Cassette(?!?!) Review: 808 State Re-Issues

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808 State’s Ninety and Ex:el are widely regarded as being two of the most important electronic albums of the early 90s. Not only are they fantastic records, but they also pioneered methods of combining the then-underground acid house sound with pop-friendly production and vocal hooks (not to mention all-star guest appearances). While they’re not as widely lauded today as more popular albums by acts like Aphex Twin, The Chemical Brothers or Prodigy, it’s safe to say that they’re far more influential than any albums released by those acts, and that they definitely helped to serve as the groundwork for the electronic music explosion that would briefly dominate the latter half of the decade.

So it’s nice to see both albums finally get the respect they deserve on newly remastered deluxe edition…cassette tapes.

Wait, what?

For reasons that make sense to, um, someone (maybe?) both Ninety and Ex:el have now been re-released as limited edition tapes, available in a multitude of colors and packed with rare and previously unavailable bonus cuts.

Why cassette tape? I have no damn clue. I assume it’s an attempt to cash in on the ever-so-small tape culture revival. Although that has mostly focused around lo-fi and indie artists. I don’t think any of the college-aged hipsters digging for bargain bin tapes are really jonesing for early 90s acid house. Wouldn’t they prefer a Sebadoh album or something?

Regardless, here they are. And truth be told, they sure to look pretty.

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As you can see, I picked up the metallic red version of Ex:el and the solid yellow edition of Ninety. There are eight variants of each, making for 16 tapes in all. If you want them all, Artoffact Records is selling them in bundles. But, and lets be honest here, if you want to buy the same two albums eight times each (on fucking cassette) because they’re available in different colors, maybe you need to re-examine your life priorities.

Says the guy who owns four different versions of the Escape From New York soundtrack.

Download codes to all of the tracks are included, whether you buy the tapes individually or as sets, which is great because that saves fans from the misery of actually having to listen to the tapes themselves, myself included. I don’t own a tape deck. Actually, I do, but it’s in Pittsburgh and I’m currently in Tokyo. And since I don’t feel the need to own two different tape decks on two separate continents, this review isn’t going to contain any insight as to how these tapes actually sound.

However, I’m going to venture a guess and say that they sound like garbage. Because tapes sound like garbage. You don’t think tapes sound like garbage? Hey, that’s great! Good for you. But I think tapes sound like garbage. You may have some ultra hi-fi tape deck that can play mad expensive metal tapes so well that they sound like blu-rays ripped by audiophile angels, but 99% of the tapes I’ve ever heard sounded like utter trash and I’m willing to bet that these tapes fall into that category as well.

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But hey, at least they look pretty, and of course the albums themselves are still fantastic. Of the two, I think I still prefer Ex:el, thanks probably to its slightly rawer and more intense sound present on tracks like “San Francisco,” “In Yer Face,” and “Cubik.” Of course, guest appearances by Bjork and Bernard Sumner don’t hurt things either.

It also has a better selection of bonus cuts, including rare and hard-to-find mixes of “Cubik” and “In Yer Face,” as well as the b-side “Ski Family,” which was only previously made available on the single to “Ooops.” The bonus cuts on Ninety are no slouch either though, with most of the tracks from the American edition of the album making the cut, as well as the Britmix of “Pacific” and additional remixes of “Cobra Bora” and “Donkey Doctor.”

While the bonus cuts are good, no doubt about that, a lot of great stuff was also left on the cutting room floor. There are a billion remixes of “Pacific” (probably enough to warrant its own release at this point) and for only one to be included in the bonuses for Ninety seems like kind of a waste.

However, the biggest slight to me is that that only one remix of “Cubik” was included, and one of the weaker versions at that. While the State To Pan AM Mix is a quality mix, where’s the similarly-titled (but far more aggressive) Pan American Experience? And to not include the definitive mix of the track, the face-melting epic nine-minute Tomix mix, just seems like a drastic oversight. I get that tapes have space limitations, but download codes don’t. So to not include this in any form at all is just mind-boggling to me.

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But to be perfectly honest, the biggest problem with this release isn’t the bonus track selection (nitpicking aside, it’s fine), or the fact that it’s only available as a cassette (okay, that’s a little bit of a problem). No, the biggest problem is the MP3s themselves.

This may feel like a petty thing to rant about, but I’m seeing it more and more with major digital releases, and it’s starting to drive me bonkers. THE MP3S AREN’T PROPERLY TAGGED.

This means that when you download the MP3s you have to go in by hand and fix the track titles, track numbers and album titles. This took me thirty damn minutes.

It is 2014. We’ve been offering digital downloads as a bonus to analog products for what, over five years now, and this shit still happens? It’s not that hard people! Tag your damn files before you upload them!

So yeah, while I can’t agree with the choice of physical format, the entirety of the bonus cuts or even the formatting of the Mp3s that are including, I still feel the need to recommend both of these releases to any fans of electronic music. As I said before, these are spectacular albums. Both hold up well to this day, and the added tracks more than make the album worthy of a second purchase for anyone who bought the album before.

Even if they’re on freaking cassette tapes.

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