My Life With the Tape Hiss Cult

When we think of our experiences with electronic music, we can follow a thought trail that leads like a Wikipedia article from one incendiary album to many others. Their qualities are not always alike but for one: the nostalgic thread that runs through them.

That First Step Outside That First Apartment in the Big City

The noughties brought much through Selected Ambient Works 85-92’s old veins. Autechre and Richard Devine made stark glitch music. Kid 606 played scratched CDs along with other artists for Millie Plateuax’s awesome Clicks & Cuts series. Ableton Live, Acid, Fruity Loops, and college kids flooded the channels with pirate-had bedroom producer music that, to some part, sounded great. Take in case, I argue, a student of Selected Ambient Works: Diagram of Suburban Chaos. The alias of William Collin Snavely, Diagram’s debut Status Negatives emerged as a sort-of opposite, taking more from Aphex Twin’s less rhythmic Selected Ambient Works follow-up, Selected Ambient Works Volume II. In this, I intend to say that Diagram’s music is polar, built of the gentle or terse moments that came with SAW II alongside the spaciousness that was SAW, with a melodiousness much darker. Heavily repeated on Status Negatives are the abstract percussive clusters that shaped Autechre on Tri Repetae and beyond, but Status Negatives is its own and should be honored as such. Andy Greenwald of Spin listed the album in a More Artists You Need To Know About feature and wrote:

"Alone in his bedroom with the curtains tightly drawn, San Diego's William Colin Snavely quietly and obsessively soundtracks the push/pull heartache of suburban decay. Influenced by videogames, Faith No More, and dead-end factory jobs, Snavely blends the instrumental audio abstractions of Aphex Twin with a welcome splash of old-fashioned American melodrama. The result is a robot album that desperately wants to be human."

It’s a concisely fitting summary. Here’s to widening its audience.

Moving forward, we find dubstep monster Burial uncovered and charting many Album Of The Year lists with both his self-titled 2006 debut and its 2007 successor Untrue. Both releases redefined perceptions, inciting initial speculation of the artist’s true identity. Burial’s important for this walk we’ve had. His debut has a revolutionary sound. It isn’t distinctly ambient, but it has ambience, and it isn’t the builder of a new genre, but it is milestone. Like SAW, its compositions have downbeat moments of intentional hiss and crackle that rise, not entirely part of the music, with an alien onus, building beneath the kick drums a significant emotional element. Elsewhere on both Burial albums are other inhuman sounds: endless rain, manipulated voices, things you would expect to hear during a near death experience. However, it’s the intent, the instant transport that links Burial and Untrue to SAW and other albums whose purpose was never first to chart or shake asses but to take on some level of introspection.

So if SAW was a youthful endeavor, introducing us to ambience and Status Negatives arose as a moment of angst after big beat, after a collision with the world, an overstated emergence from the underground, then Burial was that first step outside that first apartment in the big city. After sometime unchecked by authority came existential dread, here in the form of Consequence’s Live For Never. An album as spacious as all that are mentioned here, Live For Never was released in late 2009 and put some of Burial’s mood into drum & bass. Live For Never is a dark decedent of this odd path I’ve drawn, an opposite of what was released in the first half of the '90s, when drum & bass was still mostly jungle. It’s close to Photek’s early work around the time that the π soundtrack was released. The artist’s bass steppers play under thin, sometimes single-note pads emotive enough to pass for excerpts from SAW II.

As this line progresses, it comes clear that there’s something smart in this music. It’s tangential and through the links we follow, from a genre’s beginning to its inevitable mutation, there’s always something telling to be heard, to be learned. The half-lauded emergence of drag and witch-house is just this. Though no artists have truly broken ground within the sub-genre, some have shown its beginning in hip-hop and '80s 4AD records, and one, likely, will release something memorable before the genre dies out.

From glitch, we were given Oval and Matmos. Now we have Flying Lotus and Fennesz. Hell, try and count all of the software plug-ins that seek to emulate the Amen-mashery that glitch and IDM artists invented. The whole of contemporary electronic music, excluding all of those originators you don’t think of and I can’t list entirely: Paul Lansky; Wendy Carlos; Herbie Hancock; Frankie Knuckles; 808 State; ad nauseam, can be traced this way, vaguely and through little links that appear in the mind of someone who has a mind like a library, a DJ, or an obsessive compulsive like myself.

The path I’ve presented here is not necessarily the most correct, it’s more a line I’ve drawn in my head, and there are many trees to be thought up and drawn. There are plenty of artists I could have included but the point is that we all have our own subjective moments in music listening when single qualities stand out and stick. Hearing Selected Ambient Works the first time, it was a wonder to think that people bought an album that sounded so echoey and noisy, especially in the early days of the compact disc.

The subsequent things I’ve listed stray far from SAW but retain, for me, a similarly spacious aesthetic. These small pieces are things we tend to look for afterward, even in other forms. They are stamps on our worlds, emotive elements that seem applicable to experiences no matter how removed. So my life with the tape hiss cult continues.

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