Cassette Corner: Zach Phillips - "Recorded In Hell"

Zach Phillips - Recorded In Hell
(2014 Lillerne)

Often, when I think of "avant-garde" music my mind instinctively wanders to the outskirts of sound, the natural habitat of extremophile artists. There are times when traditional songwriting can get boring, especially in recent years, when inventiveness and creativity can be overshadowed by production. When the three chord pop construction begins to tire me, I turn to the creations of these extremophiles. I call them this because the sonic worlds they reside in subject them and their listeners to extreme climates. On one end of the spectrum, there's noise music, often harsh and visceral, but therapeutically so. On the other end, brute minimalism, like William Basinki's Disintegration Loops, or Steve Reich's mind-numbingly repetitive compositions. Though these two extremes have their virtues, there can be a degree of parody in each. For something to be truly avant-garde or cutting edge, it takes a sort of strangeness that defies extremity to create something original. The artists on Chicago's Lillerne Tapes label do just that: each of them paints their own surrealist soundscapes from fairly common instruments in rather ordinary ways. Each of them holds the key to extract the inner eccentricity hidden in the everyday. For example, Gabe Holcombe's Vehicle Blues project concocts towering dream-pop epics from rudimentary drum loops and droning guitar chords, while Katrina Stonehart weaves 10-minute tapestries from loose fragments of crunchy surf-pop. Each of them, says Holcombe, who doubles as the label's owner, "makes a little out of a lot". The artist who I think exemplifies this principle the most, however, is Zach Phillips, who is just off the cusp of his sophomore Lillerne effort, Recorded in Hell.

Though his songwriting tools are bare and familiar, (voice and piano), Phillips' ingenuity allows for him to meld these elements into something both bizarre and satisfying. Phillips frantically hits piano keys while nearly whispering his spoken word vocals into his Tascam 488. The recording quality is extremely lo-fidelity, causing some songs to crunch and distort beneath the weight of tape hiss, while others force one to really focus on the track to detect any discernible sound at all. Though his piano playing can, at times, remind one of Erik Satie's Sports et Divertissements series of compositions, what ZP's recordings most sound like to me is trying to read a magazine while Mister Rogers plays on the TV in the other room, jaunty melodies pounded out on a keyboard as a good-natured vocalist smiles and delivers lines overtop of it. There's a voyeuristic quality as well, hearing Phillips' hushed intonations as if listening through a cup pressed against the outside of his bedroom wall. Recorded In Hell can be an uncomfortable listen at first, but is ultimately charming and undeniably original. If you're able to see the beauty in the music of Jandek and Daniel Johnston, you'll love this tape.