Chris Walla says plenty by saying nothing on Tape Loops. His second solo record and first since a public departure from Death Cab for Cutie, his latest release offers an ambient, instrumental collection of manipulated analog tape. Markedly unlike his first solo effort, Field Manual, Tape Loops centers on absence. It’s lyrically empty and laconic by design, to the point where the spaces between sounds become sounds themselves. Tape Loops creates a deep meditation on the white space between notes, but what listeners may actually find in Walla’s exploration of negative space is another matter. Absence creates a mirror, an ability to project oneself into the vacuum of unarticulated meaning. Tape Loops could be made to mean just about anything, and that’s both its power and its problem.
Walla has always courted emptiness in his music and in his work as a mixer, producer, and engineer. Though Death Cab’s music grew more and more lush as its members aged, the desire to find meaning in the abyss never left Ben Gibbard or Walla, the band’s two masterminds. The pair co-wrote the band’s archetypal track, “Title and Registration”, where Gibbard sang about lost love: “Now that it’s gone, it’s like it wasn’t there at all.” While Walla didn’t write “Your Heart is an Empty Room”, he did produce it. He may know emptiness even better than Gibbard. He’s not the lead singer of a popular rock band, but he’s made his career as an engineer, producer, and player in one. Walla is the star of the margins.
Whether he likes it or not — and there’s good reason to suspect he doesn’t — there is no talking about Tape Loops without talking about Gibbard and Death Cab. The absence on Tape Loops is different, both in form and function. It feels like a reaction to the Death Cab brand, one that led Walla away from the band and toward a new direction in his music. In an Interview Magazine piece with Sara Quin of Tegan and Sara, Walla said, “On a more existential level … [I] was feeling like Ben’s stories weren’t coinciding with my own life in a way that I could continue to prioritize my whole living experience for.” Tape Loops is the new story, a different way to articulate the emptiness inside our collective borders.
Walla drenches Tape Loops in the warmth of analog tape hiss. The cutting together and manipulation of tape proved to be a key element in the writing process, as if Walla might discover something more real in eschewing digitization. Though the arrangements proceed lugubriously along sparse keyboard progressions, the tape fuzz grants the record an intimacy, especially in its moments of near silence. The album often sounds like a preamble to a song that never arrives. “Introductions”, the album’s eight-minute second track, sounds like endless existential waiting. Alternatively, a song like “I Believe in the Night” sounds like an album closer, a slow moment before the silence. Walla placed “Goodbye”, an 11-minute exercise in delay, at track four out of five. For almost its entire duration, Tape Loops sounds as if it is just starting or about to end.
The album is, quite deliberately, neither here nor there. That’s the danger of operating in negative space — listeners will fill in the blanks for themselves. Like Gertrude Stein’s famous remark about Oakland, on Tape Loops, there is no there there, or, more accurately, there is no there here. Tape Loops is neither the solo piano work it sometimes resembles — George Winston’s “Some Children See Him” is a bizarre but definite parallel to lead track “Kanta’s Theme” — nor is it particularly ambitious in pushing the possibilities of an unconventional album. It sounds often like the frustrating and beautiful work of Grouper’s most recent record Ruins, but it isn’t that either.
Tape Loops’ power lies in what isn’t there, a delicate, impossible achievement. When listened to as ambient noise, the album adds a layer of elegiac beauty to its surrounding environment, but when listened to intently, it presents a frustrating experiment, a Möbius strip of perpetual return. Walla began the recording process by slicing tape with razor blades, piecing it into circles of sound that he would let play for hours. Just like the binding together of analog tape, too often Tape Loops ends where it began.
Essential Tracks: “Kanta’s Theme”