Magnetophone are of that breed of new 4AD signings that makes me want to renew my hope in the label. For many a moon in the late ’80s and early ’90s, this indie label took much of my student grant as I pondered over ethereal releases from the Cocteau Twins, shook my ass to the explosions of Pixies / Breeders/ Throwing Muses and scratched my head to Dead Can Dance and The Wolfgang Press amongst others.
Then they, or I, sort of fell out of interest. Signings became pale retreads of opaque whimsy and it seemed the spark had gone. But with this and the pickled psychedelia of TV On The Radio, my appetite has been whetted once more.
So Matt Saunders and John Hanson serve up a widescreen, unpredictable group of sounds that conjure up a myriad of moods and pop ‘echoes’. Simultaneously fresh and reminiscent of other artists, these gems are self-contained little nuggets that weave their charm gently but with gimlet-eyed precision.
Opening with glacial ambient noodle, Let’s Start Something New, sets the scene for what could be a simplified Boards of Canada pastiche, but is something of a red herring, albeit a tasty intro.
Things, and beats, start for real on the appropriately titled Kel’s Vintage Thought, boasting two not one but two Deals (Kim and sister Kelley of Pixies and Breeders fame). A sparse brooding groove that builds like a lost movie sound trailer, past labelmates Wolfgang Press or a funked up Royksopp. Through a gnarly guitar loop and a low slung groove it threatens but never really goes anywhere. So far, so average.
The sound of humanity finally enters battered and bruised on A Sad Ha Ha, a beautiful waltz through lovelorn territory with gorgeously vulnerable vocals from indie stalwart King Creosote and is a welcome break from all the ambience. The all-too-briefly titled …And May Your Last Words Be A Chance To Make Things Better takes on a pseudo folky feel, as the splendidly monikered HMS Ginafore weaves around a tribal-esque echoed chant to disquieting but compelling effect.
The Only Witching You’ll Be Doing builds into a thrum of fuzzed guitar like a polite My Bloody Valentine. Rae and Suzette is fractured, disorientating piece of electronica over a backdrop of discordant fireworks that once it has pushed you away lures you in with a warm little organ theme before it leaves.
Magnetophone’s ‘bumpy ambient’ continues with the faster paced Benny’s Insobriety to pick up the tempo. Kodiak reminds me of David Sylvian‘s opaque, Eastern soundscapes with Jon Hassell in its hazy smoked out eastern mysticism schisms.
In The Hours After unfortunately succumbs to lazy predictability in its indie shamble of phased guitars and mumbled vocals.So what next? A couple of more skewed abstractions before bringing us back to earth with I’ve Been Looking Around Me, which sounds like a sea shanty sung from a floating bottle of accordion and squall. Similarly Let’s Start Something Smooth rounds things off with more King Creosote vocals to calm and reassure after the bumpy ride before.
The danger here is that the diversity of styles approached will weaken any overall ‘Magnetophone sound’. At times it sounds like three albums mashed into one, the ambient one, the indie shambles one and the folky-tronica one. But the consistent warping of sounds through texture, vocals and wavering atmospherics ensures a coherence and definite presence all their own. So, the love affair with 4AD? Not quite on again, but definitely flirting.