Electro-recluse Alex Smoke re-emerges with a long gestating new album that adds up to an engaging, if unsettling, minor masterpiece.
The 2013 arrest of Ross William Ulbricht, a.k.a. “Dread Pirate Roberts”, alerted a large cross section of the populace to a seemingly sinister phenomenon that had been right under their noses for years: the dark web. Ulbricht’s Silk Road online marketplace utilized hidden Tor networks to peddle drugs and other illegal contraband to well-heeled bidders, a familiar service on the underground internet, but the dark web also has it’s legitimate uses as well: bitcoin exchange, corporate whistleblowing… basically anything that requires a high degree of security in the service of anonymity.
The world of electronic music has a similarly ephemeral underbelly at play beneath most folks’ notice, although the anonymity in its case is more of an unintentional plight than a deliberate stab at avoiding observation. Alex Smoke inhabits this world at its most mildly subterranean, often skirting close to the hazy, “closet dance” sounds proffered by blog gods like James Blake and Burial but never fully surfacing. Smoke’s wispy electronic melancholia, well produced and fairly accessible as it is, flies beneath the radar not out of design but more due to Smoke’s dedication to minimalism, which often reads as protracted tease in a field where engagement and arousal are usually synonymous.
Love Over Will is Smoke’s first full length album since 2010’s Lux, and if anything it finds the man more alienated and socially detached than ever. Early efforts at least tended toward unrequited flirtations with club music, even if they sublimated the beat rather than peaked it, but here the producer has somehow managed to become more ethereal than ever while at the same time crafting a record that, on the surface, seems built for some form of crossover success.
The key lies in the vocals: a rarity for an Alex Smoke record, though their presence throughout the electronic genre are typically a pre-requisite of crossover success. Rather than enlisting a revolving door of guest vocalists, Smoke does his own singing here, but buries it translucently in a wavering layer of semi-discernible feedback.
“Dire Need” has a bouncy insistence that could easily end up in a Kanye sample somewhere, but the disembodied vocals create an uninviting presence that keeps the listener at arm’s length. “Manacles” doubles down on this dichotomy with a sinister earthiness that matter-of-factly repeats the mantra “tell you they know / they don’t know shit”. To whatever extent the lyrics periodically attain clarity, their words serve only to further cement the alienation.
“Dust” is repurposed and condensed from a 2013 single (also on R&S), which foreshadowed Love Over Will in its brooding, waterlogged sound, defiant and catchy at the same time. In terms of contemporaries, Alex Smoke is perhaps most closely paralleled by Nicolas Jaar, the latter of whom is probably far more known for his (relatively) perky remixes of Florence and the Machine, Grizzly Bear and Shlohmo than he is for his own, intransigently dense material.
Smoke works the margins of a similar ethos, with remixes of his own for Depeche Mode and Junior boys under his belt, but thus far the acclaim has mirrored the submerged quality of his music. It's there for the finding to those who look hard enough, but never quite aspiring to Song of the Day status on your favorite indie blog.
If nothing else, Love Over Will will get a certain amount of attention for all the wrong reasons -- the sexually explicit cover photo of a bi-gendered figure writhing on a rock with genitalia exposed -- but the music itself deserves notice for its reluctantly transcendent quality. It’s not necessarily perfect, with a number of its brief 13 tracks sounding like unfinished sketches, but somehow the sum total adds up to an engaging, if unsettling, minor masterpiece.