Surgical Steel - Casette

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 SonThe 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.

The Cassette in all its gloryFrom 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.

Entombed - But Life Goes On inlay

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.

Show 3 footnotes

  1. 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.
  2. Oh, also, I don’t know about you—but I loved the new tape smell. Another strength of the format
  3. “This is how music sucked in 1989, bro! Isn’t that rad?!”
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  • I’ve been wondering what the fuck was going on with this new cassette trend as well. Of my entire tape collection from the mid 80’s to early 90’s I think I have a few cassingles and a few full albums left in a box somewhere. Once CD’s came out, I only bought something on tape if I couldn’t find it on CD and still despised the fact that I had a fucking tape. This marketing of nostalgia is getting more ridiculous by the day.

  • Rik

    Yeah, this tape trend is stupid. Tapes may once have been useful but they always sucked. Now they don’t even serve any purpose. Minidiscs were cool, shame they never really took off, but there’s no need for them now either.

  • Couldn’t agree more. I was incredulous when I saw Terrorizer and other magazines had cassettes on the cover. Some formats really need to stay dead.

  • André Snyde Lopes

    Might as well release The Hobbit on VHS.

  • mike gager

    tapes suck but i really dont get the trend of getting albums on vinyl or records or what ever.who the hell has a record player anymore? seriously it just seems so hipster but whatever. i mostly listen to music in my car and at work on headphones so maybe thats the thing. i have no use for a record player

  • This is funny stuff! Tape trading was cool back in the day but I think that’s the only nice thing you can say about tapes.

    As soon as I had a CD player I replaced or stopped caring about any of my cassettes. It was such a frustrating format.

    I’ve purchased a few vinyls over the past two years and I think that there’s something to that format. If you have a good setup they can sound really nice, and it’s cool to have a giant version of the art.

  • Vlad Invictus

    Making compilations on a cassette was actually a lot of fun when I was kid. Many great memories, especially when I bought those “metal” tapes from Sony. You’d have to calculate how much song to put on either side of the cassette (45 min per side), then you take it to a party and headbang with your friends until the first side is over, then you take it out of the deck and change sides…. Having said that, I’m grateful for the digital formats. Makes life much easier.

    • Nothing could beat a good, well planned mix tape!!!

  • That’s How Kids Dies once presented an argument for cassettes for very underground black metal (http://thatshowkidsdie.com/2012/02/04/worship-black-metal-cassettes-scratching-the-surface-of-crepusculo-negro-and-rhinocervs/), but recently wrote a piece somewhat similar to yours “Is this cassette shit getting out of hand?” (http://thatshowkidsdie.com/2013/08/26/is-this-cassette-shit-getting-out-of-hand/)

  • Phil Daly

    Tapes certainly had their place in the underground, but I can’t fathom why anyone would feel nostalgia for them in terms of proper label releases. I’ve got boxes and boxes of demos, rehearsals, rare EPs and more Agathocles and Cripple Bastards splits than is probably healthy, but I’ve long since ceased listening to them. Was fun at the time, and I certainly get a buzz of nostalgia when old stuff pops up on YouTube, but it’s for the era rather than the format. Tapes were just something you used to share music (usually crap South American death metal!), they’re very hard to get misty eyed about in isolation. Bit like getting all whimsical about CDRWs. Vinyl will always have a place, as there’s just something about underground 7″s that I love, but tapes? Nope.

  • Doctor_Jest

    The people who will buy the cassette are not unlike those who will buy the vinyl. They have setups that are totally killer and sound great with the old analog formats.

    It’s not as if CDs are being replaced. Just choose the format you want.. it’s a hell of a lot nicer now than it was when CD’s first came out… cassettes and vinyl were the cost-effective formats. The digital era has spoiled the music public I guess. ;)

  • hubcapiv

    Good stuff. But I doubt most people will ever listen to the cassette. It’ll either come with a download, or people will get the mp3s from the Intertubes.

    I know many people listen to and enjoy vinyl, but there’s a reason most vinyl comes with download codes. IMO for the most part the physical product (vinyl or cassette) is just a souvenir, a way for people to identify as Carcass fans. It’s not much different than a sticker pack or a t-shirt.

  • alexfranquelli

    I could not agree more with Extremely Upset Metal Guy. Actually, I could, but I’m too lazy.

  • AugustHolderlin

    I love this article. You’re spot on. I still have some cassette tapes in my collection, most notably Entombed’s EP Crawl with Orvar Safstrom on vocal but I don’t even have a cassette player to play it with. The other cassette tape that is dear to me is Slayer’s Reign in Blood, you know, the one with all the songs on both sides. But like I say, I don’t even listen to them and I wonder if they can still even play. The ribbons look kind of messed up.

