Howard Stelzer - Normal Bias [Ballast - 2016]Normal Bias is a six tape set from Howard Stelzer- the Lowell MA based sound-maker who creates electro-acoustic noise, detailed ambience, and distinctive & often layered drone matter. I’ve always enjoyed Mr Stelzer's work, but I must say this set really is a high water-mark, in both terms variation of track & depth of work on offer here.
The release appeared in September 2016, on Ballast- a Chicago based label focuses in on limited edition pressings of art /concept-driven recordings. It came in edition of 50 copies, and as of writing the label still has copies left. The six labelled & hand printed tapes come in a long clamshell case featuring transparency art. Also included in a doubled-sided inlay card, this features artwork & text, as well as signature & a hand number.
So first up of the first side of tape one we have the track "Dertriment". This starts off an fairly rapid, surreal, and often woozy manner with a blend of speeding tape reels. And shifting Layers of muffle, churn, skip, slice. By around the 5th minute things turn a lot more chilling & unsettling, as we get a slowly building blend of puffing/ sighing tones, circling-yet-muffled churnings, and a eerier harmonic ambient simmer. With later-on the addition of swirling yet subtle electro spinning tones, and the return of the tape reels- which are now a lot more buried. The track feels like a recording from with-in the stasis area of some strange & whirring alien space-craft.
Flipping over to the second side, and we have “Basalt# 1”. This tracks opens with spinning & seemingly expanding drone revolutions- these are slightly harmonic & dread bound. Around this sonic centre, we get a blend of slowly shifting lo-fi, spiralling & yet dreaming weave of industrial like churns. The whole track feels like it’s a living, breathing entity that’s trying to a build and shape it’s self it something firmer & more defined, yet it’s for ever just out of your sonic grasp, as your ears try to homing in & define the sonic shapes, but the whole thing keeps dreamily shifting & drowsily morphing. In its last few minutes the haze does clear, and we’re left with blend of droning (yet stretched) bass guitar throb, distant people chatter, and this strange muffled chirping elements, which keeps revolving round & round
Moving onto tape B, and on side one we have the track “Lemon Pass”. This opens with a growing reverberating & ringing drone element- around this we have ebbing & drifting banks of low-end ambient drift & hum. And as the piece progresses this very eerier harmonic yet semi shrill feeling seems to grow & expanded in the guts of the whole thing. With the whole thing coming across like the sonic equivalent of a smeared or water run painting, or computer printed picture- as once again your mind tries to define both the shape, size, and form of what’s in front of your sonic senses.
Over on the second side of tape two we have “Not-Knowing”. This is a dense, yet muffled & slightly frayed collection of churning, spinning, and ringing drone layers. The track feels quite industrial & urgent in its mass, yet the whole thing is very hollowed-out & hazed in it’s presentation. I’m not quite sure how this track is built/created, but I’m guessing it might be morphed, stretched, and layered road drilling recordings, or something similar.
From here on( tapes C to F), I won’t go onto detail each side of tape, because really I feel that would ruin ones on discovery & take on the work as a whole. Like the first two sides there is only one track per-side of tape through-out the set, so with each side of tape Stelzer really mangers to create its own distinct sonic place- which stands alone, yet feels part of the sets bigger universe.
In conclusion Normal Bias is a wonderfully crafted & conceived collection of sound-works, that really defies one genre label. If you enjoy ambience, drone, subtle & morphed noise loops, hazed industrial like texturing, or any form of lo-key yet layered sound making, this really is worth picking up. And unlike a lot of recent tape releases, this is only available as the full cassette set- so there are no digital downloads, streams, ect…so when the 50 copies are gone, that’s it…which in a way it’s kinda of nice & unique in this day & age, though it means if this sounds like your type of thing you need to act sooner, than later. Roger Batty