Wednesday, January 21, 2015

The Very Best of The Four Track Challenge!

We created The Four Track Challenge last fall as an excused to screw around with a fun, somewhat forgotten technology; really for no other reason than we thought it would be neat. The response was overwhelmingly positive, which isn't too surprising given how nostalgia driven our counter-culture has become. Over a two month span (more or less), artists were asked to create an EP using an analog four track as the main recording device. We had 110 artists sign up, and to date, 40 of them have turned in projects, which is a pretty decent completion rate when you're dealing with musicians (or anyone).

In order to help you dig through this wonderful mess of lo-fi and mid-fi recordings, we had some guest writers make top ten lists of tracks/projects. Thoughts? Snubs? Leave them in the comments sections below. And OH YEAH, we'll be running challenges twice a year, with submissions due in May and November. If you're feeling inspired to participate, join the group on Facebook, or sign up for our email list.

Gotta start 'em young.

Without further ado, here are the lists:

Alex Heigl, bassist in Best Behavior, ex-Mayor Creep 

(in no particular order)

10. Person Whale, "Connections"
Some people turned in really polished and beautiful recordings with this challenge, but to me, this is exactly what I was expecting. Everything's overloaded within an inch of its life, the vocals are incomprehensible, and it's AMAZING. 
9. Adam Balbo, "Demons"
"Demons" is the best song in this collection, but it's not the best-titled song. That would be "Shit Is So Fucking Sad." Regardless, quality folk-punk. 
8. David Redbranch, "Cycle Hum"
The best song about lightbulb frequencies that William Elliott Whitmore hasn't written yet. 
7. Beemish, "The Ballad of Bill and Mary"
I was kind of underwhelmed by this song at the beginning, but it builds and swells and swoons and by the end I was a little choked up. Did I say choked up? I meant boned up. (I had an erection.) 
6. Kevin Kerby, "This Wilderness"
Many of you may not have made it as far as Kerby's contributions, listed last as they are on the Bandcamp page. If that's the case, you're a dumb idiot and I hate you, but you should hate yourself more, because you're depriving yourself of Kerby's wistful, witty folk songs.

5. Dreadful Crows, "Ash"
Grinding. Smashy. Catchy. Awesome. 
4. New England Axe Factory, "Aloha Empire"
Jon Mann and I were talking about this song over the weekend, and he described it as a "Joe Walsh verse meets a Built to Spill chorus." I was too busy fist-pumping to respond. 
3. Chris Schnaars, "You Seem Confused"
The so-bad-it's-good snare tone on this and the overall Ramones-y vibe makes me want to hop on the Amtrak back to Harrisburg, PA, blast this on my old Sony stereo from high school, and tell my parents they don't understand me when they ask me to turn it down. 
2. Dagger Shores, "Saints"
It's like if Suicide and The Jam hung out, made a sweet album and then decided they couldn't stand each other. 
1. Jason Maksymilian, "Watch You Glow"
Robert Pollard, is that you?

D.K. Wilson, bassist/vocalist for The Rich Wolves, bassist for Orca Age

10. Demons, by Adam Balbo, “In Their Grip” 
9. Can You See With The Lights Out? by Person Whale, “Tree Huggin’” 
8. Can You See With The Lights Out? by Person Whale, “Unruly Boots” 
7. Little Pilot, by May Oskan, “The Glitter From The Broken Glass” 
6. Space Wars 2069, by Giga Herbs, “Nails” 
5. Breakfast for Dinner, By Chris Schaars, “Factions” 
4. Queen of the Garbage Water, by Old Night, “Love Colored” 
3. …And Then The Cops Came, By Vansanity, “… And Then the Cops Came” 
2. MoreTrak, by THE EARGOGGLE, “Backwards” 
1. Empty Apartments (Supporting Actors), by Michael Sincavage, Side A (Empty Apartments)

I'm going to track down this analog wizard and get him to produce my next EP.

