There’s always been a trippy quality to channel surfing, probably because it happens late at night, when your exhausted brain is trying to make sense of kaleidoscopic TV swill. Skinemax thrillers, terrorists in headscarves firing RPGs, masked killers stabbing teenagers – all of that runs together into an insane, violent, sexy dreamscape of visual junk food.
VHS Head wants to feed you a buffet of that junk food through your ears. The moniker belongs to a British electronic artist (whose real name is speculated to be Adrian Blacow) known for producing the audio equivalent of late night channel hopping. The site for Skam Records says the “primary sound source” of his samples is old rental store tapes that are mixed into the tense sound collages VHS Head has become known for. At a totally random guess, the artist’s major influences include experimental electronic artists like Autechre and Aphex Twin. But with song titles referencing the infamous Video Nasties and the Guinea Pig movies, and a logo that looks suspiciously like that of Cannon Films, it’s clear ’80s action and horror flicks play just as big a role in VHS Head’s world.
Of course, his music isn’t solely composed of melodramatic dialogue, though you can certainly hear plenty of that on 2010’s Trademark Ribbons of Gold. The record’s 20 tracks are an ever-shifting stream of chopped up beats and warbling electronic noise that has a distinct ’80s feel to it. That’s largely because it’s mixed from samples of old film soundtracks, cheesy synths, electronic drums and all. Just as there was a flood of 8-bit nostalgia in the past decade, part of VHS Head’s appeal is hearing the sounds you grew up loving in a new context.
One of the oddest qualities of the music is you find yourself trying to guess what sorts of images the individual sounds were set to. Listen carefully to “DPP39,” and you can pick out screams, chainsaws, growls, swords clashing and gunshots, each of which plays for just a fraction of a second. The album benefits a lot from repeated plays, allowing the samples to break down into fragments. Like with Girl Talk records, there is bound to be a whole field of fans obsessed with picking out the individual pieces, but the whole is just as exciting to listen to.
Other tracks make their cinematic inspirations obvious without close listening. “The Murder Cycles” has vocals supplied by what sounds like a trailer’s narrator. “Lock your doors – they’re coming,” he threatens over pounding beats and glitchy energy. It’s tempting to think of these songs as having frantic “cuts,” because that energy seems to constantly be on the move, and it’s hard not to think of each song as its own mini-movie.
Not surprisingly, a lot of the tracks seem to work best when they’re at their most cinematic. “The Violent Breed” starts out with an almost discordant, bouncing mess of techno before cohering into what sounds like a thrilling movie soundtrack. It starts to play behind vocals describing a “lone gunman” killer, forming a narrative that gives the track more focus. The record doesn’t hold together as a whole all the time, or even within some individual tracks. But in fits and spurts, it’s as seductive as a garish giallo movie cover on a high shelf, above a child’s eye level.
Trademark Ribbons of Gold is supposedly a reference to the golden age of video in the early ’80s, before British regulators clamped down on what distributors were allowed to make accessible. A lot of it was trash, but some of it was the trash of connoisseurs. Like those cinematic delicacies that VHS Head titles his songs after, this is an album that requires some patience from the listener. There are a number of tracks that could have been trimmed, and more than a few are only a couple minutes long and feel like filler. But give it a chance and you’ll be looking forward to a sequel, preferably served up with a bucket of bloody popcorn.
Aphex Twin – Drukqs
Autechre – LP5
The dodgy booth at a comic convention selling bootlegs of Cannibal Ferox