Review: Howard Stelzer – Fever Song (self-released, Dec 30)

Howard Stelzer’s single track release Fever Song was assembled “in secret” during the latter months of 2019, finally completed after the Massachusetts based schoolteacher and sound artist recovered from a nasty bout of pneumonia. Stelzer says: “As soon as my fever lifted, I was so grateful to be able to do the things I usually do (like being able to concentrate on a task for more than a few minutes at a go, or walk from one side of my house to the other, or carry on a conversation with my wife) that I returned to this album right away and ironed it out rather quickly.” So many elements of this excerpt from the album’s description translate well into analysis of it; like many of Stelzer’s compositions, “Fever Song” is built around patient drones, but the sustained textures and tones he utilizes here are not somber or dull, instead always climbing with radiant vigor to further heights, brighter patches of light. Our fever breaks and we see an opening in the shroud of sickness, an escape toward which we desperately claw and climb. “Fever Song” is also a celebration of not only the everyday, but also the patience to appreciate the everyday. The piece could have been shorter, of course, but it isn’t; Stelzer carefully constructs spans of controlled noise to allow for the barest amount of progression, allowing meditative stretches to become illusions of stasis, sonic monoliths in which we lose ourselves until the subtle developments become impossible to ignore or the rug is yanked from under our feet. And finally, I love the use of the phrase “iron out” to describe the process of finishing “Fever Song”; it appeals to both the work’s recognition of the value of the mundane as well as Stelzer’s pragmatic approach to music-making. And even some of the drones feel as though they’ve been ironed; trivial materials forcefully pressed into gorgeous, unified slabs of sound.

Review: Cult of Erinyes – Æstivation (Amor Fati, Dec 26)

The genre and culture of black metal has come quite a long way since its infamous origins in early 90’s Scandinavia, as new scenes, communities, and styles popping up all around the world at an ever-increasing rate. I don’t think it would be an overstep, however, to name the Germany-based imprint Amor Fati one of the most significant voices for contemporary black metal. Often focusing on bringing independently released music to physical media and a wider audience, the label either brought me or introduced me to many of my more modern favorites, including HWWAUOCH’s Into the Labyrinth of Consciousness, Pharmakeia’s self-titled debut, Mahr’s Antelux, and now Cult of Erinyes’ Æstivation (all of these are available for name your price digital download from the artists). Fitting right in with AF’s raw, oppressive aesthetic without sacrificing melody or succinct structure, Æstivation is a more concise effort than 2017’s Tiberivs, building to and from punishing blast beat sections with atmospheric interludes and developing riff repetitions. The array of guest vocalists of which the band makes use allows for a wide range of utterances, from distant howls and throat-shredding shrieks to guttural growls and throaty spoken word (the pained screams on “Nihil Sacrum Est” are definitely a highlight). Æstivation is a superb, well-executed celebration of both classic black metal tradition and more contemporary stylistic augmentations.

Review: barn sour – horses fucked over the head with bricks (Careful Catalog, Dec 23)

While my end of year review hiatus is always a much-needed break from an undammed influx of new music, there are usually a few remarkable or fascinating albums in December that demand immediate attention. One of many works in a large quantity of final month releases that exposes the stupidity of publishing comprehensive end of year lists in November, barn sour’s debut 7″ horses fucked over the head with bricks concludes newcomer NYC imprint Careful Catalog’s superb 2019 with a flourish. The EP was released just a week before we rang in the new year in tandem with Mattias Gustafsson’s equally amazing Frusen Musik, and over a modest nine minutes it proceeds to fuck every conception you have about music over the head with bricks. The names of the two musicians listed on the release are most likely pseudonyms; James Druck probably refers to one of the key figures in a series of cases of insurance fraud commonly known as the “Horse Murders,” and while I’m less sure about the meaning of “C.Lara” the first thing I think of is the nursing mnemonic that provides an effective approach to interacting with patients. The music itself doesn’t answer many questions, instead taking the form of a bewildering amalgam of emotions that cultivates a mysterious power through evocations both visceral and cerebral. Maniacal laughter rings throughout the entirety of side A, balancing any interpretation on an unstable tight rope between unfettered joy and complete hysteria while our understanding is further assaulted by shifting layers of dissonant drones, earthen clatter, and some brief beauty near the jarring, unceremonious end. On side B, harrowing, half-nonsensical, Boredoms-esque babbling is tempered by the cavernous reverberations of a somber piano melody, and barn sour burrows even further into a rabbit den of oddness and impenetrability that, coupled with the EP’s short length, makes it extremely addicting.