This quasi-record review originally appeared in Quantum Noise No. 1, a limited-edition zine my wife and I self-published in 2006. More issues were planned, but alas, we never got around to them. By the way, I wrote this piece long before the concept known as “hypnagogic pop” was ever formulated.
For this review, I would like to shine a brief spotlight on New Age Cassettes, an imprint founded by James Ferraro — one-half of the SanFran-based, mantra-jamz duo, the Skaters.* More specifically, allow me to impart to you a few thoughts I have recently crystallized on said imprints’ first three releases: Cruisin The Nightbiker Strip 1977, Interstellar Hustle, and Live Smokeshows From Inside The Ciguri Cave Hazed Diamonds With Windswept Hair. Each one of these one-sided cassettes is a document of Ferraro’s work as a solo musician locking himself away inside his sloppy bedroom, surrounded by a tangled assortment of half-battered gear: guitar, synth, karaoke machine, microphone, etc.
Now, the first most obvious reason why Ferraro (who creates music under two different names: Teotihuacán and the Wooden Cupboard) named his label, New Age Cassettes, I discerned quite quickly when flipping these tapes over and reading their original, near-vintage labels. For example, the label on the B-side of Interstellar Hustler reads Lorraine Sinkler — Infinite Way Class: The 1977 Atlanta Class and the flipside of the Live Smokeshows… tape reveals that it used to be Ram Dass Meditation Tape #1. Obviously, Ferraro stumbled across a musty box chalk full of long-lost “spiritual guidance” cassettes while rummaging through the music section of his local thrift store. But, here’s the thing. After I noticed these original labels and after I realized just how old-n-worn out these cassettes actually looked and after I gave them a handful of listens (Ferraro’s side obviously), the notion hit me that Ferraro’s open-ended, extremely lo-fi, ambient soul-workouts are quite possibly nothing more than the end-result of him setting these cassettes out in the sun, allowing them to melt-n-warp into syrupy magnetic-goop, and then repackaging them for sale.
Of course, that’s not what happened, but I did in another publication describe Ferraro’s solo work as an, “old, warped cassette of ritualistic worship music created by an esoteric California fertility cult that spent the mid-’70s organically fusing classical Indian ragas, the solemn chants of a Tibetan tantric choir, Velvet Underground-inspired experimentation with lo-fi tape hiss, and ghostly, falsetto-rich doo-wop balladry from the mid-’50s.” Thus, a much more intimate relationship between Ferraro and California-bred New Age thought exists than simply his appropriation of these old inspirational cassettes. In fact, due to the tape hiss heard when turning the volume up, I’m forced to listen to these cassettes as softly as possible producing an environmental effect similar to that of a massage therapist or even a Reiki specialist infusing his/her space with atmospheric, “new agey” electronic meditation music. The only difference being Ferraro’s music offers a much richer, more psychedelic listening experience influenced, in part, by Sun-Ra’s intergalactic cosmology. It forces me to really attune my ears to its faint but powerful subtleties, and after a few minutes of paying true attention, what once resembled “new agey” sonic decay mutates into a gorgeous, incessantly mutating technicolor-soaked kaleidoscope.
*A heavily edited version of this review appears in the autumn 2005 issue of Swingset magazine. I have reprinted the original version because my fundamental point — the intimate relationship between Ferraro’s music and the aesthetic of New Age environmental music — is explained in greater detail.