Photo: Chantal Anderson / Courtesy of Terrorbird Media

Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith’s New LP Is Lacking in Songcraft but Rich in Texture

Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith's The Mosaic of Transformation is a slightly uneven listen. It generally transcends the tropes of its genre, but occasionally substitutes substance for style.

The Mosaic of Transformation
Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith
Ghostly International
15 May 2020

It’s tempting to label any music that’s minimal and ambient as “new age”. It’s a temptation so irresistible that the genre itself has, in many ways, become trivialized. The term is thrown around as if “new age” is just another synonym for any texture-driven synth piece like it has no specific meaning of its own. Enter Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith, a Los Angeles-based composer who makes music that, for the most part, feels authentically new age. Aside from a few forays into synthpop — such as 2017’s The Kid — Smith’s music belongs to the same sonic continuum as Suzanne Ciani and Pauline Ann Strom, artists at the vanguard of synth music in the 1970s and 1980s. It feels freshly original. Last year, she released an album called Tides: Music for Meditation and Yoga, that—despite its name—didn’t sound quite like any other yoga/meditation music.

What makes Smith’s music unique? Part of it is the equipment itself. The most integral instrument to her music is the Buchla Music Easel, a synthesizer noted for its rich, fat tone and a range of pitch and timbre not accessible to most synthesizers. Working with a Buchla, Smith can convert heavily modular sounds into seemingly natural ones, sounds that hardly feel “synthetic” at all. Additionally, vocals play a more central role in her music than in most ambient material.

Like Tides, The Mosaic of Transformation is an album that seems especially geared for tapping into higher states. The album cover says it all, as the songs themselves are based on different bodily postures and exercises. In this sense, the album seems designed for yoga or meditation. That’s not to say that it’s purely background music, however. The Mosaic of Transformation contains enough detail to warrant repeated listens, even if it isn’t as playful or spirited as Smith’s past work.

If anything, this album is probably Smith’s most instrumentally diverse. It features lots of string and brass instruments in addition to synths. Take “Remembering”, which opens with woodwinds and organ, gives way to a violin passage, and then adds a slow, dreamlike vocal harmony where Smith sings: “Be kind to one another / We’re calming together” over and over. It’s a track that encompasses everything Smith does well, instrumentally and vocally. And it’s just over five minutes.

On “The Steady Heart”, Smith achieves a similar effect. The song begins with a series of rapid-fire, laser-like synths before falling quickly back into dream territory. We get another vocal harmony—this time barely intelligible—where Smith’s vocals are layered over each other, overlapping, each vocal cut starting and ending at different times. That creates a hypnotic effect, especially as the drums kick in. The vocals feel deliberately slow, unable to keep up with the beat, which gives the song a loose, free-floating quality. It’s almost as if it’s supposed to hover unevenly between the beat and the vocals. On moments like these, the LP strikes gold. The Mosaic’s greatest strength is its welding of classic new-age vibes with off-kilter, psychedelic flourishes.

Many of the songs here, however, lack the flair and quirkiness of Smith’s previous work. Fans of EARS and The Kid may be disappointed to find Smith cutting back on melody and rhythm so hard. There’s nothing approaching the ear-wormy perfection of “An Intention” here, nor the beautifully off-beat drums of “A Kid”. The Mosaic generally eschews rhythm for ambience, but at what cost? Is the ambience here enough to make up for the sacrifice? Some tracks seem like they simply lack direction. “The Spine Is Quiet in the Center” features some beautiful watery effects and cut-up vocal samples, but the song feels formless at times. It’s an interesting foray into sound design, but not a great song.

Elsewhere, some tracks end before they really go anywhere. There are four tracks under a minute and a half here, and they don’t do much for the LP. “Deepening the Flow Of” is a pretty little violin piece, but it’s only 27 seconds long. “Understanding Body Messages” has a unique liquid piano pulse, but there’s virtually nothing going on around it, and it ends at the 1:24 mark. These interludes aren’t bad; they just feel half-baked. They feel like interludes for the sake of interludes, sandwiched between longer tracks that accomplish more.

The album ends on a fairly high note, however, with “Expanding Electricity”. The song opens with a droning organ and soft chimes, setting the tone for another gorgeous vocal harmony, mostly wordless, amidst swirly pads and airy synths. Around the six-minute mark, the track takes on a more defined melody. Then it lapses into the same harmony from earlier, bringing the whole thing full-circle. It’s a synth epic, ten minutes long and with hardly a wasted note.

All in all, The Mosaic of Transformation is a slightly uneven record. It generally transcends the tropes of its genre, but occasionally substitutes substance for style. The songcraft is not up to par with Smith’s past work, but the album offers plenty of rich textures and unique sonic flourishes. Smith has set the bar high for herself, and even though she doesn’t reach it here, she’s still a league above most of her counterparts.

RATING 6 / 10