The New Face of Smiling


s this Bevan Smith, Carpark's answer to Boards of Canada, or is this Sigur Ros? When I heard the first track on Signer's The New Face of Smiling, I wasn't quite sure. Instead of the typical melancholy electronic soundscapes familiar to those who have heard Smith's work on earlier Signer albums or as Aspen (among other pseudonyms), we get guitar drones, murmuring vocals, and post-rock abstractions. I must admit that I was pleasantly surprised. I was even more surprised when I heard the next few songs, which weren't in any way Sigur Ros-like. One, "I Was Dressed as the Ant, You Dressed Up as a Beehive," is some weird hybrid of straight-ahead techno (circa 1989, perhaps) and later Talk Talk (the long, swirling, elliptical song structures), with some more modern digital breaks and clips added to link the styles together. Another, "Machines at Low Tide," is like some throwaway Neutral Milk Hotel track, only with drum and bass rhythms and a Guns & Roses guitar solo.

So eclectic. I guess that's the word here, right? Of course, eclectic doesn't always work. Throw in too many styles, too many ideas, and too many experiments, and an album will often implode in its own excesses. That's not the case with this one, however.

I think that's because, through all the experiments and stylistic mood shifts, there's a consistent musical structure that connects the tracks together. This structure, by connection, lends the individual songs a consistent tone. The album's tone reminds me of that feeling I have just before I am about to embark on a long voyage to a new and unfamiliar place. Everything seems planned out and arranged, but I know that's impossible, that there will be bumps and problems and disasters up ahead. I know this, and I accept it, even though I can't do anything about it, since those mishaps are part of the reality of taking journeys to new places. So, before I leave, I know things will go wrong, and I will be miserable at times, but I also know that there's a certain thrill waiting for me as I explore new places and meet new people, and those miseries are just part of the cost of those thrilling adventures.

As I listen to Signer's album, I grasp all of these emotions and more. The music, for all its eclecticism, is pulled together by a shared sense of tension and release. Each song is filled, at one point, with a drowning torrent of repetitive sounds created either through noise, guitar, or voice. Sometimes these repetitions are peaceful and sometimes they are harsh. Either way, the repetitive nature of these sounds stretches time to its breaking point, as if they were unwilling to let the moment go away. And, in each song, there is a release point, when these songs do break free, and out of the long drones emerge harsh, muddy beats, soft, lilting melodies, and ear splitting solos.

This is perhaps best exemplified in the album's final track, "Your Ears Across the Fences," where a very plaintive acoustic guitar melody, some snappy drums, and smattering of digital distortion, delay, and drums meld together in a variety of ways, all over the singer's repeated exclamation of "It's not there." This mixture builds and builds and builds throughout the course of the track, until finally a gigantic wail of a guitar comes howling across the musical landscape and tears the other sounds into shreds.

I've always enjoyed Smith's music, ever since his first Aspen album, but it has always seemed as though this New Zealander's work was just one step behind the current trends in electronic music. His first few albums were filled with Boards of Canada-styled melodies and abstractions, but Boards of Canada's stuff came out first. Subsequent work was interesting but, like the first, not fully original. This work is original, in that it is rock music created from the perspective of an electronic artist (it's usually the other way around). But the work's originality is really the most boring part here. More importantly, the music itself is compelling, rich, and rewarding. It rocks. It's Smith's best work, hands down.

Reviewed by: Michael Heumann

Reviewed on: 2005-01-26

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