The Stargazer’s Assistant – Mirrors & Tides, Shivers & Voids (dark ambient)

Utech Records URLP079, 2×10” & DD album

$23 2×10” $7 DD

079.inddThere’s no easy categorisation for this music, no recognisable stylistic tag that readily contains it, but it evinces a coherent, clearly-stated set of aesthetic and creative values, an imagistic approach to the making of musical statements, that produces much the same clarity and precision of expression that can be found by working inside an established style. It’s obvious from the start that there is a rigorous method and a fully formed creative language informing the sounds, and part of the music’s fascination is the partial unveiling of that broad artistic vision, leaving the listener at the end of this album (or these two EPs) with the distinct impression that it has only scratched the surface; it is apparent that David J. Smith has a great deal to say. The Stargazer’s Assistant is a rubric under which he has said relatively little – or rather, under which he has made relatively few statements, as this recording is nothing if not dense with meaning; if you go looking for his pubic creative persona (in music at any rate, as he is also a sculptor), you will find it principally as the percussionist, and now sole remaining original member of the avant-rock ensemble Guapo. This music is rather different, certainly inasmuch as it doesn’t draw on the stylistic lexicon of rock music in any but the most tangential manner, but there are undeniable affinities as well. Its affective compass straddles darkness, mystery and beauty in much the same way, and it balances the cerebral against the visceral in a similar manner to the best of Guapo’s releases, its ideas both thoughtfully conceived and passionately expressed.

There are quite a variety of textural approaches in play across these two discs, but the effect is not one of disjuncture or even eclecticism; long sustained drones sound very much of a piece with percussive grooves, quite clearly facets of the same musical practice. The release as a whole consists of two vinyl EPs, Shivers & Voids, which was released in 2008, and the newly recorded Mirrors & Tides; it’s very much a single creative work however. There is a symmetry to the discs, each featuring its title tune as a relatively short work between two longer pieces, in each case a relatively complex exposition followed by a spare and simple piano epilogue. The compositions eschew the traditional sort of formal structure, being episodic rather than strophic or developmental, and all are founded around the gradual organic growth of relatively simple ideas and motifs. There is complexity in spades, but it comes in the form of textural modulation and timbral lamination, rather than in the discursive melodic-harmonic exposition that is still the normative practice of ‘serious’ music. These compositions are built in the manner of ambient or drone music, although they are too rich with detail and incident to fall into such categories, and invite a more active mode of listening. The most frequently encountered sounds are piano, a stringed instrument (or instruments) with double courses and a taut sound, like a bouzouki or saz, the singing of Mika Rättö on the more recent disc and an uncredited vocalist(s) on the earlier, and percussion. On Mirrors & Tides Smith makes use of the metal percussion collection of the late Finnish drummer Edward Vesala, but there are also metallic sounds on the earlier recording, whose opening ‘Night Soil’ begins with the sound of a gong. There are also synthesised sounds, and to be honest, a fair few whose sources I can’t identify; I like to work with whatever information is volunteered, so I haven’t asked for clarification on this, or on the working methods that produced the recordings, and I don’t intend to speculate.

There is silence at the core of this music; the silence from which it arises, and into which it subsides, but also the silence that frames it as it progresses. Each element is placed with care, and even at the music’s loudest, most active moments, there is always the sense that it is situated in one tiny corner of infinity; textures build with enormous serenity and a total lack of creative anxiety. Mirrors & Tides, Shivers & Voids is not so much a statement, as a slow, deliberate unfolding. There are elements of consonant tonality, and of concrete non-tonal sound; there are rhythmic cyclicities and open ended sequences; long drones and short attacks. The common theme is the gradual accumulation of elements, the long slow dynamic build, and a somewhat unsettling, melancholy affective landscape. Sometimes the feeling is explicitly ominous, as in ‘The Dream Kingdom’, which also, it should be said, contains some of the most consonant, affirmational harmonies on the release; most of the time the music is more ambiguous. There are moments when the soundscape is openly representational, as in the woodland scene elaborated in ‘Night Soil’, or the jets and explosions of ‘Secret Kingdom Of The Swift’, but for the most part it is more painting than drawing, more colour than shape.

Mirrors & Tides, Shivers & Voids is also sometimes simply, generously beautiful, with no hint of cold or dysphoria, as in the closing vocal episode of ‘Coral Butterfly’. This sensual aesthetic is a constant throughout the music, however, even when the affective surface is less inviting; the compositions are sometimes dark, threatening, disorientating or disturbing, but their subject, it seems to me, is the beauty of darkness, of fear, of being unsettled. To place a positive aesthetic valuation on the more forbidding shades of human experience, unless it is done with the celebratory glee of the slasher flick, is an extremely ambitious creative project; to do so in a way that embraces the complexity and contingency of life, and that effectively communicates its author’s take on the world, requires care, rigour, and most importantly some genuine degree of insight. David J. Smith has truths to tell us, and he’s gone to considerable lengths to share them with clarity. While his work as The Stargazer’s Assistant may steer clear of the discursive and technical intricacies that are usually valorized as the tokens of compositional and musicianly prowess, his work here, both in its conception and execution, is supremely accomplished. This is music of rare emotional power, of penetrating beauty, with the capacity to extend and enhance its listeners’ understanding; it is, in other words, the real deal. Hear it.


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