Daniel Kasshu, Guitarist/Vocalist of Dialogue From A Silent Film

So, here we have it… the moment no one in particular is waiting for… the Daniel Ka$$hu spin on the Four Track Challenge! Oh, and if  you have no idea who I am, that's fine, I often don't know who I am either… but I'm vocalist/ guitarist of Dialogue from a Silent Film and have been known to have highly contradictory feelings concerning phone calls versus texting… First up, as a disclaimer for this review, you'll have to forgive me for my straight-up musical bias… (you actually don't have to forgive me for anything) I mean, I grew up listening to a lot of Sisters of Mercy and The Cure. Sure, later that branched out into things like Mogwai and My Bloody Valentine, but my point is I generally can't escape being a sucker for things dark and post-punk… I did TRY not to have completely predictable picks though… seriously! Anyway, there ended up being quite a few things that stuck out to me among this batch of music! Let's give this list a go, shall we? 
And, in no particular order at all (Yes, you read that right… these are just ten that stuck out to me, not a top ten… bite me) we have… 
"Forest Acid" by VideoGiant
All the analogue synths and drum machines reminded me a bit of some of early Crystal Castles… glitchy beats, cool textures, but without the harsh vocals of Alice Glass. That's not it, though, I hear a few nods to French cold wave (Asylum Party, Kas Product, etc.,) and some Kraftwerk in there too. Sweet stuff. Really great lo-fi electronic music is a rare find, and the emphasis here is certainly on quality. Also, if you're a gear nerd… read the gear listing and have yourself a little drool fest….
"A Hans Solo Project" by Hans Viets
The first thing I have to say about this set of songs is that I wish Hans had given more insight into the "found instrumentals" aspect of the recordings. With that out of the way, I was immediately struck when the background music seemed to go a little out of sync/ off-key/ sounded like it was speeding up or slowing down. It was like a combination of the effect of rocking your hand back and forth on the tremolo of a guitar while playing… except… on the whole backing track. At any rate, the whole result… a sort of weird psychedelic country mini EP that somehow brings some shoegaze, vaporwave, and Daniel Johnston to mind. The songs come together with the "found music" and Hans' voice and the lyrics sometime seem a bit twisted, resulting in a pretty cool package.
"Morgantown Central Four Track Fuzz" by Jason Maksymilian
If there's someone who can write a damn catchy pop song just LOADED with hooks, it's Jason Maksymilian. The songs just make perfect sense… guitar, bass, drums, vocals. It brings to mind a combination of elements ranging from garage-pop bands of the 60s through 90s acts like Sonic Youth and a little early emo… but, like, Sunny Day Real Estate emo… not mid-2000s garbage. The result is super hook-laden ear candy… sweet!
"What" by Sursum Verbo
Sursum Verbo are a post-punk band, right to the point. Their sound has bass-driven melodies like Joy Division or Gang of Four, unexpected tempo and time signature switch-ups kind of like The Fall, crunchy rhythmic guitars with some simple and sparse lead lines, and female vocals that fall into the right combination of slightly confrontational and shoegazily (oh whatever, sometimes made-up words convey a point better than real words) buried in the mix. Personal favorite track on this EP is "Car on Fire."
"Mouthy" by The True Jacqueline
I heard that distorted bass tone, the fast drum fills, and the warbly tremolo on the guitar and knew I didn't even need to listen to more than ten seconds to be certain this was a favorite. It's fun, it's loud, it's a lot like all the things I will always love about Dinosaur Jr without it being derivative. The cymbals and super distorted guitar aren't at war at all, shockingly enough, and the vocals sit nicely in the mix with really soothing harmonies punctuated by blasts of no-wave noise. Love it.
"The Haunt" by Ghost Funk
This is a really cool little collection of atmospheric instrumental tracks. The guitar is often punchy and surfy sounding, the drums are just plain tight, the grooves are solid, and every once in a while we get some really trippy effects. Personal favorite touches include the warped reverb/ delay on the drums a couple of times. All in all, I can't say much more other than this is really good… Solid grooves, really cool tones, and an overall good kind of vintage spooky vibe. This is a rare time that the name actually sounds exactly like the music. If this ain't what ghost funk sounds like, what the hell WOULD it sound like? That's right. You don't have an answer. Because the point I am making is THAT irrefutable.
"Desert Music" by Clouty and the Imaagine Nation
So this immediately had my attention, what with its whole minimal electronic thing. "Takeoff/ Desert" does indeed start off with a sound that wouldn't be too out of place in, like, Flight Simulator 98… or whatever the hell that was that I got with my Compaq back when it was totally cool to own a Compaq with Windows 98 and a flight simulator on it. Anyway, the music is surprisingly "warm" despite its minor key leanings… but, uh, the "surprise" lead later in the first song… well, that had me beyond sold. So, unlike what I hear during Showtime on the L train… the best nation is NOT a donation, at the time that I am writing this, it's Clouty and the Imaagine Nation. Of course by the end of the week it'll probably go back to being Nation of Ulysses. Look, man, I find it tough to stick to any one thought for longer than a moment, okay?
"Dagger Shoes" by Stephen Selman & Derek Hawkins
Well, god DAMN. Where the hell was this in 2005?! (Aside from not recorded yet.) I'm about 90% sure this would have been put out by Hungry Eye Records alongside The Weegs and Black Ice. This epitomizes every thing that made this li'l goth revival that was happening in the mid-2000s (you probably missed it) fun. Hell, there was this band from Brooklyn from around then I liked called Baby Shower that had a similar kinda thing going on… drony mostly monotone vocals atop dissonant keys, minimal guitars, and punkish drums… but then, when you least expected it, sometimes everything just gets up and punches you in the face. I can't even pick out a favorite track 'cause this whole damn EP is so cool. I mean, just… just listen to it.
"Queen of the Garbage Waters" by Old Night
I'm a sucker for a killer bass line, so this drew me in REALLY easily. The bass lines pretty much carry the entire thing here, serving both as the anchor as well as often being the primary source of melody as well. The vocals and occasional guitar aren't too audible, aside from the fact you know they're present… just barely. Not a bad thing, at all though, as the spoken and often whispered vocals just sound cool on top of the rhythm-heavy foundation. I think Nightmare Canvas is my favorite of the bunch, with its off-kilter mechanical sounding drums.
"Serenia" by EARTHSTAR
It's an 8-bit video game sound track. I mean… what… There is literally nothing else I can say to explain why this is cool. Also, congratulations to Stephen Selman for making my list TWICE. Admittedly, you did send in like 500 different projects, each a completely different genre of music… but point is… I guess I didn't really have a point. I dunno, you're doin' good stuff, man. 
That wraps up my li'l opinion article. Didn't like it? I'm sorry. Liked it? I'm sorry. Anyway, yeah, it was tough picking these (as opposed to only picking the tapes done by my close friends, which would have been easy) but I feel like I can sleep soundly with the decisions I made. Or I could have. Shouldn't have had that coffee if I was thinking of sleeping. Catch you next 4-track challenge or whenever the hell I get my hands on a 4-track. PEACE.

