While Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith isn’t a familiar name she has been playing music from a young age, at 13 she was writing rock anthems using crude sampling techniques. Three years later she was paired with a mentor who was a film composer he taught to use Pro Tools and Kurzweil samplers her first real introduction to music technology, she has said of that period “My mind was blown by just how many textures you could get and how much control you could have”. However next move was to attend the prestigious Berklee Music College to study classical guitar and piano, while there she formed folk duo Ever Isles. After graduation she moved back to her childhood home of the Isle of Orcas were a neighbour lent her a Buchla modular synthesiser for a year. Initially she just used it to process her voice and guitar continuing to compose in the same way. Once she started to use as in the sales many other features she found a way to create the orchestral music she’d always wanted to compose. “EARS” (her second album after 2015’s Euclid” and many collaborative efforts) finds Aurelia Smith combining all her many experiences and styles into a cohesive and organic whole.
The album’s opening track ‘First flight’ begins with a bubbling synth arpeggios that fade in and are quickly joined by slow-moving thin synth chords. Then a short sharp riff joins in, things continue like this with the riff dropping in and out. There a saxophone rifff and third synth melody introduces themselves out of nowhere before everything drops away to heavily vocoded vocals with a synth melody and chords following them. Shortly afterwards we return to the previous synth heavy section, again that melody comes out of nowhere and gives way to the vocals. The song then stops abruptly giving way to the thin organic sounding synth chords and reverberant electronic percussion of ‘Wetlands’. The track has a relaxed atmosphere and more space than in the opening track. When he first section dies away there’s some borderline cheesy vocoder though it’s one that works organically within the mix like Boards of Canada or Black Moth Super Rainbow. These two references don’t seem to pop up a lot when Aurelia Smith’s music is discussed cheese compared to a lot of female synthesists such as Laurie Spiegel and Susan Ciani , these comparisons are without merit they are somewhat limited to one aspect of the music and the person making it. The album also regularly reminds me of the brilliant ‘Choral’ album by Mountains near the great marriage of the synthetic and the organic.
Next up is ‘Envelop’ which begins with a slowly ascending synth melody and thin wispy synth chords open this track. A second counter melody weaves its way through the track giving it a sad feel where before it been contemplative but neutral. The track shifts into a new section of the see-sawing synth melody and a flute-like counter melody playing call and response parts in the form of short riffs that help the track gain momentum again. Smith again enters with her vocals that this time they are more natural sounding there may be some vocoder but it’s very subtle if there is. The similar ‘When I Try I’m Full’ features a slowly ascending synth chord that rises before quickly turning into a chord progression that hangs in the air. The chords drop away and a light muted synth arpeggio plays, it’s joined soon after by a more digital almost video game-like arpeggio. Smith sings some light vocal harmonies and almost nursery rhyme like melody across the top of the synths. The third track with an ascending opening ‘Rare Things Grow’ is up next, the long held synth notes ascend over the top of drip drops of electronic percussion, at first the percussion is sparse before coalescing into a loop. A saxophone solos over the top all of this before the track breaks down with the sax and Smith performing a call and response. Then the bass drum and sax player alone before a new synth arpeggio and Smith’s vocals emerge.
Closer ‘Existence in the Unfurling’ combines a bubbling synth arpeggio and bulbous pulsing synth bassline to back Smith’s vocoded vocals. Woodwind synths cut in and out of the mix. The track is relatively fast when compared to the other tracks on the album and has an urgent feel. Things breakdown around four minutes in with pulsing mesmeric pads the only thing left in the mix, now feels as if watching blazing sun go down from a car or high-speed train. Then the section changes again with what sounds like a xylophone playing a simple rhythmic riff before being overcome by bold digital synth riff and a swarming high pitched flute-like arpeggio. These elements fall away around eight minute mark and the track is led by buzzing pad, high synth arpeggio and phat digital bass riff. The flute sound returns to the mix for the final push to the end of the track.
All in all I found “EARS” to be a beguiling bucolic album that more than lives up to the many names she is frequently compared to e.g. Laurie Spiegel, Susanne Ciani (with whom Smith will be releasing a collaborative album with in the future) and Julia Holter. Much music made on modular synthesisers in contemporary music is associated with nerdy white men making music that since more interested in the process this creation than the result. There is no such problem with “EARS” which is lively and demands repeat listening, highly recommended.