Started in the small, unassuming town of Redcar, North Yorkshire, Stephen Bishop’s cassette label Opal Tapes is a kind of mecca for off-kilter electronic music. The ballast of Opal Tapes’ output occupies an uneasy grey area between techno and house: none of the artists here truly share the former’s stern, machine-like pulse, while the tunes are too bleak and introverted to replicate the jubilant bounce of the latter. It all makes for extremely absorbing and intelligently made electronica that flirts tentatively with the dancefloor.
Bishop himself, bred on punk and hardcore, records under the moniker Basic House: a slurry of unsettling beat-heavy melancholy, drizzled with a post-industrial flavour. A great deal from the label isn’t for the faint of heart – the super-charged acid of Worker/Parasite’s ‘Prophet’ isn’t so much disturbing as oppressive and petrifying – and fans of Actress’ gloomy Ghettoville will find much to love here. But that’s selling this terrific label short. Some of the most exciting modern music is to be found here. Highly repetitive electronic music often drifts perilously close to being completely characterless and dull, but it’s the endearingly lo-fi quality to all the stuff here that really delights – the palpable sense that human hands were involved in their creation.
L Neils’ glacial textures has echoes of deep house producer Vincent Floyd (‘Caribbean Drive’), while elsewhere it reimagines Zomby’s moody racket as though disappearing into a despairing k-hole (‘Puzzlebox’). Inbetween the slicing scariness of more abrasive artists (Violet Poison) or the quirky, over-crowded jolt of Lumigraph, lies Personable’s playful ‘Just Cool’, a fantastic slice of gleefully deconstructed synthpop. The curiously titled 51717 (real name Lili Schulder) makes variously creepy, sexy and astonishing avant-garde noise experiments. It’s not as pretentious and joyless as that sounds, purely because 51717’s compositions are so otherworldly and enigmatic it’s hard not to be swept along. Michael Vallera imitates the sound of Oneohtrix Point Never, circa Replica, retreating into a black hole. Ñaka Ñaka’s brooding concoction of Aphex Twin’s first Ambient Works album with punishing bass is enormously affecting and visceral.
With music this cold and sombre-sounding, there’s always the temptation to overstate just how cold and sombre-sounding it is; it is testament to Opal Tapes’ calibre that its unique and distinctive sound often yields diverse surprises. Cloudface’s productions, perhaps the most outwardly upbeat of the label’s roster, are infused with an emphatic sense of warmth that bounces over purling waves of bleepy electronics. It successfully manages to be both alien and deeply human. Unlike other acts on Opal Tapes, Masks’ lo-fi house – covered on the spectacular Food Plus Drug (II) – is actually danceable, channelling the uncontrolled mania of a particularly bacchanalian club night wrapped in cotton wool; something like the overheard noise of a house party bleeding into the bedrooms of the houses next door.
Crucially, given the label’s musical aesthetic, Opal Tapes doesn’t suffer from a dearth of variety. There’s everything from Heurco S.’s profoundly disorientating mutations to 1991’s jaw-dropping album High-Tech High-Life – the unusual, transcendent sound of Tycho and the 80s nostalgia-laden subgenre chillwave engulfed in the worst bad acid trip imaginable. But if you wanted a sense of what Opal Tapes do best, a precise distillation of their ethos, then you could do worse than settle on Patricia, who specialises in hypnotic, ambient styles. ‘Josephine’, from 2013’s Body Issues, is an absolute stunner: embalmed in tape hiss, its muffled, squelching bass, clacking 4/4 thrust and airy synths dovetail together wonderfully. The label has since branched out into vinyl with their offshoot Black Opal, exclusively releasing material on wax, a sign that they are slowly but surely accruing more devotees. Head over to their Bandcamp page and indulge yourself.
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