For artists of a certain stripe, the imperfection of recording and playback technology exerts an irrepressible attraction. Audiophiles and studio engineers may make the erasure of this presence a life’s work – after all, their aim is for these intermediaries to as neutral as possible – but for others, the unwelcome intrusion of those hisses, crackles and clunks is sonic gold.
Phil Maguire’s ‘Empty Damage’ is a worthy addition to this pantheon. Like Ben Gwilliam’s ‘Breakdownspedup’ and Luciano Maggiores’ ‘18 Rhythmic Studies for a Pen, a Cassette Case and a Korean Cassette Deck’, Maguire is interested in the intrusive clunks and splutters of tape devices as they grind through their weary processes. In ‘Empty Damage’, a knackered Walkman is the focus, Maguire putting his kit through a series of humiliations to create two slices forensic grot. On side A, he plays a cassette with no tape through the Walkman, which is then recorded onto a second cassette and amplified with contact mics and coil pickups. A bit of a palaver, you might think. But it results in a rich, detailed sound world, driven by the repeating percussive clunk of the turning spindles and shrouded in grey, hissing haze. Anyone who’s ever fallen asleep on a train will dig these lulling repetitions, their ever-varying cycles as mesmeric as the grumble of rolling stock on steel. A sudden increase in tempo halfway through adds dynamism, and an array of incidental whirrs and whines make for nourishing fare. Groovy wreckage.
Side 2, this time featuring processed recordings of a damaged tape loop playing in the Walkman, explores a more abstract realm. Disjointed scrapes and rustles push through a layer of fibre-glass noise, the lack of audibility adding to a growing sense of unease. But the tension really kicks in once you adjust your ears to the kinetic scuffle, which has the nagging clatter of an escapologist trying to extract themselves from some deadly straitjacket in the middle of a rainstorm. You might be able to relax if you could figure out what was going on, but, as it is, those consoling details are just out of earshot. KcKcKcKrrrrrrcKcK. Bbbbmmmph. Chchinggg. A plaintive, gritty burble around eight minutes in offers a welcome interlude of electrical lyricism, but once its battery runs down we’re returned to the stormy trudge. No one gets out here alive? Who knows.