SMM's an acronym. I have no idea what it stands for. The mysterious term, coined by the label back in 2003 though left undefined, is the Ann Arbor heavy's broad umbrella term for experimental music that falls somewhere between modern classical, minimalism, dour turntablism and drone. Home-alone music, I guess, so I'll propose "Somber Miserablist Music." For the inaugural edition of what's to become a welcome annual series, SMM: Context, the label looked to artists outside its own impressive roster, to acts from Poland, Germany, Norway and Denmark as well as the label's home turf in North America.
Principally, Ghostly turned to mainstays from established experimental labels like Type Records, Barge and Digitalis for a set of elegiac soundtracks to winter's slow snowy drifting. If Kompakt's flagship Pop Ambient series often aims its moodsetting for first-dawns and early morning tempos, then SMM: Context is clearly fixated on the bleary edges and quick-fade pinks of the season's sunsets. A quick look at the list of contributors alone reveals exactly which end of the ambient spectrum Ghostly's focused on here: the mournful and melancholic.
Leyland Kirby's "Polaroid" opens with soft focus synth buzz before settling into the remote sounds of slowly picked guitar that unspools over almost nine minutes, while Svarte Greiner's "Halves" is smokier and more ominous, an eerie clanging bit of minimal spook-drone. Poland's Jacaszek turns in the faint, piano-looped classicism of the aptly named "Elegia," and The Fun Years make their piano loops skuzzier, fuzzier and almost immense on "Cornelia Amygdaloid," with discordant scrapes of guitar drowning out the turntable samples until the track stands somewhere between metal, drone and post-rock.
Elsewhere, Ghostly's own Rafael Anton Irisarri—the lone roster act to contribute here—shuns the Gas-sy shoegaze dub he's known for as the Sight Below for the rainy day piano-and-drone musings of "Moments Descend on My Windowpane." Goldmund's "Motion" is similarly wistful and nostalgic, just repeated piano and dim, almost unnoticeable synths. But this monochromatic sense of atmosphere comes at a cost.
As Peter Broderick closes the compilation with the lone cabin acoustic-guitar picking of "Pause," the compilation's hour-long sonic descent—this permanent wallowing—begins to seem kind of overwhelming, like realizing you've lingered too long in a cool bath and you're now cold and stiff. SMM: Context's gray-and-black palette begins to call for even the briefest dashes of color and contrast. If admittedly this is a relatively minor complaint given the talent Ghostly's assembled here for its first SMM: Context installment, it's also enough to prevent the compilation from reaching the heights we've come to expect from Sam Valenti's label. A promising start, yes, but just that: a beginning.
Buy Various Artists - SMM: Context at
Tracklist: Various Artists - SMM: Context 01. Goldmund - Motion
02. Leyland Kirby - Polaroid
03. Svarte Greiner - Halves
04. Christina Vantzou - 11 Generations Of My Fathers
05. Jacaszek - Elegia
06. The Fun Years - Cornelia Amygdaloid
07. Manual - Three Parts
08. Aidan Baker - Substantiated
09. Rafael Anton Irisarri - Moments Descend On My Windowpane
10. Kyle Bobby Dunn - Runge's Last Stand
11. Peter Broderick - Pause
Other Ghostly International reviews