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Freak Scene #19: American Tapes

November 08, 2007

This week Freak Scene brushes off the tip of John Olson's American Tapes iceberg.

American Tapes is a label run by John Olson of Wolf Eyes and has been putting homemade acid-damaged art squall since 1991. With well over 700 releases, American Tapes is perhaps the most perplexingly fascinating label in the American underground because no matter how much of a die-hard collector you are it’s simply impossible to keep up. Released in quantities ranging from single digit to 200, you can scan eBay for the rest of your life and never get close to a complete collection. That being said, grabbed at shows or ordered from distros or from Olson himself, American Tapes are like elusive art pieces, each hand made, each with psychedelic punk artwork collage, spray paint squiggle and mutant sounds of cracked electronics or out jazz. Fact is, you just never know what you’re going to get and trying to figure it out is better than listening to most people’s actual “records”. For those uninitiated, check out their pod cast at which are broadcast live from the Wolf Eyes lair, Inzane Studios in Michigan and contains more cool shit than most of us can dream of.

From the latest haul of tangible releases, the best grab was this Dead Machines release entitled Simmering Salts B/W Empty Baths, which are two 90 min cassettes, and a Xerox collage poster housed in what appears to be a spray painted Cracker Jack box. Dead Machines are the husband and wife of John and Tovah Olson and the two really lock in here to some serious outer space transmissions. Static cracks as the two cross wires and process each other’s sounds. Of course its tough to tell who is doing what here but the music has a very strong defined aesthetic here of conversation. Sounds bounce back and forth, are cut, radio signals altered and stretched. There’s certainly a disorienting oscillating effect and the rise and crash of waves of electronics and things failing. But I’ll be damned if its not a thoroughly good head fuck and a more confident and present Dead Machines than in some prior efforts. Great stuff.

Next up is an LP entitled Formless Music From a Coming Age by Graveyards which is now pared down to a duo of John Olson on sax and Ben Hall on percussion. While this music is certainly improvised and for the most part “acoustic” its not quite what one would commonly associate as free jazz. Instead Graveyards are about a serious minimal creep. Here they are actually a touch more present than usual, Olson howling extended ghost sounds through his horn while Hall pounds slowly off in the distance, a menacing glacial pace that’s almost Swans like in its monolithic scarceness. As the record progresses though the sounds begin to unfold into more lifelike shapes, creating a sense of drama and almost playfulness. It sounds like a lo-fi almost academic piece yet its clearly not scored. There’s definitely tapes or overdubs involved. It’s not too long before they descend back into the basement depths that the recording has in its grooves. You can almost feel must as if it was performed in a bordello. Goes well with a glass of red, but I’m sure Olson would prefer a Coors.

The next part in our American Tapes saga is an edition of their Live Frying series, this time on a 90-minute cassette featuring live material from Warning Sign, Dead Machines, Evenings and Graveyards. Warning Sign is Olson and…. I have no idea who else. Here it sounds like minimal looped field recordings of Michigan basements with occasional elongated barely there sounds. Then all of the sudden it sounds as if the room was submerged in water. Evenings on the other hand, is the only thing in this column that is not involving Olson musically, this being the more harsh noise of Miles Copeland which is exhibited in appropriate length and head cleaning properties. Evenings provide a nice touch of pure electric fry amidst the insanity.

Lastly, we come to Vacuum by Wolf Eyes, the mother ship of it all. Unlike some of their more widely released material Vacuum is more of a deep space blackout than the heavy stomp of their Sub Pop hit single “Stabbed in the Face”. In essence though this material is core to Wolf Eyes aesthetic. Started as a solo project by Nate Young in 1996, the first Wolf Eyes cassette featured the distant howl of a wolf over stark electronics. Vacuum certainly has more dynamic than those early recordings but the mood is still there. It’s a particularly miserable recording, not of quality but in tone. Eight minutes in, the track comes together with layers of mean spirited noise that flatten everything. Things then recede to a more ambient/industrial framework of just abandoned building creep. Maybe cosmic pinball is more accurate or an electrical storm in a Midwest suburb? Who’s to say really? But that’s what it is this week in or whenever he made this stuff. That’s the beauty of American Tapes. See if you can grip some these releases or any for that matter. It’s better than a 401K.

From The Collection:

Freak Scene
Posted: November 08, 2007
Freak Scene #19: American Tapes