Like the minor vinyl resurgence that began halfway through the Naughts, cassette tapes have seen some small boost in popularity. Plenty of labels have opened—Burger Records, Noumenal Loom, NNA, Grovl Tapes, practically everything from 100% Silk in 2015—committing themselves to releasing music in a format that's technological progression or refinement one might call obsolete. Even doing away with ties to DIY scenes and dismissing charges of commodity fetishism, there is still a strange magnetism to the notion of the cassette. Like vinyl, proponents call it a living document, something that breathes, that grows and deteriorates with each engagement. Running the tape is running closer to its collapse. Central to the experience of tape is the decay, the finitude of its life as an aesthetic object. It’s an end that arrives gradually, a slow metamorphosis into senility and silence until it finds itself abed in an afterlife of endless hiss. The aesthetic of tape recording is failure: a failure to capture, a failure to represent, a failure to preserve, a failure to interpret. There’s much to be said about a cassette metaphor for the human life, spooling and unspooling around a central core, rewinding into the moments of memory only to destroy them each time. It should be little surprise then that Xiu Xiu’s newest release, and inaugural for Fnord Tapes, Respectful & Clean is cut onto tape. An old hand at the unsettling and abrasive, Jamie Stewart’s latest take is a surprisingly measured dark ambient excursion, cultivating a manageable atmosphere of unease (instead of the grotesqueries one might expect) and reenacting the gradual degradation of process.
Those who have not kept up with Xiu Xiu since its early 2000s incarnation may be in for a jolt upon hearing Respectful & Clean, but for those scooping up everything Jamie Stewart has ever touched, it should make perfect sense. For the past few years, Stewart has been on a bit of an experimental bender, recording an album of Nina Simone covers with the help of a ton of avant-garde jazz musicians, a collaboration with Oxbow’s poetical madman Eugene S. Robinson, and even dropping a Record Store Day release with Merzbow. The bleakness and the frustration that announce and scream throughout earlier Xiu Xiu releases are sublimated here, still present, but drawn into a mellower state. There are no vocals, just a slouching, exhausted and destructive. Akin to a meditation in two parts, Stewart’s new tape demands of its listener a close attention to progression, development, and breakdown.
The first of the side-long cuts, “Desistance,” begins with a simple blaring synth line backed by some helicopter-style buffeting before approaching an even temper. Glacial, low hums undergird the scene as bent notes and flashes of harsh noise fly into earshot and disappear as quickly as they arose. Over the seventeen-minute lifespan, the track shifts between disparate passages such as these, none of them full enough to stand alone, but none weak enough to topple the endeavor. Texture is the primary focus, generating unease through protracted tones and subtly shifting noise. The relative simplicity of the composition—there may only be three or four elements at once at the album’s busiest—only underscores the importance of close listening and consideration of each component as it drifts (or in some cases explodes) in and out of perception. How does this tone, the impenetrable funereal organ, this materia prima, fail us? “Desistance” seems to be about falling apart. The track lapses into silence with five minutes remaining, recovering with an ominous rumble, a new and distorted take on the baser metals and salts that have compromised the experience so far. Disjuncture, disruption, start again.
The second side, “Mine,” begins with a feint, a machine-gun frenzy of claps before moving into dolorous chords on a synth organ, resurrecting the elegiac atmosphere entertained on Side A in a slow, guttering dirge. Guitars enter with notes sustained far beyond their natural lifespans alongside more static shots of noise. The side ends on a swampy and sweaty note. Murky bass tones mingle with metallic rattling and fried electronic screams. It's as discomforting as you want, asking the listener to bury itself into the bog. It’s a dismal end as the whole tape moves towards stagnation, an unsettled silence.
As each new passage of both tracks forces itself to the fore, it presents a new corpse to watch decay. There’s something wondrously measured about the progression, as if more than writing songs or composing side-long blocks of sound, Stewart is presenting us with little lab experiments. He pokes and prods his way through these spare landscapes, seeing how they react, how they grow, and of course how they die. Respectful & Clean is filled with foreboding, but it only offers as much as we are willing to take. Though the tape as a whole is only thirty minutes in length, it requires attention and commitment and a willingness to be unnerved. The cassette format lends itself to a monumentality, something unstratified yet linear, a continuity of expression and experience that subverts the impulse to skip. It’s unlikely to throw a listener face-to-face with his or her own mortality, but through its sustains and surges, it might teach a new sensitivity. An attention to the blooms and caries, a restructuring of brutality, a reassessment of what it means to be recorded on a ribbon of rust. Brooding and lugubrious, it’s not for everyone, but for those fortunate enough to hold Respectful & Clean in their own hands, it is something to be played to disintegration, an artifact that only grows as it is destroyed.