VA: SMM: Context
Ghostly International / SMM

With its SMM: Context release, Ghostly's SMM—introduced by the Ann Arbor-based Ghostly International label in 2004 as a platform for experimental classical-ambient-soundscaping musics—would seem to be muscling in on the territory typically covered by labels such as Hibernate, Home Normal, Low Point, and Miasmah. But you'll hear no complaints from this corner, as the compilation includes a top-of-the-line cast (from Poland, Germany, Denmark, Norway, North America, and the UK—Rafael Anton Irisarri the sole contributor whose home base is the same as the label's and, it might be added, the compilation's lone Ghostly artist, given that he records for the label under The Sight Below alias) and selections that speak highly of the producers' respective talents.

Many of the contributors stick close to their signature styles—not that there's anything objectionable about that: Keith Kenniff opens the set in his customary Goldmund style with a delicate setting of piano-and-electronics beauty called “Motion,” while Norwegian producer Svarte Greiner's woozy gloomscape “Halves,” all low-pitched rumbles, creaks, and shudders, is quintessential Miasmah. On loan from Barge Recordings, The Fun Years fracture the serenity of the collection with the jagged stabs of a guitar-and-turntables exercise titled “Cornelia Amygdaloid.” Having kept a low profile since his 3-CD opus, Sadly, The Future Is No Longer What It Was appeared, Leyland Kirby contributes “Polaroid,” an hypnotic stream of echoing string plucks and muffled synthesizer tones.

In other cases, however, there are surprising departures from their associated styles. Piano rather than guitar appears as the primary instrument in Irisarri's pretty reverie “Moments Descend On My Windowpane,” to cite one example. It's also gratifying to see Manual (Jonas Munk) included in the group, given the tendency for compilations to favour new artists over the more-established, and to report that his graceful, neo-symphonic ambient setting “Three Parts” is as strong as any of the other tracks.

It's sometimes thought that artists treat compilations as dumping grounds for leftover material or throwaway tracks, but that certainly doesn't sound like it's the case here as some of the material is fine indeed. In “11 Generations Of My Fathers,” Christina Vantzou gives us a stately meditation whose synth swells are sweetened with subtle string layers, and “Elegia,” from Polish electroacoustic artist Jacaszek, proves to be just as arresting when a solo voice and violin rise plaintively above a mass of hushed voices. Peter Broderick's “Pause” takes us home with a lovely electroacoustic setting that finds acoustic guitar picking and strums resounding against a flickering web of electronics. There's some hint that SMM: Context is the first in what purportedly will be an annual compilation series of like-spirited music, a move that can't help but invite comparisons to Kompakt and its yearly Pop Ambient installments. All that means, however, for fans of the genres covered is that there'll be double the classical-ambient pleasure, so to speak.

March 2011