agitated Atmosphere hopes to shed a bit of light and share a bit of information on the up and coming sounds of artists.

‘Tis the season for year-end lists and Agitated Atmosphere is not immune. A wealth of microlabels bequeathed unto a rabid audience an abundance of fantastic wax, CD-Rs, and cassettes. It’s the latter that has probably caught some of you off-guard. It’s no secret that cassettes, a medium doomed to extinction in the early 90s as compact discs became the chic accessory to audiophiles, are now the new access point for the smallest of labels to crank out infinite amounts of music at bargain prices (for the most part) to all points around the globe. These microlabels have become a sustainable art, promoting the proliferation of DIY culture to a world enveloped in the warm shrouds of the internet. It’s a dichotomy of old and new that mimics the music contained on many of these reel-to-reel wonders.

Nostalgia aside, Agitated Atmosphere has been swimming in its fair share of cassettes during the past year and while the column has focused on more traditional full-length releases, now seems like the perfect time to drop the anvil and reveal some of our favorite cassette releases of 2009. Granted, if any of these strike your fancy, you’ll likely be hitting distros, trading sites, and the farthest recesses of the internet to find them as most are out-of-print but unlike most quests, the prize you could attain will be just as fulfilling as the hunt.

The head of the classes begins with Super Minerals. The duo of Philip French (who happens to run the microlabel, Stunned) and William Giacchi gave us many glimpses into their varied degrees of sound but it was the 40 minutes of Clusters that provided audiences with the richest piano experience of the year. Speaking of Stunned and Giacchi, it was Giacchi’s discovery of Sicilian band Silver Bullets that brings another favorite of Agitated Atmosphere, Free Radicals. Combining elemental kraut and psychedelia, Free Radicals was a blast from the past that only the lo-fi drone of a cassette can cradle.

Band-on-the-cusp, Raccoo-oo-oon, may have splintered at the end of 2008 but in 2009, that split wrought many new ventures from the outcasts, none more gratifying than Daren Ho’s Driphouse. After a string of numerical releases via former bandmate Shawn Reed’s Night People, Ho began tape label GEL and released Sewer Mist. Also emerging as a cassette of the year was from the mind of Sam Meringue. Under the nom-de-plume Matrix Metals, Meringue released Flamingo Breeze through Not Not Fun and the world of micro dance was never the same. Flamingo Breeze is like a combo of an 80s ghetto blaster and the modern Buddha Machine with uptempo disco indie becoming a disposable collage for the A.D.D. generation.

Silver Bullets – Flight from Babylon

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Driphouse – Merged Flesh

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Matrix Metals – Flamingo Breeze

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This year was rich with excellent cassette releases. It’s hard to overlook contributions from Ducktails (Acres of Shade), Pete Fosco (Autumn Fire Blues), Exercise (Field of Dreams), the many releases of Sean McCann, and last week’s subject, Mist (Certain Expansion). If you’ve ignored the emerging cassette culture, it’s time to rethink that stance as we glide into a new decade of music. There is no excuse to not discovering music that you enjoy. The world of the major music business may be crumbling, taking many thriving indies with it, but the DIY community is fertile and fruitful and Agitated Atmosphere hopes to continue to bring just a sliver of those artists and releases to you.

I want to thank all of you who read this column and enjoy the music therein. Enjoy the holidays and I’ll see you in the New Year.

Justin Spicer is a freelance journalist who also runs the webzine, Electronic Voice Phenomenon. He writes the Monday News Mash-Up for the KEXP Blog. You may follow him on Twitter.

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