Phil Julian – TranscriptMay 20, 2012
A strange, dreamlike day today, mostly spent wandering about glad that last week was over and promising myself I would get some solid work done but never quite raising the energy to do so. Hopefully tomorrow. I have listened to both a CD and a cassette tape tonight, finally deciding to ditch the CD and write about the tape simply because I couldn’t find anything positive or, in the absence of positivity, anything particularly constructive to say about it. So I have opted to write about Transcript a cassette by the South London often but not always noisy musician Phil Julian, who also records under the name Cheapmachines, but appears here minus that moniker. I’m actually not sure why he opts to use the name on some releases and not others. If anything the tools used to make music on this particular release would probably fit the Cheapmachines descriptor rather nicely.
For this tape Julian has sourced sounds from blank cassette tapes, some of them new, some vintage but erased, others just short loops. He has played them in various machines, mono and stereo cassette decks, dictaphones and walkmen and then captured the sounds of both he tapes and the machines playing them by using further cassette recorders, telephone induction coils, a close-range VLF detector (whatever one of those may be) and assorted contact mics. Presumably the resulting sounds were then loaded into sequencing software and sculpted into the two sides of C15 tape we have here. It is, obviously, low-fi stuff, full of scratchy, earthy abrasions, fuzz and hum, and quite a wide variety of it. The sounds seem to try an peel themselves away from the surfaces they are recorded on, sounding like tapes chewing themselves up, dissolving, having an ill-fated life of their own. These qualities of the sounds are what make the release. The parts are neatly structured and in places thinly layered, but this release is more about the process of its creation as it is about the final presented product. Phil Julian often works with a laptop, the ultimate digital music creation tool, but here he is working with low grade materials, raw, perhaps unintentionally flawed surfaces, supposed silences full of decay. There is then something very pleasing about the tactile qualities of this music. It takes the poor sound quality of cassette tapes and makes it the feature, of course then bringing everything around 360 degrees by releasing the finished work on a tape itself.
There seems to be quite a lot of this kind of exploration of dated technology these days, (see my review of Stephen Cornford’s recent release here). Perhaps this is a reaction to the ease with which near-immaculate recording and presentation processes can be accessed today. If it is now easy to make a CD sound clean and clear then maybe one set of challenges come from reversing such advances. The danger is always nostalgia with this kind of thing. I must admit that I listened to Transcript this evening I was put in mind of a few years in my youth when cassettes were my sole musical medium, and I would fight against the fragility and unpredictability of tapes and the famously temperamental machines we used to play them. Every squelch here on Transcript made me think of compiling cut ups of early hip hop records with my finger on the pause button, every tortured frazzle bringing back that sinking feeling when you knew all of your work had just wrapped itself around little plastic clog never to be properly recovered. Such nostalgia is good in the short term, but fortunately there is enough compositional integrity to this work that makes it more than a trip down some aural memory lane and enough abstraction and invention to make many of the sounds immune to such sentimentality anyway. Nice stuff indeed then, certainly one for those fans of these shaky little plastic shells.