Recently, we dropped a review of the new Carcass record Surgical Steel, that eviscerated our daily records in terms of number of visitors and was an all around awesome record. With amazing cover art, a really great name and a few pretty ballin’ tracks, Surgical Steel is an album worth owning. As you can see from this picture above, it comes in several formats. It comes on MP3, on vinyl, there’s a digipak and jewel case CD. Hell, there’s even a cassette. Wait. What? A fucking cassette!? Nuclear Blast Records is releasing their most hyped release of the year on a motherfucking CASSETTE TAPE!?
If release formats were a body, the cassette tape would be the anus. It’s a stinky, shameful format that should be hidden from view and never spoken of. Unfortunately, this civil contract has been broken and it behooves me to comment on this breach of decorum. You see, I am of the right age where all of my first records were on tape. I owned Metallica‘s entire discog (tapeog?), Seventh Son of a Seventh Son, The Wall, and Appetite for Destruction on tape1. I had ‘mixtapes’ and a WalkMan™. I used tapes long into the CD era in my car, even. I had cases and cases of tapes and even joined Columbia House and BMG on multiple occasions in order to get even more cassette tapes. But man. I hate tapes so, so fucking much.
From a sound perspective, tapes never sounded as good as vinyl. This wasn’t just about the quality of the tape (we’ll come to that), but instead because you never listened to tapes on a real stereo anyway. It was always a boombox or a WalkMan or your car, and shit sounded poorly. But the sound was rarely good to begin with and the format wore down at incredible speeds. If you listened to a tape 20 times, the sound would get progressively worse as time went on and the ribbon got eaten by your machine. That brings me to number problem number two: tapes were flimsy as fuck. They would break under very little pressure. I bought multiple copies of several great records because of whole sections getting eaten, or cut or screwed up. Just imagine me, a little Angry Metal Guy rocking out to Anthrax‘s Persistence of Time and *boom* THE RIBBON HAS BEEN SUCKED INTO THE PLAYER AND EVERYTHING IS RUINED! Piece of shit.
Not only that, but the artwork was tiny and lame. CDs have a kind of similar problem, but look at that Surgical Steel ad. The CDs have the full artwork. The vinyl will have it big enough to frame. The tape? Yeah, you get half of it. Which, honestly, is a pretty damned good analogy for the cassette as a qualified release form: bad. It’s like watching a movie filmed in HD on 12 inch black and white TV (fucking stupid, if I needed to spell that out for you).
So you may ask yourself: “Why, then, was the cassette the dominant format for the short time that it was?” Actually, I’m not sure the cassette tape was ever really dominant. It bridged the gap between vinyl and the CD. But let’s say it was dominant between 1985 and 1992. This was because it did actually have a couple of redeeming qualities. Firstly, it was portable. The problem with vinyl records was always that they weren’t portable. Eight tracks sucked (btw, why not release Surgical Steel on minidisc!? Nostalgia demands it!) and so the record was about listening at home in your bedroom with your pet rock and lava lamp. Second, it democratized the demo. This is probably something that should not be underestimated. Since it was easy to record onto, the cassette tape democratized heavy metal. The early tape trading circles were constitutive of the heavy metal scene worldwide long before the mp3 became our way of discovering new bands. It was cheap and easy to reproduce. It gives tape demos an iconic place in the world of heavy metal for a reason; it was a huge deal2.
But do we need the tape for anything now? No. Oh, hoooly shit, no. The vinyl sounds different and is more frequently mixed differently than the CD master, it is its own beast. The CD has all the portability and democratizing aspects of the tape, except that it’s better quality, easier to store, and will not randomly get destroyed by the player unless your player is armed with ginsu knives. Mp3s or lossless files are in a sense, better than all of the above, in that they are infinitely reproducible, portable and they never lose quality at all. They offer a kind of democracy in recording like tapes never could.
But don’t tell that to the luddite movement in the underground. In order to be hip and trve, they’ve started putting out records on cassette because, y’know, motherfucking cassette tapes; what a fantastic format that was. They’ve cut their dope with copious amounts of baking soda and they expect you to appreciate it, ’cause it’s fucking ‘old school.’3 I guess it’s no surprise, given that we’re all using Hipstamatic and Instagram to make our photos look like Ye Shitty Photos of Olde, why not also listen to our music in the worst possible way as well! Everything is more authentic when it blows.
What a stupid trend; good thing that now that the major labels have started co-opting it, the hipsters will have to find something else to flog.
- Some Angry Metal Guy trivia: the first piece of music I ever purchased at the tender age of 7 was the “18 and Life” cassette single by Skid Row. ↩
- Oh, also, I don’t know about you—but I loved the new tape smell. Another strength of the format ↩
- “This is how music sucked in 1989, bro! Isn’t that rad?!” ↩