Howard Stelzer has been at this for a long time. For those unfamiliar with his work, he is the man behind numerous releases of his own music, the man behind the Noisy Bandcamp directory, and former head of Intransitive Records. All of this while being America's Favorite Middle School Teacher. Tape manipulation is his forte, and the label describes this release as "a euphoric 2+ hour adventure that mines dub, drone and disco, obliterating tension and torrential tape manipulation." This mammoth 3 disc set also features collaborations with Windy Weber (Windy & Carl), Michael Anderson (Drekka), Stephen Clover (Seht), Peter Wright, Antony Milton, Peter Hope, Bill Ironfield, Elisabeth King, Sarah Hennies, Jeff Barsky (Insect Factory), Tom Smith (To Live & Shave in LA) and Audrey Chen. So let's sit back, give it a listen, and see what this one sounds like.
First off, this album really takes advantage of headphones, because there are so many things happening that it would be easy to miss them all if you don't listen to it that way. You could almost think of Stelzer's compositions as a kind of "eye-spy," in which there are bits of sound that you only hear if you are paying attention. Bits of voice, some windchimes, a guitar, random noises. All of this is often covered in a thick layer of drone that holds it all together.
But this is far from random "throw everything together and see what happens" experimental music (and heaven knows that I enjoy that as well), but these are finely crafted and thoughtfully laid out. Some of them even sound almost . . . normal. Like when a traditional band tries to get edgy. The difference, of course, is that Stelzer starts from the other end of the spectrum and went towards the side of traditional songwriting. One example of this can be found in the opening track, "Teal," which brings in a nice repetitive bass line, a driving rock drum beat, and processed vocals. This is rock music as interpreted by The Residents. But you can tell that he has created the feel that it is all barely holding together, as the bass becomes increasingly unstable and instead of a guitar solo we have pulsing line noise towards the end. "Lilac" has a similar feel with a funky beat and almost bluesy vocals with warbling tape noise in the background. Another example of this can be seen in "Violet," which features vocals (a woman singing bits of Prince's "When Doves Cry"), tape manipulation, heavy drone, the sound of footsteps, and various field recordings.
Other tracks are much more abstract, such as "Blue," which uses voice mainly as atmosphere, as we hear a woman humming to herself as the sounds of people just going about their day swirl around. Another example of this is "Olive," which has choppy electronic noises over quiet junk noise and field recordings. The entire track is rather subdued, and you could almost think of this as "quiet noise." "Indigo" brings us more of the dark ambient drone feel with analog noises, pulsing synth washes, and what sounds like a pressure cooker regulator. Think of it like a lo-fi Lustmord.
In general, there is a wide range of emotion on these tracks. For example, "Cyan" is a long droney track that is almost peaceful, as you hear bits of metal and cymbals buried in the mix. "Red," on the other hand, is a sparse track that kind of reminds me of hearing someone singing in the shower while someone slowly drags a microphone across the carpet. "Emerald" gets us more into the dissonant side, as a high pitched siren-like whine permeates the track as sweeping waves of sound wash over you, only to end with pleasant female singing. It toys with the feeling of discomfort without being heavy handed about it.
At over 46 minutes, "Maroon" warrants its own discussion. Open with sheep bleating and tinkling wind chimes which then continues over peaceful ambient drone. This builds in intensity over time, and what once seemed peaceful becomes suffocating. About 15 minutes in, we have some guitar thrown into the mix as the drone continues to shift without you even realizing it. About 35 minutes in, we are left with only drone. Over the next 10 minutes, the tone will shift slightly over time. I will admit that for me it went on about 8 minutes longer than it needed to, but the effect is undeniable. Your ears definitely feel a sense of relief once it finally fades out.
Overall, this is easy listening for the experimental set. It never quite descends into noise, but it is noisy enough to keep it interesting. It is well crafted, but still has a touch of chaos in it. This is accessible to a wide variety of tastes, and you could think of this as a kind of gateway drug for harsher experimental music (like some of Stelzer's other works). But for those of us who have been listening to experimental music for decades now, this still offers a level of complexity that is sometimes lacking. In short, it's a good time, and for the price, if you only like even one of the discs you have still come out way ahead. Well worth checking out.