Compilation albums are intentionally a mixed bag, sometimes nothing more than a couple of big names strewn among introductory artists for a quick attraction to a new label. At their best, they contribute a complex and multivariant perspective on a pre-defined theme and become more than the aggregate of their individual tracks. Ghostly International, a "record label and art company" based in Ann Arbor, Michigan, has been releasing compilations in its SMM series since 2004, and its latest installment is a double LP SMM: Context. Like its near namesake AMM, SMM has no published meaning, and Ghostly uses the series for "gentle, texture-focused instrumental music." And unlike most comps, the majority of SMM: Context's contributors are established artists that should attract the notice of contemporary post-classical ambienteers.
The first side of the LP set opens with a short track from Goldmund, delicate arpeggios played on harp and piano with quiet added resonance. Leyland Kirby peeks out from his current low profile with a lovely nylon-string guitar melody run through some echo patches and accompanied by his trademark warbling ambience. Svarte Greiner closes the side with a little sense of menace on Halves, melodic fragments in a high range combined with dark string ensemble pads in the bass. His backgrounds get a little noisy, like feedback or bowed metal, or a series of quick ripples, abrasive reflections with cinematic suggestions. The only new name in the collection is Christina Vantzou, whose track 11 Generations Of My Fathers opens side B. Vantzou has worked extensively in video and toured with Adam Wiltzie for the Dead Texan, but this is her first track released under her own name, a poignant song where piano and field recordings open up distant recollections. And I've written before about Michał Jacaszek, who contributes the beautiful track Elegia that starts with a simple piano melody and slowly layers field recordings, voices, strings and effects into a startlingly full sound. The side concludes with Cornelia Amygdaloid from The Fun Years, whose loops and muted, detuned power chords are buried under an avalanche of vinyl static, the closest track to glitch in the collection.
Side C has two layered drone pieces, the first one, the tranquil Three Parts by Danish producer Manual, shifts through extended breathy tones that merge into each other. Then Aidan Baker layers his processed electric guitar, building through a two-note oscillation in Substantiated, a track that spends its last half in dissipation as the melodic fragments fade into dust. Rafael Anton Irisarri opens side D with Moments Descend On My Windowpane, a cozy acoustic piano song accompanied by gentle drones and tiny crackles. The calm continues with Kyle Bobby Dunn's peaceful harmonies on Runge's Last Stand, whose long phrases take off from the same motif but unwind through several melodic and harmonic variations, like gusts of wind across a pond. The set closes with Peter Broderick's melancholy Pause, perhaps based on a steel-string acoustic guitar performance, with overdubs on electric, and very much in keeping with the rest of the side.
SMM: Context is available directly from Ghostly, either as a limited LP, CD or download at 320 kbps. It's also on iTunes with a different track order. Finally, a DJ named felte has created a mix podcast from the album, freely available.