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8 Tracks: The old technology that can fit in your pocket — and connect worlds

Over 90 minutes, the <em>অন্য (ONNO) </em>compilation surveys India's experiment music scene: pulsing noise, avant-pop, freak folk, astral synths and surging industrial.
Courtesy of Onno Collective
Over 90 minutes, the অন্য (ONNO) compilation surveys India's experiment music scene: pulsing noise, avant-pop, freak folk, astral synths and surging industrial.

8 Tracks is your antidote to the algorithm. Each week, NPR Music producer Lars Gotrich, with the help of his colleagues, makes connections between sounds across time.

The cassette is a tool of communication. From metalheads eager to hear obscure demos and Deadheads trading live tapes to boomboxes blasting hip-hop and go-go on city blocks, this compact audio format invented by Lou Ottens in 1963 not only gave listeners the opportunity to share music but also information... some of which fueled revolutions.

In his book High Bias: The Distorted History of the Cassette Tape, Marc Masters gives a necessary account of how the cassette was made and its crucial role in the democratization of sound and information. Throughout its early chapters, in particular, you meet the characters who realized that the next step in technology had to be personal and pocket-sized.

But mostly, High Bias celebrates the cassette's early adopters and its still-thriving culture. Before audio software could be had in a quick download, expensive studios and equipment were significant barriers to entry. Instead of waiting for a record deal, musicians like Daniel Johnston — whose early tape-only releases are available once again — would hit record on a cheap cassette deck and just play to the room, mistakes, tape hiss, overblown levels and all. Big-budget albums may offer clarity, but what Johnston and many others like him articulate in lo-fi recordings is raw intention — that what matters most in music is the moment and how it feels. And while not in the book, I think often about the early days of The Olivia Tremor Control when it was someone's job to smash a button on a 4-Track at just the right moment to achieve some bizarre effect, a happy accident you could never dream up otherwise. The limitations of the technology were the feature, not the bug. And, in fact, that's the joy that Masters captures: That across generations and around the world, the cassette is a tool of creation. Inspired, I recently dug out a portable recorder and made tape loops out of old mixtapes.

There's a new article about the cassette's comeback every year, especially as pop stars like Billie Eilish and Ariana Grande embrace the format, but for many of us it remains a knowing nod — a shorthand for music that's personal and homemade. This week on 8 Tracks, I highlight recent music released on cassette, plus a couple vinyl reissues of music originally made on cassette.

Nox, "Iron Knowledge"

Every time I enter the realm of Lamont Thomas — I celebrate the guy's entire catalog as Obnox — his dank mix of garage-punk clatter, psychedelic soul and corroded hip-hop leave me woozy and bruised. Now shortened to Nox, the self-released Iron Knowledge is best understood as a block party with speakers blaring from every stoop, a rattling cacophony that's somehow comforting. I'm particularly drawn to the title track, a slow-motion smoke-out of guitar fuzz, doomy drums and Thomas' smooth incantations.

Penny Carson Nichols, "Just This Time"

Private-press recordings have become something of a digger's dream: To find something so obscure and beautiful originally heard by a handful of people, then expanding its universe of ears. Penny Carson Nichols only made these songs for friends in 1988, then a cassette was found in a thrift store decades later. "Just This Time" is so simple in presentation — harmony vocals, an acoustic guitar fingerpicked on what sounds like rusted strings — yet carries a depth of yearning that somehow feels lost and indifferent, as if she's missed too many chances with love.

Linda Smith, "Fin de Fete"

In 1980s and '90s cassette culture, Linda Smith offered a handcrafted elegance amidst tape hiss. Ever since Captured Tracks released an anthology in 2021, I've eagerly bought every one of Smith's self-released cassette reissues — magical indie-pop missives full of home-recorded invention. Two of those early tapes are now getting pressed to vinyl, Nothing Else Matters and I So Liked Spring, the latter which finds the space between Vashti Bunyan's pastoral storytelling and the unpolished prowess of The Raincoats and Young Marble Giants.

Jay Kshirsagar, "Kink Crimson"

অ​ন​্​য (ONNO) is a compilation put together by the Onno Collective out of Kolkata, India, promoting experimental artists from all over their country. Over 90 minutes, you get pulsing noise, avant-pop, freak folk, astral synths and surging industrial — every track flows in and out of each other, as spoken in a common language. Jay Kshirsagar's cheekily titled "Kink Crimson" is sculpturally proggy, but bursts from a heady acoustic dirge into sublevels of electronic bliss.

Craig Peyton, "Be Thankful for What You Got"

The Bloomington label Ulyssa understands the art and utility of the mixtape as a means to expose the stranger corners of music. It has released a Soundcloud rapper anthology, crate-dug streaming curiosities and doubled down on whatever "toe jazz" is. On the surface, Craig Peyton doesn't seem to fit Ulyssa's usual oddballs and outsiders: He wrote scores for PBS and BBC shows, was a regular musician on BET, produced house and R&B songs in '80s NYC. (He was also the Flight Ambassador to the Bahamas?!) But from wonky fusion and smooth-prog to vibrant new age and some straight up elevator jazz, it's like, who is this guy?! Here's my favorite jam of the bunch, in which Peyton turns William DeVaughn's smoove, two-chord hit "Be Thankful for What You Got" into a motorik, Giorgio Moroder-style groove.

Chain Circuits, "Coup D'Etat"

The demo tape never died; it lives on in punk and hardcore. Indonesia's Chain Circuits is in and out in seven minutes, its drum machine d-beat provides a mudflap thud to lyrics spit in English, French and Spanish. The guitar is just swimming in chorus pedal, contributing to the demo's ooze oeuvre. (Ooze-vre?) It makes me want to throw up.

Harry Górski-Brown, "Dùthaich MhicAoidh"

The lament is a pillar of folksong; given the country's history within the British empire, I feel like Scots are naturals at them. On this cassette from Glasgow-based label Glarc, Harry Górski-Brown takes traditionals sung in various Gaelic dialects and gravitates toward their natural, piercing drones with pipes, fiddle, bouzouki and organ. But there are cracks, executed in subtly glitched electronics that simmer at the surface, destabilizing the drone's hypnotic power until the full force of sadness is obliterated by metallic overtones. Thrilling, terrifying stuff that confronts centuries of mourning.

Hyozo, "Anima"

Cassette labels cultivate a unique aesthetic all their own, and take us with them. Chicago's Eye Vybe leans into music of the third eye, particularly from the Japan psychedelic scene. One such offering is this extremely tranquil set of solo Fender Rhodes and Wurlizter meditations from Hyozo, leader of the ambient group Yaryu. In them, we can map another world onto our own — aquatic undulations wash away unsettled souls, opening up other pathways to peace.

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