Thursday, January 12, 2012

The Return of the Cassette, Part 1

Cassettes are making a comeback.
Is it just a gimmick?

The audio cassette is an amazing format. It's cheap to produce, easily transported, relatively durable, and portable decks could run a long time on a pair of AA batteries. Sure, it sounds like crap, but when the cassette was king you couldn't very well walk or drive around with a turntable or CD player. As CD players became more affordable and more portable--and less likely to scratch your disc--the cassette fell out of favor.

I got into music as CDs were overtaking cassettes. I only bought a couple cassettes, but recorded many of my CDs onto the format for listening on my Walkman or in my car. So I do have some nostalgia for the format. Strong memories persist: blaring my Walkman while mowing the lawn, sitting in the back seat of the car with my family, winding the tape back in with my pinky, or listening to the same tape over and over in my first vehicle. If side A ended in the middle of a song, it was disconcerting to hear the song without a break in the middle later on. Older metalheads have even more nostalgia for the format, held over from their discovery of the music or from tape-trading.

The format has been making a comeback. (If you're into underground, lo-fi black metal, you may not be aware it was even gone.) But why?

Cassettes vs. Digital Media

All of the advantages of the cassette are trumped by digital formats, and that's without any of the disadvantages. (In this context, I'm using "digital" to describe music on computer files, although CDs are technically digital as well.) Digital music is free (or nearly free) to distribute. My iPod Nano is smaller than a cassette, and holds a quantity of music equal to hundreds or thousands of cassettes. If you back up your files, they're essentially indestructible. And my player will run for a hell of a long time without having to recharge, which, by the way, is practically free to do. All this, and with sound quality that's essentially as good as you want.

Most of you aren't buying cassettes anymore.
The cassette format has been justified on a few grounds. First, it's cheap. But digital distribution is cheaper. Second, it gives the lo-fi sound that many bands are looking for. But you can make any kind of sound you want on MP3. Third, it encourages people to listen to an album the whole way through without skipping. But some tape decks can skip songs, and anyway you can put a whole album into one file if you want.

So, what role could cassettes possibly play in 2012? They are inferior to digital media in every respect. It must be a gimmick. I've insulted Enforcer for having a cassette-only release, and even though I like Promiscuity, it's hard to justify their cassette release in the era of the MP3. It's either blatant pandering to feelings of nostalgia, or an effort to seem extra-kvlt by using an outdated and little-used format.

Or is it?

The Human Touch

Physical media does have one thing going for it that digital files can never replicate: a tactile, human aspect. Even though it seems obvious, this had to be pointed out to me. Many cassettes can only be obtained by writing directly to the band or label, by snail-mail. Whether that order is made by snail-mail or electronic communication, they will put the tape in a package, by hand, often with a signature or a handwritten note. You wait with anticipation for it to arrive. When it comes to your mailbox, you get to open the package with excitement, read the note, and see the album art. There's a true human connection between parties with a mutual interest, made easier than CD or vinyl formats because it's cheaper to produce and to mail.
The MP3 is king--and CDs are still more popular than other formats.

On top of that, a physical collection is a great conversation-starter--especially if you have such an out-of-the-ordinary format. How many times do you remember going through someone's music collection and finding something to talk about? Have you ever done that with someone's iTunes library?

So, maybe it is just a gimmick. If so, does that matter? As metal fans, we're hardly in any position to reject something simply because it's a gimmick. Metal is rife with gimmicks, from corpse paint, to the silly outfits worn by folk metal bands, to bands with artificial back-stories, to basically every band name in the Metal Archives.

Maybe it's not a gimmick. Either way, the allure has reached me. I'll be looking around to see if I can find my old Walkman, and failing that, I'll be checking Goodwill.

How do you feel about it? I've heard about Ash Borer, but can you recommend any other good cassette-only releases?


  1. There are lots of good cassette releases... have you checked out any of the Black Twilight Circle bands (Volahn, Arizmenda, Kallathon, Ashdautas, Dolorvotre, etc)? They have their own label, Crepusculo Negro, which releases everything in limited quantities of cassettes. Their is also a related label called Rhinocervs that releases a lots of cool stuff. The bad thing about these labels is that their shit sells out almost instantly, and I've heard they aren't very reliable on the mail-order side of things. However, other distros will get their leftovers sometimes.

    Some of the Crepusculo Negro and Rhinocervs stuff is starting to make it onto CD, Ajna put out the Dolorvotre album and word is they're doing the Volahn/Kallathon split also. Profound Lore is doing the Tukaaria and Odz Manouk tapes on cd w/ bonus tracks from their splits.

    Normally I would not condone downloading, but a lot of this shit is so limited and hard to obtain that it can be your only hope of listening to it. There are a couple blogs that do good tape rips to MP3.

    I'd also recommend the Blut Der Nacht demo on Fallen Empire (label to watch) and the Xibalba 2010 demo.

  2. Some good starting points for cassettes: - Aetergap. Panphage is tremendous. - Great label & owner, THE underground label in Quebec alongside T-D-G. They also carry some Panphage tapes - The Ephemer tape is beyond worth getting. It's Forteresse meets Bathory, just fantastic stuff. One of the most unique bands today - My favorite label of 2011. It looks like they're re-pressing things soon. I'll be pressing the Tukaaria album to vinyl

  3. Great article., another rising cassette label from the US (Florida) and with great underground black metal and noise releases.

  4. i see tons of cassettes from the grind end now and that makes a lot of sense. the lofi sound works with the punk aesthetic. i came of age during the prime of cassettes. i threw all of mine away a few years ago before the big cassette boom. i'd mostly upgraded them all to vinyl or cd anyway. except for my damn copy of swans' "this burning world," which they've refused to reissue in its entirety. didn't realize i'd tossed it until it was too late. stupid me.

  5. Quite a few cassette releases/demos are also available on streaming-only Bandcamps. They are willing to use a digital platform to promote their music, but do not want to make it available for digital sale/download. What's up with that?

  6. Cassette is a format of absolute last resort for me. The only cassette release I've purposefully bought since this whole thing started was Disma's The Vault of Membros, and that was on a whim while standing in front of their merch table at a show.
    Considering my obsession with lossless audio archiving, it doesn't make much sense. But I can appreciate the whole tactile aspect. I have to say, I had a pretty hilarious argument with my wife after buying the aforementioned Disma cassette; this necessitated taking apart the stereo cabinet to reconnect my old cassette component.
    I've definitely got cassette nostalgia. I can envision the smell of a freshly unwrapped tape. So yeah, if you put a cassette in front of me, I'd probably buy it. But I doubt I'd ever order one through the mail.

  7. I bought my CAS player at Goodwill for $3. ;)

  8. I honestly hate cassettes. They have crappy sound. Having to rewind and fast forward instead of skipping is annoying. They get eaten by tape players. You can't easily transfer music from them to the computer or vice versa. Finally, they don't even have enough age to feel "vintage" the way vinyl does. There really is just no redeeming value in cassettes outside of the hipster factor. Those are my 2 cents, at least.

  9. I definitely prefer the cassette tape to the CD player because my CD player used to skip whenever I tried to walk fast or jog. Nothing beats my iPhone now though, I wouldn't swap that for the world!