Review: V/A, “SMM: Context”

Ghostly International presents SMM: Context as a vaguely philosophical release centered around the qualities that film soundtracks, classical music, and ambient music share, but I think its lack of pretense is part of what makes it great. On one level, SMM: Context is just a collection of eleven songs from eleven electronic artists, including Leyland James Kirby, Jacaszek, Aidan Baker, and Kyle Bobby Dunn. On another level, it’s a very coherent and fluid record filled with beautiful songs and sustained by a shared vision.

Superficially, much of the music on SMM: Context is alike. None of the songs raise their voice beyond a roar, and nearly all of the artists use long, unhurried phrases to build their pieces. Most, like Leyland Kirby, Christina Vantzou, Goldmund—Keith Kenniff of Helios—Rafael Anton Irissarri, and Jacaszek also use or sample acoustic instruments, especially strings and voices, to mock up a Stars of the Lid or Angelo Badalamenti vibe, which permeates most of the record. SMM: Context is filled with a panoply of other sounds, however, none of which can be reduced to a single reference or influence. Throughout its duration, each artist contributes to this half-familiar-half-exploratory quality.

Kirby’s atmospheric contribution, “Polaroid,” exemplifies that quality, in part because it epitomizes the electronic-acoustic—not electro-acoustic—synthesis that holds the record together thematically. His nylon string study is suffused with electronic steam and synthetic drones, but they are a far cry from the sounds he once produced as V/Vm, The Caretaker, and Leyland James Kirby. In fact, his typically dominant drones play a supporting role here, as Leyland puts the emphasis sharply on an acoustic guitar, with which he produces a simple and sharply played melody. Badalamenti’s sonic disposition is present, mostly in the form of atmospheric keyboards, but Kirby’s guitar recalls the music of Andrés Segovia just as strongly. It is romantic stuff, and it typifies a strategy each artist on SMM: Context shares, with just a few exceptions.

Christina Vantzou, from The Dead Texan, and Rafael Anton Irisarri also employ direct, gently played melodies over a bed of synthetic tones, but neither of them emphasize atmosphere in the same way. Nevertheless, they both use muted colors and simmering textures to produce romantic and cinematic sounds, just like Kirby. Jacaszek makes the best use of this approach, though; his “Elegia” is the most resplendent and decorated song on SMM: Context, and maybe the most beautiful thanks to the way he contrasts his melodies and noises. If Kirby, Vantzou, and Irisarri represent the cinematic tendencies of SMM artists, then Jacaszek represents the classical and symphonic ones.

Kyle Bobby Dunn is his austere counterpart. “Runge’s Last Stand” features nothing in the way of conventional melodies or rhythms, and it is less reliant on diverse colors and acoustic instruments than the other songs on the album are. Using but a few diaphanous tones and textures, he manages to evoke the same kind of introverted and fleeting beauty that Jacaszek achieves. Both Aidan Baker and Manual follow the same path, but neither of them can contend with Kyle’s liminal spaces and rarefied phrases. He chases Morton Feldman’s sound and gets part of the way there; next to him, Baker and Manual can’t help but sound a little heavy-handed.

Even though SMM: Context proceeds in a seamless way, SMM as a genre doesn’t make much sense to me. If Ghostly International wants to facilitate the breaking down of musical boundaries, it can do so without putting yet another folder in the genre filing cabinet; SMM is an acronym they made up in the first place, and it doesn’t even stand for anything. Why force all of these artists into a fabricated musical bubble when there isn’t a single definite quality that they can all be said to share? Unless, of course, we want to reduce their music to a few meaningless words, like “ambient” or “Badalamenti-esque.”

Ghostly International might have just gotten lucky with SMM: Context; it has eleven very good songs made by eleven very talented people, and all of them share enough of the same spirit to fit comfortably on the same record. In this case, so much of the music is just so beautiful and direct that I don’t care if it’s called classical, symphonic, minimal, or something even more abstract and unhelpful, like SMM.

SMM: Context is available on Ghostly International
Sound samples at Brainwashed.com 

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One comment

  1. […] Various Artists, SMM: Context (Ghostly International) An excellent compilation of loosely connected artists under the flag of a non-existent genre. Ghostly should concentrate on releasing more albums by the artists on this collection. […]

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