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VCSR – Tape #4 (2015) review

VCSR - Tape #4 (Permanent Records, 2015)

Where to even begin with the enigmatic VCSR that I doubt many of you all have ever actually heard before?  That’s not a dig at your musical knowledge or anything I hadn’t heard of them either.  Apparently they weren’t so much of a band or even a group per say, but instead affectionately referred to themselves as a collective.  They operated in the Chicago area from around 1978 until about 1984 and apparently managed to record some sixty reels of tape during this time.  However, these recordings were only ever mixed down to small self-contained cassette dubs that were give to family and friends of VCSR.  While these guys are a lot like the American answer to Klaus Schulze or Popol Vuh, drawing heavily from the droning, ethereal, space sounds that made Schulze so famous, and the ethereal soundscapes which have elevated Popol Vuh into legendary status, VCSR also rely heavily on their inherent vision or idea of what abstract electronic music should be about and sound like.  There’s a spacious amount of room to move in the music, and while the tracks do seem to try and lay down differing sorts of shifting and alternating patterns that change like ripples in the water, each member of VCSR injects their own individual idea of where the song should be going and where it’s headed.  For this reason among others even before hearing the music it should come as no surprise that Bil Vermette was one of the major players in VCSR, while highly overlooked at the time he has come to be known as one of the pivotal players in the underground Chicago scene of the 70s and 80s.  The time period that the reels these specific tracks were drawn from date back to 1979 and 1980 when they were apparently the first guys to record for the Waxx Traxx label.  Al Jourgenson of Ministry even produced these sessions, but for some reason or another they simply got shelved.  That is until Permanent Records, purveyor or all things strange, amazing and unknown managed to track down reels from all over the place from which to assemble the tracks for Tape #4.  There were tapes in Washington, Chicago and unfortunately, some tapes that have never located.  Hopefully with the reemergence, or I suppose first proper emergence, of VCSR some thirty years after they parted ways, let’s hope that more of these reels find their way into intelligent hands and we see some more of this stuff released.  Tape #4 consists simply of three different untitled tracks labeled only as “#41” and “#26” which make up the entirety of the A-side and “#32” which is the lone track spanning the entirety of the B-side and finishing out the album all on it’s lonesome.  Both “#32” and “#26” are pretty monstrous pieces, clocking in around fifteen and twenty minutes apiece but the opening track, which is really just used as an intro to “#26”, “#41” is essentially part of “#26” and in fact the track is listed as “#41 and #26” so I’m going to be treating it as such for the purposes of this review.  “#41 and #26” opens with what sounds to me to be some pretty heavily Wendy Carlos influenced music, a al Clockwork Orange in the best possible sense.  It’s got a very Rob’s version of the Maniac soundtrack going on as well, which is impressing because this is unreleased material from 1979-1980.  These guys were the real deal.  It was obviously created during the burgeoning explorations of electronic and synthesized instrumental music here in the US as we were introduced giallo and avant-garde offerings from across the globe for the first time right around this period really, and some people set out to put their own unique spin on the newly emerging genre.  This plainly shows through out Tape #4.  With the slowly brooding bottom end tones softly mixing with what sounds like either some really heavily affected keys or sporadic droning looped strings in there, the music peters about five minutes in and gives was to the much more spacious and cosmic sounds of what I can only assume is the transition from “#41” to “#26”.  The ominous Carlos tones of before are instantly lost in an ever expanding cosmos of sounds that opens like the maw of a black hole before the listener.  Ever expanding, sucking all that dares to draw near into it’s inescapable gravitational pull “#26” is as ambitious a soundscape as would be attempted now, and it’s really pulled off incredibly well.  The songs that appear on this album were basically recorded ‘live’ in the studio, and save for an overdub here or there, there really wasn’t any editing or anything as a great deal of the material was recorded and mixed on a single track.  This has become a bit more common these days with the DIY recording and mentality that’s so prevalent, but this wasn’t done out of choice, the band simply didn’t have a mixer.  They were working with what they have and attempting to push the limitations and boundaries of music and art as it was presented to them as a unified format to be accepted or rejected by a mainstream consumer culture.  I for one am extremely glad that they didn’t have a mixer or other expediencies and equipment that would have allowed them to do even more, or even just to make things a bit simpler.  The pure way in which the construction of this material couldn’t have been achieved under any other circumstances in my opinion and while the may not have been heard then by a mass audience, people now will certainly be able to appreciate the simple elegance with which the music is so lovingly un-composed with.  