By: Joshua Minsoo Kim
1. Selective Memory (You Never Know Absolutely Quite Where You Are)
2. Across the Blazer
Something I’ve found unexpected about growing older is my increasing contentedness with not listening to music. For most of my life, I found it natural to accompany most work or leisure with some sort of sound: pick an album, press play, listen to completion. Whatever I chose to hear could serve a slew of functions. It could, for example, act as an extension of my current mood, soundtracking any activity in the way I best saw fit. On countless occasions, music was a buffer between my mind and the impending tasks—be they tedious or terrifying, work or working out—that I would fear facing head-on. Even in discovering John Cage’s approach to music listening, music’s expanded world only meant extended periods of distraction. That is to say, in appreciating sounds that emanated from non-traditional sources, there proved to be even more opportunities for removing myself from reality. As such, stripping music of its sacrosanct status was a result of no longer wanting—or being able—to avoid life. And today, it sometimes feels good to simply sit, to not listen.
Across the Blazer, the newest album from the ever-prolific Howard Stelzer, is the rare album that challenges such notions of music listening by placing a mirror in front of its listeners. Instead of assuaging one from the pains of life by interrupting it, Stelzer provides a space for it to be magnified and viscerally felt. This is partially accomplished by the sheer length of the album’s two tracks, allowing such long-form pieces to be innately contemplative, but it’s ultimately a result of meticulous craftsmanship. On “Selective Memory (You Never Know Absolutely Quite Where You Are),” one is invited to rest inside a tumultuous but understated drone. Played loudly, it sounds as if a storm is brewing, raging winds and all. Rain-like static frequently stutters and a constant squelching sound eventually appears as if to ground everything in a sense of uneasiness. Even as these sounds grow increasingly violent, one still feels shielded from its effects. Oddly, it’s this distancing that makes the atmosphere more harrowing. In not allowing this noise to build into a harsher, more physically affecting sound, one is left in a void that never ends. Listening to these thirteen minutes is consequently anxiety-inducing, and the sudden ceasing of sound once the track ends is the most frightening part. It’s exactly then that all anxiety that has been building up has carried into the real world. And here, there’s no shielding of self from their effects; any dread that arises feels inescapable.
The album’s title track conjures up a similar helplessness but does so in a different manner. The title is a reference to the Cardiacs’s “Big Ship,” and some of the composition’s sounds are sourced from the jubilant pop song. Curiously, Stelzer wanted the piece to radiate with the same sincere joy that characterizes that song. And while “Across the Blazer” certainly begins with a hopeful bit of ambience, it’s buried low in the mix and soon gets thwarted by a thick wall of noise. While not unpleasant to hear, this unrelenting drone feels menacing in its stasis. More than anything, its slow-growing stature becomes overwhelming, and the power it holds over the listener is akin to the very-2018 experience of seeing more and more terrible news every day. While I wouldn’t deny that such associations are mere projection, it’s hard to hear “Across this Blazer” and interpret any unyielding, monolithic presence as something positive. Still, the song’s final minutes are quieter and spirited: a flicker of hope, perhaps. But when it ends, I’m left unsure of how to feel, landing on blankness by default. Incredibly, Stelzer pulls off a complete reversal: music that makes life’s suffering feel unavoidable, and making real life feel comparatively emotionless upon re-entrance.