Browsing through some of my old vinyl collection recently, I was reminded of the anti-tape propaganda that record companies used to undertake – a cassette-and-crossbones design with the legend ‘HOME TAPING IS KILLING MUSIC’. Except that it didn’t, and the relative innocence of those days must seem small beer by comparison to today. But for a generation, the cassette was the best way to hear new music and exchange ideas, and it’s an idea that hasn’t gone away – it’s just mutated into playlists and zipped files and whatnot. By comparison to the somewhat cold experience of downloading a file from Mediafire, cassettes are warm and friendly; tactile and customisable and still relatively cheap. And it’s probably for these reasons that they are making a small but determined comeback as music carriers for some musicians and labels who don’t just want to deal in zeroes and ones, or throw their lot in with CDRs, but see vinyl as possibly an expensive step too far. Or, maybe, simply want another option that fits the music more sympathetically.
One such label is Kiks, which has released vinyl and CDRs but has chosen to give W.I.A (and SCKE//) the tape treatment. In these instances it works very well, SCKE// because of the sense of creepy nostalgia that surrounds it, which seems indelibly linked to listening to a Walkman on holiday (and for more, see that review). But for W.I.A the ambience of the music benefits from all the little aspects of cassette playback that we overlook; the tape hiss, the sound of the pinion dragging the tape through the heads, the lead-in tapes and the abrupt clicks at the end of the side.
W.I.A DIVERS is made up of relatively short guitar-based ambient drone pieces, all neatly stitched together to form two playing sides on a C30 cassette, and nothing is mixed too loud to cancel out any surface noise. There’s added percussive texture scattered here and there, such as on “Drummybeach”, and what sounds like a thumb piano in certain places, so it’s not an album that settles into one mood drone through its duration, preferring to shift its tone in places; it’s a much more spacious work than the claustrophobic sounds of SCKE// too; it’s the sort of music you could stick in your Walkman and listen to as you are striding boldly across fields looking at the sky.
The longest track, “The Ballad of Many Beautiful Suns” is arguably the most successful here, combining elements of the other tracks into a centrepiece, with an ear for a narrative arc in the composition. The engaging chatter at the opening gradually dissolves into a drifting drone of near blissful release. It’s followed by a quartet of shorter, more playful pieces to close the album off, the plucked guitar-work of “Little Optimistic” sounding like an out-take from Fridge’s Happiness album and arguably the track I’d want to stick on a mixtape of my own. If you’ve never considered buying music on tape, or maybe have a long-dormant cassette collection then it’s time to starting investigating the humble cassette once again, and W.I.A DIVERS is an ideal starting point. HOME TAPING: HELPING MUSIC LIVE! (Jeremy Bye)