The ebbing and flowing natural feel of this material likely couldn’t have been achieved had it been over-processed, re-worked or heavily edited.  The purity of the artists original intentions for the performances rarely find their way so unfettered onto an album.  Tape #4 is one of those albums that truly tows the line between being simply electronic drone music, with lush immense soundscapes abounding, and a collective of artists with interpretive visions of the same idea of a song all working simultaneously and in perfect harmony with one another.  Tape #4 is like getting to hear different people take completely different roads to get the precisely same destination on a recording right in front of you.  It’s an interesting experience to say the least.  Then, just when the music almost begins to resemble just sounds or noise, pulsing vibrations of synthesizer keys rear up from the depths and deliver simple repetitive progressions to pull everything back into alignment – if but only for a short time.   Then, around sixteen minutes into the twenty-minute long behemoth the entire aesthetic feel of the song again begins to transmogrify and change, metamorphosing into a completely different beast altogether.  While some of the explorative keys and electronic rain stick of synthesizers stick around for a while, the listener is greeted by a playful solemn solo melody that rises up from the cosmic stew.  It sounds like a guitar so heavily reverberated and echoed out that it almost more closely resembles keys, but the creak of the fretboard and sounds of fingers grating across strings that float through the sparse mix makes it clear what you’re actually hearing.  It’s a beautiful, almost sullen melody that overtakes the universal feeling of what preceded it and bringing the track down to a calm, relaxed ending.  “#32” opens Side-B and at once almost feels like just a continuation of “#26”, or at least the main section does.  It’s galactic on every level, with the keys bouncing and shooting around the mix like stars dropping from the heavens in some abandoned desert location with no one to witness them.  It’s the sound of forever and nothingness all at once.  Crazed hazes of synthetic noise dig and crawl to the surface of the mix only to quickly retreat back into the unknown from whence they came, peeking their heads out like inquisitive gremlins toying with and pulling at the rhythms and melodies.  The keys dance across headphones like a procession, an ever changing and evolving menagerie of wondrous creations.  Honestly, a few minutes into the song I felt like I was sitting in one of those old school planetariums watching one of those super trippy Pink floyd light shows I used to go to when I was in junior high.  Problem is, I was just sitting alone on my couch with a set of headphones on!  Things continue to build up and pile on themselves until there’s a clearly discernable line of lead synthesizer piercing the darkened veils of the electronic heavens and it boldly leads the way to a more transcendent, cohesive form for “#32” as a song.  The farther you get into “#32” the more it feels like it really could be the lost soundtrack to some abandoned version of Star Trek where there were no people or ships, and instead you were just omnipotently floating around in space, free from the confines of time and actuality, to explore the infinite possibilities of endless galaxies.  I for one would have watched the hell out of VCSR’s version of Star Trek!  Even though the song feels like it should be plodding if you listen to a snippet, or if it seems like it’s almost having a high speed come apart at times, it snaps back into ever evolving shapes and sizes that are difficult, if not impossible to predict – and that’s precisely what makes this such challenging and interesting music to listen to.  Too think that this was created before avant-garde or electronic ambient music ever really caught on here in the states boggles the mind, not to mention the limited mixing and equipment used.  But then again there has historically always had to have been unrecognized bedrocks on which entire genres stand on as they continuously evolve and become ever more popular while not only alienating but forgetting its roots.  VCSR is inarguably one of the criminally overlooked electronic acts of the late 70s and early 80s.  But that’s hard to blame on people, it was after all never really officially released, and while they developed somewhat of a legendary status even while they were around operating under the radar, obtaining their material was all but impossible.  That thankfully however is no long the case.  Permanent Records has come to the rescue of VCSR, like many bands before, and released a much deserved 12” of material onto a world that had no idea of what was coming.  Unfortunately there’s only 500 copies of this worldwide though, and while Permanent often does do represses I never recommend relying on anyone to do so – with the current plant delays and plates getting destroyed at plants it’s not always even possible.  So just do yourself a favor, click on the SoundCloud link below and snatch yourself one of the limited edition clear copies that you can only get directly from Permanent themselves at the link below that!  Did I mention the clear copies are limited to only a 150 copies?  Yeah, I thought you might click that link…

Review made by Roman Rathert/2015
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