Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith: EARS
As one listens to EARS, it begins to make sense that Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith would cite Hayao Miyazaki's 1984 film Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind as an inspiration for her follow-up to 2015's solo debut album Euclid. After all, the vibrant, fantastical world depicted in the film could easily be regarded as a visual correlate to the multi-hued soundworlds conjured by Smith on the two albums. Further to that, a connection can be drawn between the natural splendours routinely shown in Miyazaki's films and Smith's own formative years, which were spent on Orcas Island in the northwest region of Washington state, a locale she refers to as “one of the most magical and peaceful places I have ever been.” The new release's cover image alone testifies to the colourful dazzle of the prototypical Smith production.
While there are pronounced differences between the albums (a heavier use of vocals and woodwinds on the new one), one thing is common to both: the Buchla Music Easel, the analog synthesizer she uses as a composing tool. To create EARS, she first composed material on the Buchla, then wrote woodwind arrangements, added vocals, and applied refinements using granular synthesis techniques. Much like the material on Euclid, the sonically sumptuous and melodically rich pieces on EARS exude a playful and explorative character. In addition to voice and the Buchla Music Easel, Smith plays the EMS Synthi, ARP 2600, Oscar, Korg Mono/Poly, Electrocomp 101, and Moog Werkstatt on the recording, whereas flute, clarinet and bass clarinet, and alto and tenor saxes are credited to Rob Frye.
“First Flight” percolates into view like some lost Tangerine Dream recording before branching out into other territory, the biggest departure arriving when her bright vocals interrupt the music's energized momentum with an arresting multi-voiced chant. Elsewhere, tracks such as “Wetlands” and “Arthropoda” evoke the humid swelter of dense, verdant forests teeming with birds, insects, and other life forms.
Acting as an acoustic counterpoint to Smith's synthesizer textures, Frye's woodwinds add an invaluable dimension to the recording. The interplay between his fluttering flutes and saxes and Smith's vocals in “Envelop,” for instance, is thoroughly entrancing, and the phantasmagoric swirls of synthesizers, vocals, and woodwinds that sparkle elsewhere provide a constant source of enchantment. Traces of classical minimalism can be heard in the saxophone and flute patterns cycling through “Rare Things Grow” and “Existence in the Unfurling” (and in the latter gamelan also), but EARS largely sidesteps label pigeonholing. One comes away from the recording thinking more of Smith's highly personalized vision than any genre one might fruitlessly attempt to slot her into.