Rebecca DeRosa, Tom Tom Magazine, drummer for Fisty and Love Snake

Howitzer by Little Pilot — This is really beautiful piano music. I listened to this on a rainy day with my cat snoozing at my feet. I think this is the song Laura Palmer wrote to Bob.  
What Song by Nova Luz — Quiet and introspective. I’d like to listen to this while waiting for test results at the doctor’s office. 
Dead Waves by Dagger Shores — A little bit Black Sabbath-y, but with some Link Wray thrown in. 
Hard to Fucking Imagine by Adam Balbo — Don’t let the name fool you; this was very folky. 
Suicide Hotline by Rules — I like how there is no intro, it starts right on the verse. I also like the shared male and female vocals. 
The Pines (second song) by Meat Priests — Nice drumming!  
Watch You Glow by Jason Maksymilian — Solid song with nice structure and a hook (remember hooks, kids?)  
Inside the Bottle by Missing Footage — Put me in a daze in a good way.  
Float Away by Dreadful Crows — Has a great 90s sound, kind of like Built to Spill.  
A Fae Story by Doug the Eagle — This is what I would have listened to while smoking pot when I was 15 and lived in the country.

I hope this random dude is still as cool as he was when this picture was taken.

Aaron Lloyd Barr, Illustrator/Rocker

Adam Balbo - Great album. The whole thing is solid. Great songs. Curse words in song titles are just fine with me but “In Their Grip” is just a great fucking song.  
Kevin Kerby - Straight forward folk music. Raw, very true to what the project is about. “The Wilderness” is the one. Great song with moving lyrics about how we’re lost in our own materialism in the modern world.  
David Redbranch - Love how he went into the details of the challenge and approach to each song even though lot of it was lost on me. “Soldiers Claimed the Harvest” is great. The only acapella track in the whole project I think. Like Nick Cave covering Eagles covering a sea shanty. Nicely done. 
Old Night - Sounds like a 4 track. Brings back that sound that i remember well. No idea what he’s saying but that’s okay. “Time” is the one.  
Dreadful Crows - Vox sound is really great. Got some great pro sounds out of the 4 track. “Red Shift” is the one. Great intro. Well constructed song with a hook.. “burn out hard… just like a red star”  
Dead Bonsai - I love “Burning Pallets” and the employ of 4 track effects like the wobbly pitch control thing. Is that what they’re doing? 
Tommy P - For me, this guy gets it. He kept the tracks simple so it sounds as if he could have done this in a proper studio. “One Thousand Lives” .." mistaken my anger as a source of warm…". That's a nice line there, Tommy P.  
Women of the Night - These guys should only record on a 4 track. It’s a great match for their sound. It’s like another member of their band. “Most Magazines” is the one.  
EARTHSTAR - Very clever. That’s why they’re on the list. Not to mention the melodies and sound are cool. Using a 4 track to create an 8 bit soundtrack. All performed. “According to Legend.” 
New England Axe Factory - “Tender Kicks” is just a great hooky song that goes well with the lo-fi recording. 

Check out all the projects over at

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