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Steven R Smith: "Cities"

img  Tobias

In visually mouthwatering horror-movie „Darkness“, an idyllic world of light and familial happiness is brutally ripped apart by a pact with the devil to cut the throat of seven innocent children with loving hands. Behind this seemingly predictable plot lies a land of far more subtle sentiments: In its heart of hearts, „Darkness“ is a film about abused trust, misguided love, utter madness and  how childhood-fears carry on into adulthood - all drenched in the most vivid, intense and solemnly beautiful images imaginable. In a way, the work of  Steven R Smith has a lot in common with the terrifyingly tantalising visions of Spanish director Jaume Balagueró. Smith, too, dauntlessly walks the dangerous tightrope between night and day, his hands holding onto his Guitar to steady himself and the soles of his feet feeling their way forward on the song's timeline as he makes his way towards an uncertain destination. And just like Balagueró, he holds an insatiable curiosity to find out what lies beyond the repulsive, his inner compass guiding him to a place where even the most blurred and complex questions dissolve into equally unfathomable and simple truths.

On „Cities“, he has come one step closer to uncovering their secrets. Gone are the lyrics of predecessor „Owl“ - words, it seems, are becoming increasingly meaningless here. Gone, too, are the psychedelics of his output with bands like Thuja and Mirza – even though, as he has explained, the term „psychedelica“ is quite a flexible one in his oeuvre. Gone, in fact, are all the typical certainties that would allow one to classify any of these ten instrumentals into categories like „song“, „track“, „Rock“, „Folk“, „Ambient“, „Noise“ or even „experimental“. And yet, Smith isn't building any self-referential castles: You don't need to watch the movies of Béla Tarr nor read any Cormac McCarthy novels – two open points of reference for „Cities“ - to get behind the meaning of „the music. But it does help to take into consideration that it was built around a string of polarities and opposites, their contrasts bringing out their respective qualities more clearly than a perfectly uniform album ever could.

But it isn't just thematic metaphors that clash and rub against each other on „Cities“. Quite literally, it is the musical building block themselves: Czardas-violins hover on top of a raw amplifier hum, distorted Guitar pulsations rise from a bed of Ambient tranquility, chanson-esque pickings and a charming Harmonica are embedded into a surreal soundscape filled with gnawing and gnarling noises, while all of these equally beguiling and bewildering statements are counterpointed by two almost naive miniatures of just over a minute's length and a closing track seemingly coming to you through entire galaxies of fuzz – or perhaps the end of the corridor has just never seemed as far away as this. The only certainty here is that there is no certainty whatsoever: Structures collapse into loose ends of harmonics and melodic fragments, into pools of timbre and coagulated texture brimming with static and energy and reverb and echo and resonance and rawness and living waveforms, sustained tones and solitary notes as well as a multitude of possible continuations and endings of which the most conventional and probable somehow never seem to be an option.

Constantly, it is in the most unsuspected places that one finds beauty: In the final thirty seconds of „Night Upon Us“, for example, when tranquility gives way to feverish excitement. In the few downbeat chords and torn tissue of „The Road“, which Smith keeps revisiting as if in an obsessive trance. And, of course, on the specter-like apparition of „The pailing Day“, a broken Piano-ballad based around increasingly languid repetitions of the same motive and a logic of disintegration. Most of all, it is in the maniacal intensity of the album as a whole, which never settles down, never relaxes, never looses its haunting intensity. Only in the end comes acceptance, as Smith wades through the rusty String-panorama of „Distance and Passing“, before closing things out in an almost fata morgana-like vision: Was it all just a dream after all?

It doesn't seem like it, even though one can't help but pinch oneself just in case. Rather, the plot of „Cities“ seems to be running contrary to the story of your regular horror-flick: Steven R Smith may, at times, seem to be living in a world of darkness and whispering voices. But he has agreed to a pact with the angels to always leave a light on.

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Steven R Smith
Homepage: Immune Recordings

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