Review: Zac Nelson – Improv(e) (Goldtimers Tapes, 2012)

Chicago tape label Goldtimers Tapes have released their biggest batch to date in February 2012, taking up EIGHT cassette releases at once, many of which ranged well over the “standard” 30-minute format. After listening to all eight releases I can tell you (without belittling all the other releases which are really good, too) that two tapes out of this batch are truly exceptional and will probably make some ripples in the deep tape underground: Seabat’s Mountains of Palawan (which I’m gonna review this week, that’s for sure) and the object of this review, mainly Zac Nelson’s Improv(e).

The whole length of the cassette is divided into four untitled tracks, which follow the same pattern on both sides: the shorter track is followed by the much longer one. It should be mentioned that the tape is pretty long – the whole tape has 60 minutes of music. That’s one hour of some of the trippiest, horizontal headphone music (as someone on Rate Your Music described his previous 12” vinyl on Bathetic Records) I’ve heard (and you too, probably) in the last few months. Improv(e) is hypnotic, looping and trance-like, but doesn’t fall into any stupor-inducing traps many such releases offer.

The first track on side A is a sort of tribalized, rhythmical James Ferraro variation – somewhat campy, electronic samples stack up, repeating at various speeds and varying levels of intensity while a storm of sweaty, echoed flutes and windpipes busy up the place (which reminds me of early Magic Lantern). The relentlessly repeating traditional percussion bits are the basis of this densely tropical, almost suffocating sound Zac Nelson appears to have master. The second, longer track, follows the similar path, although here even more focus is put on the HUGE sound of the percussive instruments – while in the previous track the sound was processed and distorted, here is it pure and natural – loud and clear, rising above the eternally foggy rainforest. It plays like an extended and ambientalized version of This Heat’s “The Fall of Saigon”, albeit without vocals or electric guitar. In fact, the drums alone on this track must be one of the most powerful things ever recorded on tape.

Tracks on side B are even more stripped down, almost raw in execution. After the lulling ending of the previous side, this one takes the listener by surprise: the intensely fluorescent, nearly harsh drone sound like early Caboladies at their most ecstatic (before they went electroacoustic) and the irregular, fucked up beat sounds like early tape experiments from the 1960’s. This short track gives way to a more relaxing, droning ending track, which seems to last forever (in a good way). The way the delicate, reverbed sounds of bells resonate with the stretched-out, “frozen sound” ambience really reminds me of Bee Mask’s “Hyperborean Trenchtown”, but here it is more detailed: barely recognizable female vocals rise up from the sea of drones, bringing a vague impression of what an even more narcoleptic, declawed shoegaze might sound like.

Zac Nelson is a man to be watched. He took his experience from his previous projects – like the psych/math-rock unit Who’s Your Favorite Son, God? and applied them to the basic drone material, conjuring something else. He better get BIG.

The tape is available at Goldtimers Tapes website. Buy it, you won’t regret it!

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