. issue III : vi .
These home-taping sessions from experimental contemporary sound ensemble Napalm Jazz were recorded between 1999 and 2000, their formative years. Mixed, refurbished, and released as a proto-demo post-mixtape by Aimé Dontigny, Cassettes 1999-2000 manifests all the devastating, unrelieved ingenuity of the original group (Dontigny, Philémon Robitaille, Érick Dorion, and David Turgeon) and their musique concrete origins. Guest artists somewhere in this mess include Morceaux de Machines and L’île de Béton. Well, congrats — I don’t know how they find their cameos. Though it is possible to pick out the recto and folio, the knotwork, where one session has been mixed into another, part of the claustrophobic fun is not doing so, and Cassettes — believe me — takes everything out of your hands. This release is 58-minutes and 26-seconds of ferociously decocted, cunningly demented, brittle bric-a-brac that is almost too much for the listener and itself! It is a dissolute and tortuous single track. Indeed, Cassettes is so dense, wringing, and matter-of-factly grotesque that the listener can hardly stand the vertiginous pummeling.
This is their most abrasive work. It is like sandpaper for your auditory cortex, foley art for an hour of bloodletting, piddling about in a whirlpool before you drown from exhaustion.
And if you do not read the timestamp, you won’t have any idea how much time has passed! This is the opposite of timelessness (i.e. an expanse): it’s the compression of reality to a frenetic lack of time! The particularizable experience of time — forget continuity, predictability, melody — is entirely forfeit.
In Cassettes, Napalm Jazz has total control: the listener merely hears what they hear, devoid of time for the illusion of interpretation (i.e. how the listener achieves control). The keystone technique for said controlling is the steel-wool-wrapping of the fuzzy, fine-grained sonic quality, ceaselessly shifting, swallowed and wallowed and smothered microphone tunneling. Even when you think you know what it is you’re hearing (e.g. a mobile, a gun, a sermon), the center of a tornado, under its consumptive roar, items screaming out velocity as they whirl past you, is not a comfortable place to be. Concrete is like foley: it comes from one thing and does its standing for the sounding of something else, and it’s particulate in its being tailored, or, what it does is be tailored to [ ]. But does it itself matter? Not quite … it’s the sound that suffices. But does the sound matter? Not quite … its own sound cannot suffice and has to be fabricated (by what? it doesn’t matter). What does matter? The process: the semiotics of standing for, the tailoring, the fabrication. The listener is forced to acknowledge that it is the nature of the sound that is standing for another sound, moreover, the active playing of one sound so that it does this standing is all that matters because it is all there really is. It is not so strange that Napalm Jazz should have utter control: they manifest reality. Neither is it strange that Cassettes should be about instances, literally, about instantiating something. And note that units of expectable time, so procedural and regular in mundane experience, are fractured in Cassettes (e.g. the sermonizing enhances the preachers’ fumbles and his fanatic temper). All sounds are relentlessly transduced via this living static, the abiding tornado wall of violent, hazy, hirsute wind.
Notable sonic threads include a defective music box, the demented, incensed collision of sermonizing, impenetrable newscasts in foreign languages, the embouchure of wind and glass, improbable melodies from rotary telephones, and the friendly elevator ‘ding’ — yes, but where have you arrived? This is a catoptric jaunt of transduction, blending human and mechanical energies in order to remove the distinction between forms and causes. Without kowtowing to purposefulness — that is, making any gesture towards regularity, conceit, or comprehensibility — the mind has no way to interpret given stimuli. The listener must trust that a piece ‘wants’ to be transparent in order to appraise purposefulness, or, identifying purposefulness is just a favor that the musician gives to you (“alright, I’ll let you play along”).
Cassettes, far beyond any other Napalm Jazz release, reminds its listeners that meaning is a construct and can only be constructed when the boat isn’t rocking. There is a sort of relief, too, in denying the mind of all its conjectures.
Everything looks different after you emerge — that’s the right word — from this album. One line from my listening notes reads “animalist opera contralto kazoo yikes bagpipe” — and it’s all like that. Cassettes is a masterfully distasteful masterpiece disaster. And though renowned for their improvisational live work, in no way does this disturbing scrappy marinade fail to reach and hurdle the bar Napalm Jazz constantly sets and imprudently exceeds. Cassettes is aptly conscribed in the ironic touch of the elevator bell, as if to say, in admission to the choleric sermon, ‘Basement Floor: Hell.’