Even within the context of the Elephant 6 Collective, the Music Tapes have always stood out as an especially eccentric band. After contributing to indie milestones like Neutral Milk Hotel and Olivia Tremor Control, Music Tapes mastermind Julian Koster decided to resurrect his high school project with the help of Jeremy Barnes (now of A Hawk and a Hacksaw).
Their debut, First 1999’s Imaginary Symphony for Nomad, was a conceptual psych-pop near-masterpiece that featured Koster’s brittle off-key singing, experimental arrangements, and even more experimental production (parts of the record featured an Edison wax cylinder recorder from 1895). The only thing fans of that record have had to keep them going since is an almost impossible to find CDR of the sequel, Second Imaginary Symphony for Cloudmaking (you can hear portions of it here.)
Music Tapes for Clouds and Tornadoes is the first proper follow-up to the First Imaginary Symphony. It is a concept record as well, although the narrative this time around is less explicit (most of the songs are about clouds or reindeer or both). Koster’s affinity for the singing saw is at the forefront of this album as well, which, paired with his aggressively unique voice, may make for a disarming first listen for the uninitiated. But the singing saws, banjos, and Ping-Pong ball percussion begin to make sense together and create a whimsical world in which the fate of a tornado can have a direct emotional effect on the listener.
The album opens with all of the band’s trademarks. On opener “Saw Pingpong and Orchestra,” Ping-Pong balls provide the backing for a melancholy singing saw before Koster belts out, “I swear the snow is falling/Haven’t you seen it for yourself?” The mid-way mark of the album is the six-minute “Song for Oceans Falling,” which proves that Koster doesn’t have to rely on obscure instruments to make his songs interesting. Backed only by a banjo and tape hiss, he laments, “Storm clouds wave goodbye,” as if he were referring to a long-lost friend. “Majesty” is the closest thing to a traditional pop song here, with a triumphant (albeit off-key) melody and a proper verse-chorus-verse structure.
Koster’s ability to create charmingly imaginative song cycles out of instruments you might find in your grandparent’s attic has granted him a fan base that has waited nearly a decade for his sophomore release. It was worth the wait.