[Review] SMM:Context

Earlier today I was walking to class. We had gotten snow the last few nights and it rested in patches around the ground, a murky sea of green foamed with white. The sky was an overcast gray and the air had the small bite of dying winter. While walking, I passed the remnants of a dirty, melted snowman. Only the base was there, half-gone and awkwardly shaped. Its snow was splotched with dirt, giving it a brown rustic appearance, like a statue that rested in a courtyard for eons. I was listening, at the time, to a long drone sprinkled with a slow, heavily echoed guitar. It was called “Polaroid,” as if to fully complete the tired, old patina of the whole scene.

It is the second track on GHOSTLY International’s newest compilation, SMM: Context, which will come out March 1st. Part of a series of musical explorations, it’s full of textural, slow-moving, and melancholy tracks. Virtually every single song is beautiful in some way, attaining a quiet grandeur through its plodding pace. A colossus, after all, moves slowly. Or, perhaps more acutely, a glacier.

The wonderful cover art is courtesy of Mike Cina

The album opens with “Motion,” simple, elegant piano solo from Goldmund, the moniker of Keith Kenniff. Though largely played off a simple refrain, the track manages a very willful expression of emotion. There is a pang of regret, sadness that somehow reveals itself in these few notes.  It is the shortest track on the compilation, but easily one of my favorites.

After “Polaroid” and “Halves,” two drone-based songs that cover over themselves in sound and beauty, comes “11 Generations Of My Fathers.” This track, from Christina Vantzou brings back the plodding piano sound of “Motion” for its first two minutes and returns to drones for its last three. With tracks like these, there are several different moods to be evoked and because of that it’s hard to actually write about. You could imagine a grand, epic space movement, an apocalyptic landscape, a silent underwater voyage. In all, the common thread is sadness, solitude and size. It is best to let your mind wander on these soundscapes, your imagination will reward you.

After that comes “Elegia,” a contribution from a personal favorite Jacaszek, who introduces a bit of melody over the texture. A chopped-up piano loop comes and the texture becomes richer. In its last minute, the track blows up. Horns are introduced, the strings stir and ring, as if it is the song’s final dying breath.  Jacaszek’s strength to me has always been his ability to effuse the traditional with the electronic to create a new sound entirely and he is in rare form on this release.

“Cornelia Amygdaloid” from The Fun Years manages to attain a gritty Western feeling underneath a bed of staticy electronics. Manual’s “Three Parts” continues the drones in a particularly cinematic way, imbuing whatever you’re doing with a sense of significance. “Substantiated” by Aidan Baker is full of tension, with layers on layers of sound that hold each other in just enough conflict as two enormous armies staring at each other over a smaller and smaller distance.

All of that tension is relieved in the first piano chords of Rafael Anton Irisarri’s “Moments Descend on my Windowpane,” the first sounds on the album that might be called positive. Quietly, reservedly positive, but positive nonetheless. Given the all of the sounds before it, the song could easily be the first new sprout on a war-torn field, or maybe just the first bloom of spring. It is this track that is understated, loosing the massive melancholy of that which came before it. It ends on a fadeout, as if the release was fleeting.

“Moments Descend on my Windowpane” is the first of the last three tracks of the album and its here that it gains its strongest entitlement to the word “beauty.” Kyle Bobby Dunn continues the streak with “Runge’s Last Stand,” a track encapsulated by its name all too well. Introducing a horn into the slow-moving drones gives it a calm funeral-esque feel, like remembering a lost friend by his gravestone.

The album ends with Peter Broderick’s “Pause.” Dictated by a slowly plucked guitar that reverberates into the distance, it serves as an excellent closer. The strongest image I get from this track isn’t an image at all, it’s simply a statement: “It’s been a good life.” There is melancholy, in that it’s the end, but the feeling is mixed with a positive sense of reflection, as if it was all worth it. It is calm, eerily beautiful and sentiment that is truly hard to find in music.

Certainly not many of the images I introduced are compellingly upbeat or happy images. I can’t guarantee that everyone will understand why I consider this such a great release. I don’t expect it. But music is about capturing a feeling, evoking thoughts and images that are powerful to the listener which this compilation does markedly well.

SMM: Context is out March 1st on GHOSTLY International. The vinyl release is limited to a run of 800.

Christina Vantzou – 11 Generations of my Fathers {download} (rightclick>saveas…)

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