  • StumblingInTheDark

    I gotta agree with hubcapiv – I doubt many people are actually going to listen to the cassette of Surgical Steel. It’s just something nice to display on the shelf next to their collection of older Carcass cassettes.

  • hardysponge

    Nice rant but I don’t really know what the problem is. Any way people actually get excited by music is good to me, and if they like tapes then give it to them. I’ve recently ditched all my CDs and buy vinyl only (which now always comes with an MP3 for portable listening).

    • Tobia Tesan

      So you’ve basically got the CD master cut to vinyl – with added noise and distortion – and the CD master compressed to mp3 – with added distortion? You think they’ll average out? :-P

      I can see how vinyl is nice for getting old masters of old albums that have crappy CD remasters, though.

  • Yes! Glad to see your rant. The only redeemable thing about tapes is you could copy them and make mixes. But man, it was a time-consuming pain in the ass. I bought a CD player as soon as they became more affordable in ’88 and it was a huge improvement, just CD burners were a revelation in the mid-90s. Luddites can suckit.

  • Arikael

    Although I think it’s kinda stupid I don’t care that much.
    What I care is when a band decides “hey let’s release a vinyl version and put an exclusive (and absolutly awesome btw.) track on it, because fuck cd and mp3 buyers”.
    Yes I’m looking at you Gallowbraid…

    So now I can either download the track, buy a recordplayer or sit in a corner crying and thinking why I’m so stupid to use 21. century technology

  • Sprite

    It wasn’t a lava lamp; it was a lightning machine.

  • Josh

    There are two things I like about cassettes. The first is that it forced bands who were making an album consider what song should “end side one” and which song should “begin side two.” In other words the album as a cohesive unit with a dynamic narrative trajectory was more likely. Now you just get a glop of songs. The second thing isn’t as strong an argument, but I used to like being able to stop listening to music and then come back an hour or a day later and pick up right where I left off. Of course that also means fast forwarding if you wanted to get somewhere else, but that was okay. It encouraged people to listen to the entire album, to gain exposure to songs that take a few listens to come around to. Anyway the post was a great opportunity to think about some of these implications. No doubt the cassette is NOT making a comeback.

  • MasterSteel

    Also, the quality of cassettes got shittier with time rather than get better. My cassettes from the late 80’s and early 90’s lasted quite awhile, and many are still going, Tapes from let’s say 96-98 (especially 98) were horrible (yes, I still bought mostly cassettes in 96-98 even though CD’s were out). Personally, I prefer MP3 these days; only downside is lack of physical artwork in your hands.

  • SpaceKev

    Great article. I really really love and appreciate the use of word “Luddite”. How apropos to describe the hipster movement that way.

  • Mikko Ojanen

    Fun story: I might not be the metalhehad I am today if not for cassette tapes. My big sister gave me a whole carrier bag full of her old cassettes once, “so I could maybe record some radio programs on them or something”. Well, one of those tapes happened to be a copy of Helloween – Keeper of the Seven Keys pt. 2. (my sister was never a metal fan at all, she just had that because it was popular when she was young). I thought the title was fascinating, so I put the tape on and promptly lost my shit. The rest is history.
    Even later on, I used to borrow my friend’s CDs to copy them on cassette tapes (guess which ones I used). Let me tell you, the faux harpsichord intro to Stratovarius – Black Diamond sounds interesting as hell from a several year old, worn out tape.

    And my point? Well, my point is that the above kind of rose-tinted nostalgy is exactly the thing this whole cassette trend is riding on. People go “Oh hey you remember rewinding those tapes with a pencil because your player was broken? Lol yeah good times”, and then they see new albums being sold on tapes and go “Awww yeah I’ll buy that and it’ll be just like the good old times!”, because they’re massive tools like that.

    • That’s why I’m here to shit on the nostalgia. But I’m with you, I remember getting Fear of the Dark on tape from my brother as a present. Actually, his buddy one time bribed me with Kill ‘Em All when they’d left me home alone instead of babysitting me.. haha.

  • Tobia Tesan

    No, no, no.
    You’ve got it all wrong.

    While buying an album
    on cassette in 2015 is completely stupid (actually buying an album on
    any other format than CD has been, since 1983, a questionable thing to
    do), the format itself wasn’t that bad.

    Good tape, a (mechanically as well as electrically) good deck, a sprinkle of Dolby could sound very nice back in the day.

    If your deck ate tapes you had a shitty deck.

    Sadly,
    you rarely got good, wear-resisting tape from commercial, pre-recorded
    cassettes, but a (costly) UX-Pro on a good deck was alrighty-o to make
    very good sounding copies of your friends’ CDs and vinyl.

    • I did absolutely have shitty tape decks, but most people did, right?

  • Paul Nathan Jr.

    Yeah tapes can suffer the fucking hammer-their own players can eat them up/they sound like shit!