The latest collection of Cassette Memories from Japanese field recording maverick Aki Onda comes spun along a grizzled cocktail of bewitched and alienating tape hiss. Cinematic by the project’s distinctive virtue, this warped and distorted concoction arranges spliced chunks of stock excerpts from the artist’s curious expeditions to Mexico: birds screeching, tires spinning, waves crashing, distant pop tunes wavering, and a slipshod assembly of marching street bands, all over a rickety tide of AM crackle and gorged, tumultuous static. This most recent installment is momentous, an exploit that commands one’s attention as a nostalgic journey is curated, across the border, via an assemblage of busted tape recorders and crackerjack manipulation techniques.
What makes South of the Border such a strapping listen is the measures deployed in embedding the hypnotic, meditative clutter residing within these soundscapes, but contemplative listens lead to a number of questions concerning the album’s very premise: With a production quality so rough and coarse, why were these segments recorded in the first place? Were they purely captured for audience playback, or did there exist some alternate intent? The overarching title is a generous giveaway, as each chapter embodies specific recollections that Onda has decided to impose through his favored medium of documentation. This album is the third in a series that has taken him around New York, New Hampshire, Rio de Janeiro, Salvador, Tokyo, Paris, Tangier, Valencia, Lisbon, and London. Abstract tonalities are captured on location before they are edited, using an assortment of magnetic tape tools and evocative effects to create rugged textures.
One of the central principles behind Onda’s work is that each piece should resemble the sounds of daily life; they are about people, places, and activities that occur with distinct regularity. The final mix embodies instances of an outsider peering in to observe the fractured interplay that exists between the practitioner and his subject, the former expertly wielding his skill at mangling the results in creating what he refers to on his website as “cinema for the ear.” Indeed, Onda’s initial motive for moving to New York in the 1990s was his love for film. It was in developing his passion for motion pictures that he began to work on Cassette Memories, the latest episode of which bears an uncanny resemblance to a curious adventure his father embarked upon around Mexico with a movie camera in 1968. As part of the Japanese Olympic hockey team, Onda’s dad documented his travels in Mexico City with a Super 8 camera in an attempt to present foreign environments for the benefit of his friends and family back home, a feat that he accomplished using an apparatus now revered for its crumbling, gritty style. It is plausible to assume that South of the Border is an attempt at recreating a disjointed soundtrack to memories of watching that escapade, flickering rickety through an old projector.
The results are as cross-grained as disintegrating Kodachrome. Two of Onda’s tape recorders were broken beyond repair during the recording process, a technological defect that has been rigorously flaunted and that works to the project’s advantage. This grating, bungled style is demonstrated right from the very outset, where “A Day of Pilgrimage” bursts on the scene with sporadic marching drums and shrill trumpet blasts. The music is heavy, but only because it dutifully replicates the importance of noise for individuals traveling abroad or working in foreign environments. Noise remains integral to experiencing foreign surroundings, regardless of the form it takes — a busted boom box cranked to ear-splitting volume at a Burmese village celebration; the roar of motorbike horns and tuk-tuks in full throttle during rush hour traffic in Mumbai; the harsh chirping of insects courting in Sri Lankan jungle thicket or the blistering silence of Auschwitz — noise builds on magnitude with the unfamiliar, and that is delightfully captured on this extraordinarily pounding sequence. The fractured intensity of those marching drums is cut between the hiss of a broken tape deck and the laughter of gamesome children. Strangers beckon and shout as the pilgrimage shifts its direction; the festivities gradually fade away, the rumbling of tires proceeds driftless prattling, and the intensity subsides.
Whatever daily utterances sheathe “A Day of Pilgrimage,” they were clearly part of an event that impacted the artist. The arrangement is not just a reorganized and braided interpretation of what he was exposed to; splinters of conversation and inconsequential resonance are so intricately framed that they surely bear importance for the man who experienced this entire caper on the back of his father’s film experiments. On “Bruise and Bite,” it feels as though the microphone has been buried in a sandpit, unable to pick up anything but aural portions of what is happening elsewhere. A propeller fan hisses and loops while people chatter behind frazzled radio pop melodies that shimmer somewhere distant. The remaining minutes sound like they were chronicled in a cave, choral singing looped and pitched shifted to create a sorrowful and tender mood, the chorus rippling along solicitous looping as the feedback of broken kit meshes the track together. It’s an awesome listen, part of an incredibly robust and imaginative composition that uses the most unorthodox recording methods while conjuring a daringly intrusive and powerful atmosphere. It feels as though a secret is being slowly divulged, fragments of Onda’s journey as he re-imagines his father’s concept.
The forceful wind instruments that allow for such power to be construed are revisited on “I Tell a Story of Bodies That Change,” which is both an extension of their presence on the album and an instrumental mantra that swells and pulsates amid the weird scraping of dodgy implements. At this point, it appears as though the cassette deck has been dropped in a bucket of glue and played back through a completely obliterated walkman — the dirge it creates is incredibly tense and impossibly alienating. Although the final number is particularly long, it allows for sequences hinged on repetition to hook themselves into the rest of this accomplished release, which bolsters the premise that these are not just random modulations captured off the cuff and dished out on disc; they are expertly mixed, well-comprehended configurations that encourage disjointed layers and textures to bloom while cushioning the artist’s lo-fi tendencies.
This cracking supplement to the Cassette Memories series brings location to the fore in a more prominent way than any of its predecessors, and the connection it has with Onda’s father punctuates the importance of the public events and the conversations presented here. The arrangement of material and the aural environment that surrounds it is exceptionally well-treated, making this a genuine triumph in field recording and sound collage. Onda has taken great care with a bold and imaginative concept, assembling a beautifully emotive addition to his catalog, an embracing cinematic depth-charge that encapsulates the full scope of his potential within a tapestry of recordings that remain delicate and subtle, despite the aggressive sibilance each track is wrapped up in.