steering clear of the mainstream
since 2001

june 2010

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info opinion

If, Bwana

"Radio Slaves" CD

Monochrome Vision

Genre: one man one sampler

Chester, NY

March 2010

As if his stint as the legendary curator of eighties tape label / mega-conglomerate Sound of Pig wasn't enough, Al Margolis' daring experimental works happen to be a rare breath of fresh ether on the avant-garde music scene; from the small section of work I have sampled, I have found his exploits to be consistently more fascinating and stylistically novel than the output of many other underground sound adventurers.

This self-justifying reissue comes by way of the fantastic Monochrome Vision label, and unearths what was originally a 150-copy tape put out by the hopelessly obscure Medicinal Tapes imprint based out of Pantin, France. Four additional artifacts are also thrown in – a spattering of comp appearances as well as “Extremely Dangerous,” whose history is forgotten even to Margolis himself.

Radio Slaves is almost entirely the result of a precious piece of equipment known as the Casio SK-1, a 1985 sampler with enough memory only for very short loops. Obviously the object of much fascination by Margolis at the time, it is responsible for a whole world of sound on this substantial record, contriving surprising sonic permutations and repeating them bountifully. Menacing “Fish Tales from the Bible,” for example, combines the repeated utterance of “his holiness,” a creepy chanted tidbit, and a sinister synth line to utterly demonic effect. As is the case with the rest of the record, the joy of the entire affair derives from the skill with which Margolis selects and implements disparate sounds and puts them together to create a cohesive piece. Other tracks take different approaches entirely, particular songs dabbling in eerie prettiness (“It's Your Funeral,” “Radio Slaves”) and loose romping-around (“Jungle Horn,” “Brain Dead”). The enterprise rarely wades into mediocrity (“Once Upon a Time”).

One composition is worthy of special note, as it is significantly different from its discmates. “Called on God's Carpet” is notable not just because it's about five times as long as the album's average track length, but also because it eschews the loopy sampler approach for a more expansive experimental adventure. Garbled, incomprehensible speech is laid over a bed of haunting organ drones amid a dark ambience that seems to rise up and incinerate the track, rendering human voices grimly distorted, and suffocating the track in swelling noise. Like the rest of Radio Slaves, it's potent, evocative stuff, and well worth a listen.

How did the original Radio Slaves come to be? How did you get hooked up to France's Medicinal Tapes?

Well I recorded the material - I had gotten a little Casio SK-1 sampler and used that as the basis for all but one piece on the original recording. For some reason whenever I got a new piece of technology – if you want to call it that – I would use that as the source or method of working. Seems to have been a pattern over the years. And to be honest I cannot remember how I hooked up with Medicinal Tapes. We were undoubtedly in contact through tape trading and I am guessing they asked for something to release. I tended to not overly "shop" my work around (and I still do not). I mean, I do a bit, but not overly aggressively – kind of like, "Are you interested in a recording?"

Whatever happened to Medicinal Tapes, for that matter?

I have no idea. My memory is that after the release we did not have much (any?) contact – but that could also be faulty memory.

Why the title Radio Slaves?

Well, I have usually listened to rock, pop, etc. – radio – from youth, but also being involved in non-commercial music and non-music, I mean shit – commercial radio is what it is and in all reality it enslaves you to the same songs and the beat and to serious consumerism. So, to a certain extent when you listen to the radio – and its no longer just music – you do become a "slave." (Probably better sounding than Radio Ensnared as a title.)

Radio Slaves has seen a fair amount of interest since its miniscule release in 1986. Generator Sound Art re-released it as a cdr years ago, and now there's this Monochrome Vision reissue. Why all the attention?

Well, as I mentioned, I made the tape and then Medicinal released it. Gen Ken Montgomery of Generator (and by the way Pogus will be releasing a CD of his soon) wanted to release something of mine as part of his archival section of Generator, and apparently this is his favourite recording of mine. If you listen to the short tracks and loops involved I think it makes sense that Ken digs this one. And when Dimitry Vasilyev of Monochrome Vision asked for something – again keeping with his partial aesthetic of re-issuing a lot of 80's cassette and electronic material – I actually sent him 3 or 4 tapes of materials and he wanted this one... Plus, he asked about filling it out with some other material. Beyond that I really am not sure why it has been so "popular."

In addition to the original Medicinal Tapes release, this reissue also includes a few compilation appearances, the details of which are vague even to you. Am I correct in assuming you have massive stacks of archival material lining the walls of your home? Just how much of your work do you own, and how often do you listen to your older recordings? Is there a storehouse of unreleased material waiting to be put out?

I could not find offhand the compilations the additional material was on – mostly from Alain Neffe's Insane Music label compilations. I think I eventually ran across the tapes... I have stacks of cassettes from the days of tape label running and trading. I was and have actually over the years been fairly efficient at recording, meaning that I usually manage to release my backlog, whether by self-releasing or finding some home for it. And I think that that backlog has, on occasion, worked out qualitatively as well, as it seems to weed out the material that, in the end, is better not out there... So while on one hand I really do not go back and listen to lots of older material (though it is nice to hear when, say, making a copy for someone), I do tend to listen a lot to unreleased material (most of it newer) – just to see if it is standing the test of time while waiting for a home for it. I usually have 3 or 4 CDs worth of unreleased material sitting around – I would like to have it out there but releasing too many If, Bwana CDs on Pogus at one time is not what I want to do, both for artistic and financial reasons. So there is not much "older" archival unreleased material out there. I would like to get some of the older cassettes reissued, but there is newer material awaiting release or being finished or worked on.

In what context do you see Radio Slaves being listened to? What sorts of images/feelings does it evoke?

I don't really know. On one hand I think it was partially a comment on 'world' music and its use of samplings of music from all over the world to make new and commercial music while "borrowing" other culture... While I have used samples and loops for a long time, I early on tried to not use others' work but sample myself or those I was working with (usually). It's a weird pop record, also – probably the most readily "beat" oriented work I have ever done (“Radio Slaves,” anyone?) – and it's got some weird feel to it but not sure what it evokes. Kind of quasi religious at times almost... but maybe not.

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Michael Tau

[Vitals: 20 tracks, distributed by the label, released 2007]