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SPH Cassette Reviews

The SPH catalogue grows at an ever-accelerating pace, as did the pile of releases awaiting review in this issue ... I'm not sure why Portugal has proved to be home to as much activity in the underground music scene as it has (what with other labels like Johnny Blue, and groups like Osso Exotico), but SPH deserve wide recognition for their role.

Every SPH release comes in an A6 size plastic wallet, usually but not always with a colour inlay. Design standards are consistent and professional - a cut above many cassette labels.

Crawling With Tarts' New Caldonia (SPH058) is a tape of two halves. The first, and more pleasant, explores torpid, slightly flat, lopsided songs, using drums, guitar and Suzanne Dycus' languid vocals, plus a couple of instrumentals. Highlights include the unusual vocal cadences of Stone in Hand and the more straightforward song The Curtain and the Hand. The second side is a lengthy piece using (seemingly) improvised piano and drums, and with its bleak, unvarying, meandering instrumentation did nothing to maintain my interest.

Night (SPH056) comes from Germany's Cultes Des Ghouls, and employs similar ideas to those on their Rituale Romanum tape already reviewed in EST. Recorded outdoors under the full moon in May 1992, this music centres around the use of metallic percussion to create a chilly, harsh atmosphere. Mostly it's a bit on the spartan side, and it only really comes into its own when it gets more rhythmic (as on the whole of side 2) or is supplemented by various horns, moans and strange wind-like resonances. Very little change from Rituale Romanum.

Enrico Piva presents Forma Mentis (SPH060), one of the most minimalist recordings I've heard in a long time. Each side consists entirely of one fragment of electronic rhythmic / melodic material, endlessly repeated, with change that it is ultimately imperceptible. It'll either mesmerise you or drive you crazy ...

Brume feature on two cassettes: the first being Early / Unreleased Tracks (SPH055). This is much more melodic and "tuneful" than current Brume, including several instances of near-cosmic synthesiser, mixed with unidentifiable swirling noises, mechanical rhythms and echoes. It's a very accessible and enjoyable entree into the Brume world. Brume also take half of a split cassette with Bovoso, Lisza-Lisza (SPH035). Bovoso is a six-person group including members of Brume and Syllyk - the track here is edited from live recordings made in 1991, which sound not entirely unlike a bunch of neanderthals holding a primitive ritual in a very damp cave. This is no criticism, the wailing and shouting, wordless voices combine with percussion and subtle ambience to create a very shadowy, supernatural mood. Brume's contribution is one of their best, a careful combination of strange rhythms and noises - scraping sounds, mechanical and ritual rhythms, disjointed voices, guttural gnashing and hissing, blaring horns and drips of piano - all put together with a fine ear for texture and development.

Not all SPH releases are quite so fine: Smersh's Continuous Soft Hits (SPH038) contains too many echoes of eighties "industrial" music for comfort: rhythm and noise with the beats just too predictably mechanical and the noises too obviously distorted. Some tracks are a bit more adventurous, one employing harsh analogue whoops and squeals to antagonise the precise, steady beat, and Mister Peabody Gets Sexual has a welcome pulsating energy, but the rest of it is saying nothing new at all.

factor X is one artist who seems to alternate between "difficult listening" tape cut-ups and more musical journeys - his Schesis (SPH037) collaboration with American artist AMK falls into the second category. Even the more chaotic, rapid-fire editing of collages like Wishdesson creates an enjoyable texture; while more ambient pieces like Headlingnoise show what can be done with some well-judged restraint. Especially nice is Poplament, compressing material like Peter Gabriel's Biko by reducing the chunks of sound presented, digital sampling presented at a macro level, lyrics dismantled into nonsense patterns. Some tracks sound a bit too "industrial" and one track's dot-matrix printer rhythm is a good idea that fails to really work well, but on the whole it's an interesting tape.

Nomuzic's I'maGottadaVoltage (SPH034) adds to a lengthening tapeography, and consists of two side-long electronic music collaborations, one with John Hudak, the other with Patrick Gillis. Both sides somehow create an electronic music that reaches both to Tangerine Dream and John Cage. The sounds include rhythmic scratchings, lots of varied echoing squeakings, bassy drones, shrieking oscillators, bursts of analogue warbling, blunted found voices etc. It's murky and depressive, and the best thing I've yet heard from Nomuzic.

De Trabant (SPH024) comes from the Netherlands and De Fabriek, and contains eight tracks of varied but ultimately unconvincing industrial explorations: early 80s drum machines meets jumbled up noise meets squiggly windy noises or upbeat poppy sounds. Not a favourite, I'm afraid.

Merzbow's Axx/Spooning (SPH057) contains two side-long tracks of Masami Akita's usual violent noise creations. If you think that everything that raw noise could say has already been said, then it won't be for you, but if you feel otherwise then you may find it pretty powerful. Storms of metallic grinding, static, scraping and crashing sound provide the 'meat' of these compositions, and there's some raucous ear-shredding chaos to contend with. After the all-out hurricane comes more rhythmic abrasion, rasping and grating noises with (gosh!) drumming to help out. Potent and intimidating stuff.

Two Women San Francisco 1988 (SPH052) is a recording by Blackhumour, and continues their use of recorded and edited human vocals only: no effects etc. You may find this hard to believe given the entirely abstract textures that result: windy, hissy ambience on side one and a flock of sad seagulls on the second. In an inspired (or just tedious) act of minimalism, that's all there is: long textures that really don't seem to change very much from one minute to the next.

[Contact: SPH, Apartado 223, 2780 Oeiras, Portugal]