Tagged: tape

不活了 – Xin Fu

Xin Fu不活了
Xin Fu
Tape, CHUI, 2013

How does urban China sound today? What does the pervasive dissemination of digital devices as hybrid conglomerates of affordances, be them glossy last-generation iPads for the recently enriched or parasitic 山寨 (shānzhài) knock-offs tucked in every pocket, purse and street corner – mp3/mp4 players, tablets, smartphones, radios, TVs, loudspeakers, displays, recorders, headphones – mean for the soundscape of public and private spaces in the People’s Republic? How to represent the amorphous lattice of outputs weaved by PA systems plagued by interferences, blown speakers, over-overdriven advertisement, ear-damaging public transportation announcements, cheap instruments, construction sites, invasive phone screaming, old people loafing around clinging on portable radios as if they were boomboxes, perpetual traffic jams and the cheesy post-socialist arrangements pouring out from television sets tucked under ground floor windows, a sonic drapery that has become an unavoidable backdrop element to urban life in China? An unintelligible but enticing answer comes from 不活了 (bù huó le), a disgruntled noise duo roaming residential back-alleys and digital media alike with portable recorders and crafting a noise tape out of nothing but the available mess.

In operating this ironically self-proclaimed 傻逼噪音 (shǎbī zàoyīn, idiotic noise) project, members NOISE666 and 雨第斑 (Yǔ Dìbān) reduce harsh noise to a homely stew of laid back lofi-delia, decaying found sounds and a lazily plucked and badly clipped acoustic guitar writhing around an obnoxious metronome ticking like a perverse Buddhist prayer percussion in a faithless living room while a garbled TV show mutters in the background. This is noise intended as the non-musical outcome of sound-producing and sound-capturing devices, as inviting as a mutton and potato soup (羊肉土豆汤 Yángròu tǔdòu tang, track two) and the smell of stale food in a small countryside eatery at late hours, as intimate as a low-bitrate file playing on unbranded computer speakers hidden under piles of pirate DVDs and CDRs and cables and cup noodles. One could also define it Pussy Folk, as the third track is called: the folk music of urban losers, the affect moving away from acoustics and towards the aesthetics of close-up digital recording, of proximity and contact microphones, of blown up breath pops, of cheap condensers saturated by generous gain, capturing the life of the unassuming background, reducing the violence of high-volume power electronics to the crackles of a badly mastered low end colliding with the hardware bottleneck of cheap tape heads. And what is more grotesquely folkloristic than the vaginal tightening surgery (阴道紧缩术 Yīndào jǐnsuōshù, track four) promoted in an advertisement exploded by incongruous volumes, bubbling as a self-styled chain compression over the same disquieting metronome while its luring and lurid blabber is reduced to a phasing envelope phagocytizing eerie echoes and reverb in the background, and as bitcrushed waves, coalescing in a droning fast-forwarded tape hiss, bury the sampled voice under a spinning metallic treadmill?

It is a monotonous yet strangely fascinating voyage: Hit the Road sports sparse stoned chanting and an almost NNCKesque, no-wavish approach to trembling guitars and proximity noises, while 我们要我们要 (Women yào women yào, “we want we want”) resembles the most disturbing episodes of 井内賢吾 (Iuchi Kengo) or some of the weirder Wolf Eyes tracks in which distant echoes are punctured by electronic residue and tape degradation – weirdness abounds over the familiar lifeline of the omnipresent 4/4 metronome, as if mocking the annoying beats of Cantonese opera or the archetype of any pop song tempo. But the real gems are Fly, Far Far Away, an eleven-minute psych-weird suite happening in the freak aural space between an autistic guitar and drunken singing mangled by a detuned chorus, and the concluding self-referential medley Slow Cut Up, in which mando-house classics float in pieces amongst dialogues, laughs and oscillating harsh noise grit. In a jubilant tribute to everyday sound-making practices and shallow listening, recording becomes more a documentation of the process of making noise out of the available mess or materials and devices rather than a rigorous productive gesture: everything is raw and lively rather than plainly harsh and extreme, and most importantly, it never takes itself seriously for a single moment.

