The latest album from the New York City-based guitarist, composer and improviser is full of stark vocals and fractured, atonal guitar wizardry, resulting in a fascinating and adventurous listening experience.
I’m sure the world is almost as sick of “2020 is a shitshow” analogies in arts reviews as they are of 2020 itself, but bear with me: Andrew Smiley may have written and developed his latest solo album, Looming as Light Torn, between 2016 and 2019 and recorded it on a summer day in Brooklyn last year, but its catharsis is pure 2020. If ever there was a time for music (as well as other media) to truly let loose and throw out the rules in the name of sheer release and relief, it’s now. In that sense, Looming as Light Torn is truly a tonic for our times.
Smiley has recorded with Horse Torso, Happy Place, Bloar, Little Women, Empyrean Atlas and countless other bands, but Looming as Light Torn is only his second solo album (following Dispersal, released in 2017 on the Astral Spirits label). His new, self-released album doesn’t stray very far from the previous one – while Dispersal was simply one 27-minute track of aching vocals and fleet-fingered guitar dissonance, Looming breaks it down into two lengthy parts, with a short third track (“But I Do”) tacked on to the end.
“Part I” and “Part II” take the listener on a truly startling voyage. The minor keys, the dissonance, Smiley’s disarming quasi-crooning coupled with stark guitar figures, make for a listening experience that’s both challenging and cleansing. Smiley’s guitar playing is a revelation: slow, deliberate fingerpicking often speeds up to lightning fast – but utterly nimble – levels and manages to find the sweet spot between harmonic bliss and tactile noise. This otherworldly avant-garde playing style invites comparisons to Bill Orcutt, Gary Lucas, Jessica Ackerley and Nels Cline, and Smiley is a musician who revels in taking his playing as far out as it can go without ever sounding like mindless flailing. Every note, no matter how unhinged, seems utterly deliberate.
It should also be noted that the sound quality on Looming as Light Torn is exquisite. The mix gives the impression of having your head right up against Smiley’s amp, which is a noisy, dense, purifying place to be. There may only be vocals and guitar at work here, but the impressive compositional structure and intense performance make for a rich, multilayered finished product.
After the deeply experimental tilt of “Part I” and “Part II,” Smiley’s closing track, “But I Do,” sees him moving away from free jazz experimentalism and into a somewhat palate-cleansing slice of fractured indie rock. The song, actually a cover from Minnesota band Now, Now (from their 2012 album Threads), is much starker in Smiley’s hands than the original full-band version, but still contains a great deal more traditional song structure than we’re used to hearing from him. The bare-bones electric guitar arrangement brings to mind the sound of early Billy Bragg singles (not a bad thing at all).
“This album is intended to be listened to from start to finish with no pause,” the Bandcamp notes to Looming as Light Torn suggest. That’s fine – if you can set aside 33 minutes of your time with a good, loud set of headphones and this startlingly strong album, you’ll be all the better for it.