By turns drawing attention to its sonic craftsmanship and its songcraft, Vancouverite Harley Small’s Cassettes From the New Millennium” indeed sounds like something a retrofuturist archaeologist might dig up, scratched and dented and coated in hiss and grime, from the sunbaked ruins of a local independent record store. It’s a record of two distinct minds: twinkling, warped alt pop in one hemisphere, and boundary-pushing, format-blending auditory eclecticism in the other.
When conjuring up magnetic dance-pop on tracks like the noisy, tense opener “ZAD” or the snap-crackling “What Could Go Wrong,” Small’s airy delivery blends seamlessly with an overflowing toolbox of processed and punchy drum, bass and synth sounds of his own creation. He’s a little hard to make out amid the instrumentals at times, but on “Individual Kings” he steps to the fore out of a ticking hi-hat beat, surrounded by swirling piano, and announces his real capabilities as a hook-driven earworm generator.
“Sleep Debt” is a full frontal crush of noise – you can practically hear the needles on the VU meters rattling against their end stops as it pushes spoken word samples through a screen of thickening distortion for three solid minutes. It’s an unique-sounding track – where you might expect something with this degree of energy to feel like it’s roaring out of the speakers with dynamic depth and weight, the song instead presses itself tight up against a pane of glass, crushed flat, hypercompressed beyond normal limits in flagrant defiance of the idea of dynamics. The effect is claustrophobia-inducing, nervous, almost paranoiac.
Small gets more experimental yet with the “collages” that dot the album, composing on-the-fly with swatches of prepared samples and found sounds, radio chatter, TV noise and other esoterica. However, he also pulls together a few swaying, washy, warbled semiacoustic shoegaze arrangements like “Outro,” closer “In the Stars”and the liltingly melodic “Today’s Plans.” In short – Cassettes From The New Millennium is a little bit all over the place, but the places it goes to are compelling, weird, complex, and deeply well-crafted.
Top Tracks: “Individual Kings,” “Today’s Plans,” “Sleep Debt”
Rating: Proud Hoot (Really Good)