To follow up on this recent quip by harshnoise.org, 不活了’s Xin Fu  might be one of the first examples of a post-harsh noise sensibility in China – residual outsider music hiding itself at the intersection of post-digital aesthetics, lo-fi field recordings of urban soundscapes, and the auto-ironic, self-consciously tacky experiments of 农金 (nóng jīn, agricultural metal) musicians. This weird assemblage of influences should not surprise given the people involved: the touch of NOISE666/DINGCHENCHEN is evident in the magnifying attention (or disattention) to the sounds of the everyday exploded in bursting bubbles of aural detritus, while the label-mate 雨第斑’s passion for harsh noise and harassing effect manipulations appears in the rumbling undercurrent running beneath most of the tracks. Xin Fu is definitely not the sound of an harmonious society.

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Big Brother & The Holding Cock – Big Brother & The Holding Cock

Big Brother & The Holding CockBig Brother & The Holding Cock
Big Brother & The Holding Cock
C20, Fuzztape, 2011

Being impressed by 梅志勇 (Méi Zhìyǒng)’s solo performance in Hong Kong – an intoxicated, quite punk microphone-driven fuzzfest just about ten minutes long – I dug in my box of yet-unexplored releases and ended up ripping this 2011 collaboration with Torturing Nurse’s Junky released by the man’s own label, Fuzztape, under the name Big Brother & The Holding Cock. Now, I have absolutely no idea of the relationship that this record has with Big Brother & The Holding Company (maybe some of their LPs were scratched by Junky during the recording session?), but the name sounds fun, if anything because of the semantic associations I make when I think of it – like, who is the Big Brother here? Probably Junky himself, while Mei Zhiyong takes the role of the Holding Cock, or just holding his own cock, or maybe Junky’s. Anyway, it is a cute name for a purportedly industrial/noise act who releases a black cassette wrapped in a sheet of “sulfuric acid waste paper” (as per their description, probably a Google-powered translation of tracing paper which does indeed sound very industrial), itself bundled in a lump of knotted tape, making the whole packaging quite hard to put back together once opened.

What’s the music like, anyway? Nothing transcendental, but way better than Zhiyong’s solo output reviewed some time ago and, despite its low-key stuttering and muffled tape mastering, the two ten-minute sides are actually capable of gaining the listener’s attention through precarious variations and glitchy passages. Side One begins with a broken sequencer tone undergoing some uneventful modulations – probably a circuit-bended drum machine through some distortion, kept from becoming a steady loop through knob fiddling and sudden halts. The piece seems to follow its own tempo, despite the absence of any regularity, as it slowly melts down into a mangled mess that sounds like downright tape manipulation, popping and sizzling like a broken speaker; halfway through the trip, it splits into two tracks, as the cuts sport a more frantic edge, hovering over the feedback hiss in the background, with the noise loops resembling gated drum blasts or overdriven radio signals. Even when the attack and release of the beats are reduced to almost zero, mired in the uncertainty of a slow cut-up style and punctuated by broken bits of silence and pulsating frequencies, while the high end breaking up in spurts and crackles, the whole thing manages to actually make sense, and stretch the original sounds into interesting variants. Side Two is more compact: similar source sounds but let loose, with swashes of white noise floating over the fizzing contacts and the bass loops, everything transported on a faulty tape reel in front of some clanking industrial machinery. Oscillating squeals pair up with the rest of the manipulations, sometimes precipitating into silence or trying to pull the whole mess in uncertain directions. By playing along the same lines of Side One, the second track sounds a little less convincing but the overall atmosphere is still enjoyable, especially when it wanders around more industrially-sounding loops or when in the second half the sound palette is opened up by straightforward turntable slowdowns and bitcrushed breakbeats throbbing under the weight of an oppressive distortion.

My rip might have aggravated the overall sound quality, but this tape does have a nice punch and, without being an exceptional release, it still manages to provide a fun, twenty-minute fix of subdued industrial noise with a definite electronic edge, a sort of messy power electronics played with no regard for post-production. Big Brother & The Holding Cock contains a lot of cables misfiring, faulty contacts and crackling pots, and it is one of the best Fuzztape cassettes released up to today. The only reservation I have with the record is that it lacks in headroom, panning and sense of space: the gnarly and overdriven cut-up drives the point home, but everything remains all too often strictly bi-dimensional and blunted. After twenty minutes of listening one feels trapped in a narrow space, struggling to focus on the development of a sound in a very small portion of the audible range, while much of what had been going on during the recording session remains to be imagined following some muddled hints buried here and there in the mix.

