n 1954, some Canadians believed to have seen the Devil in the Queen’s hair on a piece of their currency. In 1996, an image of the Virgin Mary appeared in the window of an office building in Clearwater, Florida. The Rorschach Test, the face on Mars, or the faces and shapes one can sometimes see in the clouds … they’re all examples of paradolia: the tendency to recognize familiar images where there are none. In conjunction with his previous album, Incommunicado, the name given to Alex Smoke’s current effort seems to make sense. At least in title, both are dealing with absence and the perception of that absence. And from there, it’s not much of a jump to begin considering things like spectrality and spatial dynamics, which makes even more sense when considering the approach taken by Smoke on his full lengths versus his more dance friendly 12”s—even more so than Incommunicado, this album seems at times to flirt with the idea of completely leaving the disco, but stays to destroy it.
Although it generally seems like a good idea to avoid reifying the opposition between full lengths and other kinds of releases, in the same sense that one might hesitate to privilege the novel over a poem, artists like Smoke make it difficult to avoid such comparisons. With shorter releases that seem ready for any DJ willing to take things in the direction of a pessimistic Superpitcher, like late last year’s Vakant 12”s “Schwingnut” and “Schminimal,” Smoke seems to be giving credibility to terms like micro-goth. However, an album like Paradolia seems to place an even greater value on mood over movement and finds a way to reappropriate, in both a less obviously playful and more melancholy approach, the often twee glitchmatics of an artist like Keiran Hebden.
“Meany” is the first single, and a smart one. A timely plip-plop buzzes and fizzles in all the right places, it eventually breaks into a jumpy melody that would translate into a series of staccato hammer-ons had it been played on a guitar, but instead this synth line flirts with a slightly overdriven bass that pulses along at a late night pace before the two inevitably converge. The most obvious pick would be “Snider.” As a track that could be considered a follow-up to Smoke’s “Titti,” it deserves the closest comparison to Hebden, albeit from the opposite end of the emotional spectrum; both chimes and moody post-rave synths top a schaffel beat. Destined to garner comparisons to “Don’t See the Point,” “Never Want to See You Again” is the closest thing to a concession on this album. However, while presenting Smoke’s distinct vocals, the piece completely avoids recreating any previous tricks. If anything, it proves that talent extends even beyond a mastery of moody dance and ethereal melancholic pieces into a realm that is as close as minimal will ever get to pop music.
While it should probably be no shock that Alex Smoke has a background in classical music, tracks on this album like “Prima Materia,” “We Like it Insipid,” and “Left Drift” make it almost obvious. From the epic strings and dub of “Prima Materia,” to half-speed polyphonic melody juggling on “We Like it Insipid,” Smoke clearly demonstrates his ability to create truly beautiful arrangements. “Left Drift,” on the other hand, trades in post-apocalyptic imagery as Smoke picks up where Throbbing Gristle and Front 242 have left off. From disorientation to hope, this track seems to be the aftermath that rebuilds itself. First slowly, and then more rapidly, it takes pieces of what is left and begins to reassemble. What is reproduced is something beautiful toward which groups like Eluvium or M83 can only aspire.
The fact that those artists can’t jump as easily as Smoke does between mood and movement, or combine the two just as effortlessly, are part of what place him above so many others. But, then again, with music, there is always the chance that we are seeing something when there is nothing, lost in sound.
Reviewed by: Cameron Octigan
Reviewed on: 2006-03-21