The fall of 1993 was a major time of discovery for me. Oddly enough, some credit one of my discoveries from that time, the Internet, for killing off (or maybe just making obsolete) one of the others, the tape scene.
By “tape scene” I mean all these musical artists, in particular those working with experimental or noise sounds, but also a number in the areas of hardcore and lo-fi indie folk/pop, who would home-record on cassette tape, make a bunch of copies on their dual tape decks, design up a cover insert using a mixture of collage, hand-drawing, and typewriter and make photocopies at the local office-supply or copy shop, and then sell or trade their creations through the mail. Some artists who managed to get a good following going that way eventually graduated to vinyl or pressed CDs, but home-dubbed tape was always the default format.
I already had a pastime of looking for cassette demos by obscure “local” bands from all over the place. Then I came upon an issue of Friends Of The Draft Resistance, a zine by Des Moines resident Brian Noring, in which he ran an interview with a member of a band called Rectal Pus who also ran one of these DIY cassette “labels,” Chaotic Noise Productions (which survives today as CNP Records), and this was responsible for my introduction to the tape scene. This tape scene was responsible for my introduction to a variety of new noise-music sounds ranging from chaotic grind/hardcore bands to the kind of wall-of-distortion noise that folks like Merzbow are known for.
Many memorable experiences and items in my music collection originate in my interest and involvement in this tape culture. I ended up involved in a couple tape-labels myself, first TapeSNotRecords and then later Ragman Records, which grew up around the circle of friends I fell into upon meeting and collaborating with Joe Riehle. These tended less towards brutal/harsh/chaotic noisecore sounds and more towards clattery, outsidery, and quirky lo-fi and indie-rock stuff, and didn’t manage to amass much of a following outside the Cedar Valley, mostly due to my own cluelessness. A bunch of TapeSNotRecords and Ragman stuff can be downloaded at ragmanrecords.com, and there are still new additions on the way as I find spare time to digitize tapes and scan cover art.
One of the most memorable experiences related to it was at one of the shows No Consensus played in Ottumwa circa 1998 where I chanced to meet Andy Koettel. What it was that got us talking neither of us can remember now, but after discovering we were both fans of “tardcore” godfathers, tape-scene stalwarts, and Wheelchair Full Of Old Men label flagship Sockeye (of whom, by the way, much can be downloaded from sluggisha.blogspot.com/), and of the bygone Cedar Falls band Fantasy Kitchen, he revealed to me that he played in a noise-grind band called Captain 3 Leg and operated a label called Mortville. Or maybe it was later that we got into that. In any case we exchanged mailing addresses and he ended up sending me Captain 3 Leg stuff and a krautrock mixtape. (Later on Andy and his label took on an honorable project of reissuing Sockeye’s classic Retards Hiss Past My Window LP on CD as well as a CD collection of their 7″ output, both of which I purchased with great excitement.)
Recently, somehow or other, and one of a rapid succession of recent events that have brought the noise tape scene back into the front of my consciousness lately, Andy and I got back in touch, and I ended up hearing about Small Doses — a 100-band, 44-minute compilation CD wherein each band gets, on average, around half a minute to do their thing.
Many of my favorite noisecore/grind/shit-noise releases have been compilations because of the variation you can get in them, at least the good ones, and Small Doses is one of the most varied I’ve ever heard. Among the noise tracks what’s striking overall is how many different treatments of the basic noisegrind/harsh-noise formulas there are to be found. A goodly number of artists on Small Doses put their own spin on things, all the more surprising given that they get only a few seconds to do it, so we end up with a dizzying variety of harsh dissonant timbres and textures. As for the more metal/hardcore song-oriented contributions, the best ones illustrate something people don’t realize: it takes real effort to write an interesting song that fits into just a few seconds. The contribution from one of Andy’s own bands Mummifier is one of the ones that pulls it off best, but there are numerous good examples.
Believe it or not, several artists on Small Doses actually fit, or at least claim, more than one song within their under-one-minute tracks. Godstomper list 4 titles, as do Naturals although the back cover just says “4 Songs With Mike Complaining.” Amnogomusikimalo claim “24 Traxxx About Voices In Your Head” but this is clearly in the sense where each of a series of sub-1-second blasts supposedly counts as a song — a silly noisecore device, probably originated by Deche-Charge, that I think was pretty much played out from the beginning.
Mortville being based in Ottumwa, Iowa, you get a healthy dose of Ottumwa’s own extreme music scene, and from elsewhere around Iowa: there’s of course Mummifier’s excellent track and a couple classic short songs from Captain 3 Leg. Grand Old Lady actually manage to put forth a bit of a progressive vibe in the 15 delightfully insane seconds of “Slow Dance.” Des Moines’ own Black Market Fetus chime in with a fine 12 second hardcore tune “Rocktober Blood.” Despite the relatively heavy Iowa representation however, Small Doses is an intensely international affair, with artists from all over the world.
There are a couple “big” names as well. The venerable Rupture show up with a good noise-grind track, and NYC doom phenoms Batillus contribute a 30-second song called “Unlifed” that sounds all muddy and indistinct like the worst boombox recordings — which is unfortunate since it sounds like it actually has riffs, but hell if you can make them out. Given how many of the other bands went to the trouble of getting reasonably clear recordings of their stuff, even when “their stuff” consists mostly of distortion static noise and blastbeat drums, it makes me wonder how seriously Batillus took this or whether they just saw it as yet another place to get their name out and so just grabbed a random snippet from their practice-room jam tapes.