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颜峻 – Ear Drummer (No-Input Study)

Ear Drummer (No-Input Study)颜峻
Ear Drummer (No-Input Study)
Tape, Fuzztape, 2011

Not inspired Onkyo-inspired no-input mixer on tape. Right, the format clashes a bit with the tradition of the genre, but the interaction does actually create some interesting things: the sound is not polished, the direct punch of the bass peaks is smoothened by the frequency envelope while clicks, crackles and feedback oscillations emerge from a soft and warm texture of hissing tape thickness. This also means, though, that the high and low ends of the spectrum are sensibly muffled by the mastering on tape, and the idea that the earphone-listening suggested on the cover art should provide an “ear-drumming” experience (something along the lines of any Ryoji Ikeda’s Test Patterns, I guess) is sort of crippled by this fact: most of the percussive sounds cranked out of saturated mixer channels linger sadly across the spectrum and in the middle of the aural space, resonate in analogue harmonics and bounce around following some slow knob-work. Listening to this as a self-proclaimed “No-Input Study”, I would venture to say that I’ve seen people study in more interesting ways. I’m not a big fan of 颜峻 (Yán Jùn)’s recent live sets, built around multiple speakers-mixer feedback, a directional microphone and some objects thrown in the cones to disturb the frequencies, but Ear Drummer is not even a studio version of this (which I would at least find interesting as a document and a statement). All that’s in this tape is just twenty minutes of no-input mixer basics: inputs into outputs, high frequencies distorting into crackling hiss, sub-basses stretched into percussive waves, volumes and pan pots tentatively adjusted to make things appear and disappear with a lazy indolence.

Yet, following the name of Adel Wang Jing (who, according to the liner notes, “invigorated” Yan Jun to record this at Ohio University @lab during a recent series of workshops and improvvisations across U.S. institutions) I came across one paper published on the Journal of Sonic Studies where she presents her own theory of affective listening using Chinese experimental music as a case study, coaxing Yan Jun and Li Jianhong’s latest output into a framework that I find highly questionable, especially in its reference to Qi, Buddhism and Taoism as the epitomes of a non-interpretive and deterritorialized (whatever you want this to mean) listening practices. Probably I lost my grip on postmodernity, but linking affective listening to practices of self-trascendence (sometimes overlapping or contrasted with practices of self-transformation) and equating the concept of Qi to Deleuze and Guattari’s hacceity (right, the “thisness” of something compared to the energy flow common to all things, makes sense) seems just a little far-fetched. Ultimately, what disturbs me in this kind of theorization is not the rather fashionable theoretical toolbox as much as the feeling that the only feasible way to characterize the music of these Chinese artists seems to be, after all efforts to question it, again and only a nondescript Chineseness: one makes two, two makes three, and we all go up on the clouds to play some sound-calligraphy, and you audience would you please be quiet and listen attentively, otherwise you’ll not grasp our self-transcendent expression. I would love to delve further into this – and will never have time for it, fortunately – but I’m baffled by how academic analysis and the musicians’ theorizations are often well-disposed to fall into feedbacks of self-congratulatory discourse. In an interview to Yan Jun in a recent, quite hagiological column, he proclaims: “Westerners deconstruct their own traditions in order to redefine them, whereas the Chinese simultaneously attempt to understand the Western tradition and to rediscover their own. While Westerners believe that the Chinese are re-inventing sounds that already exist, the Chinese believe that they are simply re-inventing themselves.” I’ll play the part of the colonial Westerner then: Yan Jun has been a rather known poet, music critic and essayist, a successful organizer and a smart promoter, but his idealistic proclaims about the nature of experimental musicians in China not simply reprocessing foreign genres but integrating them with the values of Chinese culture do not find in this specific release any concrete proof – maybe because Yan Jun himself has no pretense of being a musician, but then again why would we have any interest in being the listeners of this 17 minutes of unquestionably derivative no-input fiddling? Music is hardly legitimized by theory: we want sounds that speak by themselves. We want good records and moving, challenging or exciting performances, not listening instructions.

Academic blabber aside, if you haven’t had enough of Nakamura/Sachiko M/Ciciliani/McGee no-input stuff, have developed a maniac black-metalesque attraction for obscure minimalism, enjoy being told how to listen and what to listen for, or you want to hear how this CD-centric (or even file-centric, as per recent Alva Noto & Raster-Notonian developments) genre plays out on tape, you might enjoy this release. After all, the most interesting thing about Ear Drummer is that it is a tape, and that it exists thanks to 梅志勇 Méi Zhìyǒng’s efforts in publishing tapes through Fuzztape, the only – as far as I know – underground tape-centered label in the PRC right now. Praxis wins.

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