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Tuesday, February 2, 2021

Andrew Smiley - Looming As Light Torn (self-released, 2020) ****


By Keith Prosk

Guitarist and vocalist Andrew Smiley explores extended songform on the emotional noise of Looming As Light Torn. When we put together our favorite recordings of the ‘10s, I placed Smiley’s first solo recording, Dispersal, in my personal top three of the decade; while that list could look different on any given day, if my appreciation of Dispersal has changed since then it has only expanded. Looming As Light Torn, Smiley’s second solo recording, developed over four years, continues the musical language of the first, adding lyrical content and more dynamic arrangement.

The first two tracks, “Part I” and “Part II,” are a half-hour journey not dissimilar to Dispersal. Smiley’s expressionistic guitar strokes create a detuned jumble with collateral jangle that surficially sounds amateur and lo-fi, generating a sense of intimacy through alarming vulnerability in a way that Beat Happening or The Shaggs can when they feel most earnest. But there’s a prodigious consciousness for texture, melody and counterpoint in the mess. Percussive chimes, scratchy scrapes, chugging riffage, and a variety of other attacks with the pick and fingers extend the palette of the guitar while maintaining the rhythmic momentum that some extended techniques cannot. Smiley’s polyphonic colorfield sometimes sounds like firework peonies look, with addictively catchy melodies flanked with bursts of bass oms and piercing harmonics, attended by bright tremolos like daytime black metal or twinkling tender legato flurries. The voice also provides textural and structural counterpoint to the guitar, and reinforces the tone of fragility by singing out of tune, out of range, for durations it’s not trained for. The lyrical delivery recalls the weary falsetto of Mark Hollis, not exactly intelligible, not understood but certainly felt. Whereas the progression of Dispersal was relatively linear, Looming As Light Torn is a walk across a more natural topography, with dynamic peaks and valleys of high and low volume, density, and rhythmic motifs.

The third track is a cover of “But I Do” from Now, Now, a group whose vulnerability might get them labeled as emo. Smiley plays it relatively straight, keeping the Joy Division-esque melodies that transition to chords with high-pitched highlights to resonate with the emotional material of the lyrics, which are delivered with a simultaneous jaded detachment and naivety recalling The Vaselines. A relatively simple song capping an extended experimental suite might baffle some listeners, but I think this is a kind of distillation of the longer track, illuminating some of its musical roots, containing most of the building blocks it expanded and rearranged, with similar emotivity.

Between his two solo releases, Smiley has created a distinctive language for the guitar and voice that’s warm and cathartic. Seemingly amateurish but secretly virtuosic. Full of color with increasingly satisfying compositional expressivity. To briefly return to lists, this didn’t make my personal list for the blog’s favorite recordings of 2020, but I considered it, and I suspect I’ll spend some time with this special work in the years to come.

Looming As Light Torn is a digital-only release.