SMM is a murky and mysterious genre — in fact, it is not even a genre at all. Rather, it is the twilight intersection where drone and minimalist classical spill over into ambient and new age. It is music of atmosphere, of imagery, music that seeks to conjure up shadowy nooks and crannies in the mind of the listener and to soundtrack a thousand unshot dreamlike films. Suitably, even its designation is elusive: SMM is an ‘unknown acronym’, its meaning hidden as if the truth of this music has to come from some exhausting search or divine revelation. SMM: Context, the inaugural release of an intended series showcasing ‘evocative, exploratory music’ from Michigan label Ghostly International, states its intentions pretty plainly, then: to put these overlapping but often starkly contrasting sound strands in context; to show us aurally what ‘SMM’ actually stands for. In this, the record is a success, but that’s not to say the individual songs are.
Goldmund’s rather misleadingly titled “Motion” opens proceedings, with peals of simple piano echoing over a gently reverberating electronic wash, but whilst Goldmund’s (the alias of Boston native Keith Kenniff) stripped-back simplicity has often been humbly moving on solo full-lengths, “Motion” is too slight and benign to have much of an impact as a standalone track. Leyland Kirby has achieved a fair measure of success under aliases such as the Caretaker and electro-hacker V/Vm, but his contribution here, the soggy and overlong “Polaroid”, seems to these ears to be what Mark Knopfler would come up with if Local Hero had an underwater scene. It is moments like this that expose the pitfalls of this musical crossroads, demonstrating how hard it is to shoot for uplifting and poignant without falling prey to washy sentimentality. Get this balance wrong, as a few of these offerings do, and you end up with something that only lacks the mournful hooting of a couple of whales before being a suitable soundtrack to a shop selling incense and woven hammocks. If SMM: Context proves anything conclusively, it is that this murky ambient hinterland is easily at its most effective when the moods being evoked are dark, frightening, and harrowing.
Norwegian Svarte Greiner provides easily the most compelling moment here. This one-man orchestra of suspense matches a rasping bow drawn across electric guitar with looping vinyl crackle and a rumbling backdrop of vaulted shivers and chatter in a manner that recalls Arvo Pärt’s haunting classical minimalism as much as it does Ben Frost’s terrifying ambient shudders. If the evocation of the visual is the aim of these artists, then Greiner is assuredly the most successful here, even if the images that inevitably accompany “Halves” are firmly of the baroque horror variety. He is an exciting talent. Arvo Pärt proves the inspiration for another of the compilation’s highpoints, Polish electroacoustic composer Jacaczek’s “Elegia”. Chopped-up strings and piano sway beautifully over a breathy soundscape of what could be vinyl fuzz or the found sound of the tide on sand, before the whole affair builds to a dramatic Pärtean close.
There is variety on offer here, sure, but too much of the rest of SMM: Context goes in one ear and out the other. Looping, ringing efforts from the Fun Years, Manual, and Aidan Baker do little to lend the middle section of the record much bite, and the upbeat twang of Peter Broderick’s closing “Pause” feels an inconclusive sendoff. The problems SMM: Context encounters are unfortunate ones. There is no doubting the value of a compilation like this, and most of these artists are worth looking into, but perhaps by definition this music largely only works over a full album’s immersive experience, and, ironically, by taking these songs out of that context and attempting to place them in this new one, SMM: Context deprives them of much of their meaning and effectiveness. This is music of subtle fluctuations and atmosphere, music that you are meant to lose yourself in, music that expresses itself over vast sonic expanses. Flung together like this, these tracks often become nothing more than the elevator music critics would have them be. With no hooks or conceptual coherency, paying proper attention becomes almost impossible. SMM: Context does a good job of showing us what is out there (and there are some undoubtedly good things here), but by taking its chosen pieces out of their original context it ensures that as a listening experience the compilation just doesn’t work. On this evidence, SMM might stand for ‘Soporific Mood Music’.