Synth dabblers, noiseniks, metalheads and chillwavers, as well as some enterprising larger indie labels, have been trading and distributing cassettes in the last couple years, rendering a once obsolete medium functional and interesting, if not entirely relevant, once again. It’s not the most effective way of putting out new music, nor the most durable, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t understand the romanticism of it. These rare, limited-run capsules of musical obscurities act less as consumer goods and more like extremely rare gifts or keepsakes, something that can be traded and treasured by a lucky handful of listeners, only to be re-dubbed, uploaded and re-traded back into the circles of those who, otherwise, might not have even been aware these items even existed.
It seems quaint now, but in the late ’70s and early ’80s, this is how a lot of musicians actually made and distributed their music, via 7- or 12-inch vinyl or cassette, only without the added convenience of the Internet to get the word out. Many such musicians that primarily recorded synth-based post-punk and new wave with home recording devices built up a long-distance network via the Contact List of Electronic Musicians, a fanzine that brought together underground artists via shared stylistic and aesthetic interest. Most of these synth-based groups might have been lost in obscurity were it not for a resurgence of sorts in coldwave and minimal synth nostalgia, primarily through Minimal Wave Records and its founder, New York DJ Veronica Vasicka, who curated the first Minimal Wave Tapes compilation for Stones Throw in 2010.
Two years later, with once-forgotten minimal synthesizer artists like Ruth and The Units being reissued and other labels getting in on the synth-punk compilation enterprise, Vasicka has curated a second edition of The Minimal Wave Tapes. Volume 2 of this exceptional series continues to focus on artists that share the same penchant for lo-fi post-punk sounds produced on primitive synthesizers with minimal song structures. And much like its predecessor, its lineup of strange and obscure talent yields some strangely captivating material.
Spanning from the United States and Canada all the way to France and Belgium, and as far east as Australia, the 14 artists on The Minimal Wave Tapes Vol. 2 have more similarities than differences, despite being separated by great distances. Yet, that said, some use their analog technology to make more melodic creations than others. Great Britain’s Hard Corps make a funky club banger on “Dirty,” while Greece’s In Trance 95 takes a more eerie, almost gothic approach to their synth-pop sound on “Presidente.” However, the Netherlands’ Das Ding strays from conventional songcraft, opting for Cabaret Voltaire’s combination of EBM and sound collage on the whooshing and honking “H.S.T.A.” But then again, you have artists like Los Angeles’ Geneva Jacuzzi, which dabbles in a creepy and claustrophobic, yet undeniably melodic sound on “The Sleep Room,” layering disorienting strata over a Suicide-like organ-pulse arrangement.
Before Vasicka and Stones Throw sought to re-release these obscure, long-forgotten orphan tracks back out into the world, they sat in dusty cassette cases or 45 sleeves, and possibly swapped via eBay or Discogs. But it’s a much better fate that they actually end up on a convenient, easy to find compilation such as this. As romantic as the idea of underground, handmade tape trading is and continues to be, good music, like much of what can be found on The Minimal Wave Tapes Vol. 2, deserves more ears to hear it.
Various Artists – B.I.P.P.P.: French Synth Wave 1979-1985
Various Artists – Cold Waves and Minimal Electronics
Various Artists – The Minimal Wave Tapes
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.