Record Review: Ghostly International’s SMM: Context

SMM: ContextV/A: SMM: Context (Ghostly International, 3/1/11)

Christina Vantzou: “11 Generations of My Fathers”

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In most cases, if the typical, well-respected independent label were to take a risk in compiling an ambient-heavy compilation with artists who were mostly unknown outside their respective hyper-insulated circles, most fans of that label would probably skip the compilation without much thought.

But then there is Ghostly International, a Ann Arbor, Michigan-based label with an eclectic roster comprising Matthew Dear, Loscil, Shigeto, and Dabrye, among others. For its new compilation record, Ghostly chose to dust off SMM, an offshoot of the label created back in 1994, to present a refined aesthetic within a particular — to borrow from the compilation’s title — Context.

SMM: Context serves as the first chapter in what will be an annual compilation release for Ghostly. And though the Ghostly offshoot has been around for a decade and a half, no one over at Ghostly, or its other offshoot, the dance-oriented Spectral Sound, seems to know what SMM stands for. Its website simply states that the label is not an abbreviation for anything in particular, and that SMM focuses on “gentle, texture-focused instrumental music.”

SMM: Context certainly lives up to that description with its cinematic, ambient instrumentalism and minimalist aesthetic. But the album also comprises an impressive breadth of diversity. Neoclassical compositions rest nicely next to drone and noise, and New Age-inspired synth styles blend elegantly with the ambient electronics of lo-fi bedroom-based production.

The album’s highlights include The Fun Years’ “Cornelia Amygdaloid,” which serves as its roughest-sounding track. “Cornelia Amygdaloid” then descends into Manual’s graceful, Stars of the Lid-sounding “Three Parts,” which represents the guiding ethos of Context with its prolonged pacing and urgent transformations. Over the course of nearly seven minutes, “Three Parts” rises to a subtle crescendo built on a wave-like rhythm, before it abruptly gives way to Aidan Baker’s anxious drone piece, “Substantiated.”

The compilation concludes with a trio of gracefully sequenced tracks, first with “Moments Descend on My Windowpane” by Rafael Anton Irisarri (a.k.a. The Sight Below, the compilation’s lone Ghostly artist), then with “Runge’s Last Stand” by modern classical and drone composer Kyle Bobby Dunne. The compilation comes to a close with Peter Broderick’s “Pause,” a song that would serve well as the sonic backdrop to any thoughtful, emotionally driven film, especially those of Wendy and Lucy director Kelly Reichardt.

SMM: Context is clearly a labor of love, not because it is limited to 800 copies of double-LP, 180-gram vinyl, but because it makes no compromises. There were a number of different directions that the label could have taken this release, and it clearly went with the artistic route. Instead of trying to capitalize on its name or its roster, Ghostly, via SMM, shows that a label can serve not just as a distributor or curator, but as a creative voice in itself.

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