The second installment in the Berlin-based electronic label !k7’s Tapes series is a solid set by The Big Pink’s Milo Cordell. Where the first, mixed by the Rapture, presented a history of influences, this Tapes focuses on a current genre, “drag” or “witch house”, exemplified by the group Salem—a slow and dirty form of electronic music that owes equal debts to drone, shoegaze, and Southern hip-hop. Though Cordell’s mix actually strays from drag to dubstep, ‘80s throwback synth pop, and electro-rock, the dominant tone remains a spooky and abrasive electronica.
Cordell has had a hand in drag through his label Merok Records, which released Water, an early Salem EP. But the Salem track on the mix, “Dirt”, comes from an even earlier EP, the frankly-named Yes, I Smoke Crack, released by Acéphale. “Dirt” is comprised of a muddy swath of phased and distorted noise layered front and center over a spare drum machine beat. This heavy middle includes a layer of distorted, warbly vocals that, if not pushed so far into the red, might belie a dreamy typical ‘80s synth-pop melody and would, therefore, pair well with the only clean sound on the track other than the drums: a jaunty, catchy keyboard melody.
Cordell also represents Merok earlier on the compilation with a track by Active Child, “Body Heat (So Far Away)”. This song has a traditional form, unlike the almost prohibitive mess of the Salem contribution, and is more unabashedly in debt to ‘80s melodies. Despite the very apparent indebtedness, the catchy song seems relevant, particularly its juxtaposition of the slow, dragging beat of the first half with its double-time recap at the second half.
The difference between Salem and Active Child — noisy, repetitive drones vs. more traditional song structure — encapsulates the two sides of Tapes. Cordell ties these strands together compellingly, so that the “songs” reflect back on the “experiments”. It’s really the weirder songs that make the mix. But Cordell makes the interaction between these two apparently different sides seem necessary.
The Gang Gang Dance remix of The Big Pink’s catchy single “Velvet” demonstrates the way electronic-based music can bridge the gap between experimentation and convention. “Velvet” is basically unrecognizable, reduced to a textural repetition of notes, noise, and voice. In fact, it almost sounds like a Gang Gang Dance song. On the other hand, the Gang Gang Dance track, “Ego War”, from the 2005 album God Money, represents the avant electro-noise band at its poppiest: the sweet sounds mesh with unintelligible sing-along vocals into a nearly verse-chorus pattern.
The mix first presents a counterintuitive inaccessibility as it alternates between songs and drones. I started out wondering what kind of party this mix would provide a soundtrack for — perhaps, as it turns out, not a party, but a scary drug dream in an opium den. But, eventually, a kind of coherence blankets the catchy but dissonant), late night (but not chilled-out) electronic music. Cordell’s set is mood-enabled, exuberant yet edgy — and, ultimately, pretty good.
A particularly strong segment begins at track three: Gang Gang Dance’s “Ego War” provides the first high point of the mix, developing into UK dubstep phenom Joker’s exuberant “Snake Eater”. “Snake Eater” is a contagious loop from the video game Metal Gear Solid with sped-up vocals and horns that sounds like the intense breakdown of a soul song on repeat. This track gets deflected into the pensive and emotional Active Child song, which is quickly overturned by the aggro-instrumental synth track “Vreg Dreams (Little Slow Mix)” by Henny Moan. Sewn Leather’s strange and silly “Smoke Ov the Pvnk”, a mechanical stomping drug ode, follows this, blending into Balam Acab’s atmospheric witch house contribution, “See Birds”.
In his comments on the mix, Cordell connects the current electronic trend with ‘70s punk since both are essentially DIY movements. What’s different is that today, you don’t need a band. Most of this music, he notes, was probably created by people on their computers, at home, alone in their rooms, and then uploaded onto the internet. Tapes makes an argument that this music is really part of a scene, however diffuse and impersonal. If you know the music, then many of these tracks will be familiar and the mix may be unnecessary; otherwise, Cordell’s set is a great primer. By weaving this so-called new sound in with other forms of electronica, Tapes both normalizes it and demonstrates its innovation.
The only question remaining is, “How does this album relate to Cordell’s own music?” While The Big Pink has a certain punk swagger, their sugary melodies owe more to ‘90s Britpop than anything else. Perhaps this mix marks a new direction for the Big Pink — Cordell has claimed that the new album will be more hip-hop influenced. It would be interesting to hear them go more aggro. After a brief history of love, will there be a brief history of violence?