There are some names in the lineup that I recognized from the old ’90s tape scene right away. It’s good to see that The Earwigs are still around, and while 33 seconds of heavily distorted screaming capped off by “thank you, good night” is amusing, it doesn’t give much insight into Charlie’s colorful multi-decade recorded oeuvre. Seven Minutes Of Nausea kick up an ominous cloud of frenetic sound on “Black Death X” which somehow manages to be grind and doom and a little bit jazz all at the same time, both atmospheric and chaotic, and one of my favorite tracks on the disc. 7MON’s legacy is important enough that another band on the comp, Stab, have a track called “7 Minutes Of Nausea Cover.” Cauliflower Ass & Bob, the goofing-on-country project from the Sockeye/Wheelchair camp, contribute a hilarious/pathetic little song called “Drink Myself To Death,” Food Fortunata’s warble unmistakable over twangy guitar and a rambling tuneless trumpet. Pile Of Eggs’s Steveggs’s sometimes-better-liked “other” project Nut Screamer shows up with “Goatfucker,” 16 seconds that sounds like Steveggs doing an impression of the goat that’s being fucked, into a handheld tape recorder, while riding the subway. Gorgonized Dorks give us some nice noisecore made out of distorted grunts over danceable drums and noisy electronics (apparently there’s a distinctly greater presence of electronics in noisecore these days than there was a decade or so ago). Agathocles and Drogheda grind out, as do Wadge, whose ode “Last Train to Mortville” closes out the CD, combined onto track 99 with Vomir’s harsh distorto-noise due to the two-digit limitation of CD tracks.
And that song title brings us to the deeper meaning and intent of Small Doses, an insanely ambitious project conceived by Andy as the label’s swan song. Yes, Mortville is supposedly done as a label (although oddly, it’s still putting out the new Mummifier album?), though it seems to be continuing as a blog and Andy has every intention to continue making music as well as selling the remaining Mortville inventory. As it turns out, Mortville got to be a pretty well-respected brand in the noise-grind world, Andy’s unwavering devotion to musical extremism carrying the label through many gloriously unprofitable years of DIY cassettes and CD-Rs on into pressed CDs and vinyl. In a way, Small Doses is a eulogy and conceptual tribute to the excitement of those tape-mailing salad days of the 1990s, but also a snapshot of what’s going on in noisecore today, and a contemplation of what music, especially music as willfully difficult as this, means in an age where mp3 downloads and the ability to Google up just about anything robs underground scenes of their feeling of exclusivity. A tape of shock-value noise with an insert of photocopied gore photos once seemed dangerous, innovative, hard to come by. Do sounds and concepts like these still have the power to surprise us the way they once did?
The usual complaint about how the Internet is supposedly screwing up music comes from rock stars and big record labels complaining that downloading is ruining their business model. Internet access is basically a utility now, like electricity and water, most people can afford it, and once you have it, any piece of music you might want to listen to, you can be listening to for effectively nothing within a few minutes. Realistically, music is basically free now. But noisecore has never made money, and has never really been about money. Pre-Web, tape-trading was a common way of getting new stuff, and the labels, which often resemble normal record labels only superficially and out of some combination of necessity and appearances, frequently price things at the minimum needed to keep making them. Many people who I have talked to got involved in the old tape scene at a time in their life when they were chronically broke; they’d found a scene they could participate in even if all the production they could afford was a thrift-store boom-box and a few black-and-white photocopies down at the Kinko’s. That openness is reflected in the back cover of the booklet that comes with Small Doses in bold all-caps Impact font: “Make your own noise. Stop being an audience member and start being a participant.” This is DIY, the acronym for “Do It Yourself,” as not just a how, but a what; not just an advice to musicians, but a call to action for all people to create. The thing is, today’s technology, and the ubiquity of computers, makes that idea less special and more just how things work. The ability to get your creations to the people digitally for very little effort has brought on an explosion of creativity, some of it even pretty good. You can now get much better sound quality in your own recordings for practically nothing, and “distributing” your work no longer necessarily implies endless tedious hours sitting by your dual-cassette deck only to produce a degraded, muffled-sounding product, or scraping up hundreds of bucks to send to the pressing plant. Increasingly, musicians are questioning what they even need to bother with a label for. The openness we found in the tape scene is now just something in the air surrounding us, we hardly think about it; and if DIY is everywhere, maybe there’s no longer a need for a scene to push it.
All these issues are explored in essays within Small Doses‘s insert booklet; even as the elaborate packaging (check the nice die-cut anti-music symbol designed for the front of the booklet to show through!) reaffirms the value of the physical component of music product (particularly for noisecore, which as mere music/sound sometimes treads dangerously on the edge of anonymity and interchangeability), there are essays by Andy himself, Andrew McIntosh of Australian DIY punk lifers Scroungers, Hagamoto Yamocho of the Discos Al Pacino label, and Paul Pfeiffer of Wadge, present varying perspectives on the making of Small Doses, the end of Mortville, and the realities of the music-scene landscape we now find ourselves operating in — most, surprisingly, more optimistic than lamenting. The remainder of the booklet, in grand old tape-comp tradition, gives a third of a page to each band for art, credits, and contact info. This is clearly meant to be a record you spend as much time absorbing and contemplating as listening to, meant to mark an end of an era, but also the start of one.
Small Doses (and lots of other good shit) is available for $6 from Mortville Noise. (And as long as you’re in the neighborhood, check out the advance stream of the forthcoming new Mummifier album.)