Various Artists: SMM: Context (Ghostly International)
Ghostly International is a label that continually surprises me. They seem to vacillate between releasing really unique, forward-thinking music and then more trend-hopping, current followers, along with some duds in my opinion. This is all completely subjective, of course, and mostly intended as a back-handed compliment for the sort of time when Ghostly gets its finger keenly on the pulse of a leftfield phenomenon like the deceivingly complex ambient music found here. SMM: Context showcases many of the strongest artists working with ambient, dark, beatless soundtracks, tapping into many of the sounds coming out of the Type and Miasmah labels in Europe/UK. Not all artists herein are European, though — Rafael Anton Irisarri (also known as The Sight Below) has released music on Ghostly as well as other labels like Room40, and Goldmund is a Portland native whose delicate piano recordings always hit the right spot. The sort of pastoral beauty found in Goldmund’s “Motion,” which opens the compilation, is a recurring quality throughout the release, be it in the delicate plucked melodies of Leyland Kirby’s “Polaroid,” the gliding pads of Christine Vantzou’s “11 Generations Of My Fathers,” the post-Slowdive stargazing of Manual’s “Three Parts,” or the beautifully introspective acoustic narrative of Peter Broderick’s “Pause,” which closes the release. But it’s not all pretty — Svarte Greiner lends his signature nightmarish sound with “Halves,” all tense cello textures and atmosphere, and Aidan Baker’s “Substantiated” is another shivering cloud of drones. The only piece that feels somewhat out of place to me is The Fun Years’ “Cornelia Amygdaloid” which is quite interesting in its own right, but its combination of turntable playback / technique and free-folk betrays the cohesion of the other tracks to me. It’s satisfying to hear Ghostly unapologetically exploring the outer limits more, as they haven’t done much of this to my knowledge recently since the release of Twine’s last full-length. It’s a handsome counterpoint to the more trendy pop sounds the label’s been pushing, pointing to the fact that there is, perhaps more than ever before, more than meets the ears when it comes to the label’s musical point of view.