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Transformational Variances
The Obscurantist [4:03]
Informational Conformity [1:32]
Reactive Whirlwind [2:11]
Energy Towards A Working State of Growth [15:30]
Network (Order) [2:32]
Network (Chaos) [2:24]
Autopilot [9:04]
rec. 2016/17
ĘTHER TAPES ĘT001 Cassette/Download [38:00]
Thread [5:21]
Ground [6:31]
Aegis [4:47]
Gate [5:14]
Inlay [3:12]
Turn [4:50]
Lot [1:13]
Margin [3:50]
Aspect [4:36]
Swath [4:38]
Union [4:25]
Factor [3:55]
Gave [3:27]
Possible [2:30]
No recording date
ĘTHER TAPES ĘT002 Cassette/Download [59:00]
Speed [3:11]
Michaux [3:17]
Being Carried [2:41]
Rhum [3:35]
After Collapsing [3:25]
Mediterranean [7:22]
Rhine [4:11]
Dust [6:26]
Mescaline [6:03]
No recording date
ĘTHER TAPES ĘT003 Cassette/Download [41:00]

It’s been quite a while since I’ve had much to do with cassette tapes. Back in the 1970s they were something of a wonder product, offering an easy way of creating a large and varied music collection and avoiding the scratchy fate of sensitive vinyl LPs. The advent of CD initially had little effect on the cassette tape’s usefulness, but downloads and streaming seem to have rendered it obsolete in anywhere other than specialist environments, though I’m sure many people of a certain generation still have boxes full of the things stashed away somewhere.

Unexpectedly and to my pleasant surprise, I recently received a package from the US with some tapes for review, the first three releases from a label called Ęther Tapes. Frustratingly, my Nakamichi cassette player needs repairing, but Ęther Tapes offer both their attractively presented tape ‘hard copies’ and a download code so you can have the best of both worlds for a single outlay. You can also buy individual tracks from their site. There are also limited-edition versions of some cassettes if you fancy something a bit more blingy and exclusive. I’m reviewing from the download versions, initially on the recommended MP3 versions to start with, but am keen to try the tapes which are made with high grade cobalt stock and appear not to use Dolby noise reduction.

Ęther Tapes describes itself as “an ambient tape label specializing in the ethereal” but starting with Transformational Variances takes us somewhere that would I think seem barely ethereal to most listeners. The first three tracks are a veritable tidal-wave of sound that is rich in suggestive qualities – quasi-industrial and somewhat hard-edged, but with slow-motion harmonic progressions and inner details and structure that keep you engaged in a wide-eyed, immersive hypnosis. Energy Towards A Working State of Growth is quieter to start with, evolving gradually into a thick texture of what sounds like massive overload distortion, but under which that now familiar cycle of recognisable harmonic structure turns like a massive water-wheel. The final track, Autopilot is the most serene, generating a wide soundscape over a single drone. There is a compelling quality to these ‘meditations’, and the intent behind such monumental soundtracks is powerful: “Extreme political polarization is causing major upheaval and history tells us that this is only the beginning. Autonomous individuality is being devalued through a rebirth of collectivism and the West is struggling to maintain humanity's most fundamental right – free speech – which imperatively must be upheld. Ideas are powerful, and we must treat them with high value and regard…”

Jesse Whitney’s Aegis is described as “enveloping, hypnotic minimalism for the spiritual warfare of our age”, and with a more overt synthesized electronic sound this is closer to ambient styles you might have encountered before. There are some interesting musical things going on in addition to the plush sonics. Ground starts out with a harmonic progression in ‘Art of Sound’ timbres, over which a rapid figure with polytonal flavours dances. Your woofers will also be tested with the sub-strata bass line on this one, and others further along, such as Inlay. Many of these tracks set up their own often haunting atmosphere, and I can imagine something like Gate turning up as part of a film soundtrack. There is a process element to the musical development in most of these pieces, with Turn reminding me a little of Kraftwerk in its sonic pallet and processional progress. Not all of these tracks had immediate appeal for me, but I can appreciate the care and craft put into their creation. I suspect I’m a bit too picky about keyboard sounds that are left rather ‘au naturel’, preferring sounds that have been squeezed through some kind of creative process that makes them sound like something completely different to their source, or something you’ve never heard before. Perhaps the selection of fewer, stronger pieces developed more fully rather than fourteen relatively brief vignettes might also have made a stronger impression.

We’ve come across Grant Cutler before on the innova label (review) and, talking of squeezing sounds through a more extreme creative process, this “montage of impressions in an altered state” takes natural sounds and manipulates them into something rich and strange. Evoking “the climatic pulses of an impending storm”, sounds of water, wind, sand and stones are integrated into musical textures to form a multi-layered conveyer belt of fascinatingly slow-moving aural images. Each title interlinks material and runs into the next, so that Dust is heard as a single, symphonic experience. Familiarity is held at a distance, with voice-like sounds enveloped in the swirling acoustic of Rhum, or the strange, pendulum-swings of quasi-orchestral woolly balls of musical beauty that swing past us in Rhine. Subterranean frequencies should make your chandeliers rattle in the subtle transformations of the title track Dust, and the return of what sounds like clashing stones and windblown sand in the final piece Mescaline gives a sense of organic completion to the programme, reprising effects from the second track Michaux, but this time developing into a more ghostly, semi-static curtain of sounds to complete the album.

Just to be thorough, I downloaded the WAV file version of Dust to compare with the MP3 version, and to my ears there is definitely an improvement in sound quality. The MP3 is fine, but there is subtle detail and added depth in the uncompressed files that make things even more interesting. Having difficulties including the artwork onto iTunes with WAV I tried the Apple ALAC version which worked fine and also sounds great. Concerned I wasn’t getting the best out of Modify’s Transformational Variances via MP3 I also tried the ALAC file, and this is also very much to be preferred. Compared to the ‘wall of sound’ experienced through compressed files, this is material that benefits greatly from non-constricted transfer. The distortion effects are still much in evidence (I had even feared there might be some error in the MP3 files) but I found I could move the volume dial up a fair bit more, and the gains in purity of sound are palpable even to my ageing ears.

Of Ęther Tapes’ first three releases, Grant Cutler’s Dust is the best in my opinion, but with each album having its own distinct character listeners can make up their own minds as to which variety of the ethereal they prefer. Modify’s Transformational Variances has the qualities of sound sculpture – imposing and monolithic, while Jesse Whitney’s Aegis has also grown on me more since making an initial impression – still quirky and perhaps a bit ‘unfinished’ if it comes to distinctive musical authenticity of character, but certainly with its own highlights and usefulness. Either way, I will be intrigued to see what Ęther Tapes comes up with next, and how far the rest of us can be persuaded to retrieve our cassette decks from their dusty attic boxes.

Dominy Clements

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