SMAIBLUE – Volume – Album Review
You can be an acquired taste and a comforting sound at the same time – SMAIBLUE has been continual proof of that as I’ve listened throughout the past couple years or so. While I’ll attempt here in words once again to describe the experience of listening to one of this guy’s records, I could have told you long before ever pushing play that nothing I can say will ever quite do what he does enough justice; SMAIBLUE creates genuinely sensory sound that transcends long beyond anything words could ever say. That doesn’t mean it is all perfect folks…though it might be perfect to me in many ways…it’s perfectly imperfect if it’s not just perfect, how about that instead? SMAIBLUE would be the last person on earth that would likely want you to just assume this is another album out there with every corner rounded out and produced into oblivion – he’s never been in this music-thing to simply do what everyone else does.
Art & music, perspective & a point of view – that’s where SMAIBLUE excels, and continues to here on his new record Volume. Immediately presenting the fact that you’re not in for any kind of surface-level listening experience, “The Perfect Storm” sets the tone right off the bat by having us consider the racial aspects of society that are currently plaguing the world in all kinds of ways, both inside the UK where SMAIBLUE is based, but certainly just about everywhere else you seem to turn your head to look these days. Which is relevant to this particular tune I felt…at first, the line “BAME, get lost” was perplexing on a few levels…truthfully, I thought in reading the words from the official page at Bandcamp, I was like – did he just misspell BAM? Or the other favorite – is that a UK thing? Turns out, I’m just massively uniformed, which a quick Google search on just about anything outside of music is always happy to reveal. According to what I’m reading, it’s an acronym for Black, Asian, and minority ethnic – and if that doesn’t supercharge what appears to be a simple & straightforward lyrical line with loaded meaning & messages, I’m not quite sure what else could. It also sets up the song’s most powerful & potent line to follow afterwards – “We shall not budge.” Fuckin’ rights, pardon my language. Here’s what I’ll concede to ya – if you didn’t perhaps know anything about SMAIBLUE and his intentions, ambitions, and purpose here on Earth…there are a few lines like “BAME, get lost” that could be wildly interpreted in the wrong ways…it’s in knowing the story behind this guy a lil’ bit and his consistently altruistic intentions that we know beyond the shadow of a doubt that he’s on the right side of the argument, condemning hatred towards anyone & anybody out there. “We shall not budge” comes out with such unified commitment and extraordinary conviction in response…like you can almost hear SMAIBLUE summon the courage of all who have been wronged for whatever color they are or culture they belong to, and wield these words like a sword, cutting through to the heart of the matter directly, with the true precision of a surgeon.
In terms of everyone out there listening, sure there’s gonna be a looseness to some of these songs that SMAIBLUE creates that you’ll either find you can get behind, or you can’t – surprise folks, that’s how music works no matter who you’re listening to. “Soaring To The Sun” is a good example of what I’m talking about though – you’ll hear a fairly plain & somewhat ordinary opening as this tune begins, but you will certainly find it goes on to reveal a whole bunch more, while staying true to its main rhythm supplied by the guitar. Here & there you might think you hear a split-second of a hiccup in the flow, or even question something like the abrupt shift forward in time for the very end…again, either these become part of the organic design of SMAIBLUE’s music that your ears accept for their humble artistic contributions of honesty as we listen, or you’ll question whether or not things could have somehow been smoother for a moment or two. Once more, it’s in knowing SMAIBLUE’s approach to life & music – much of which we learned about in our interview with him from last year – that we know preserving the organic beauty of a vibe, melody, moment…I mean, this is essential to the overall formula, every time. I suspect there’s a dissonant note or two in the mix here at points, but nothing so much to throw us off of listening – and combined with the strengths put forth in the vocals & effects SMAIBLUE’s used here, the moment the vocals enter into the mix, that’s where the focus of your ears will immediately shift to as well. In that hazy Radiohead-esque type-fog that works wonders with its weary-spirited vibes colliding with oddly inspired poetry & anti-typical vocals…”Soaring To The Sun” is still a quality experience, 100%.
There are a couple of all-instrumental tracks that show how incredibly well SMAI is capable of communicating emotion through music – and when the piano melody of “Beside You (Jakarta Cementary)” started up…I found myself speechless, truly. It brought me right back to the first time I heard the piano instrumentals on Drukqs by some dude named Aphex Twin so long ago…and how life-defining and special that moment became to my entire life. I not only sport an Aphex Twin logo proudly on my forearm because of that difference he’d make; but anyone out there that knows my own full story knows that were it not for that specific music I just cited, I wouldn’t even be here today. Because of what I’d heard, I raced home from the US back to Canada, got in touch with the editor at a place called Kludge Magazine who had interviewed Aphex Twin (one of the few at the time) and asked him as plain as day – “how in the hell can I do what you do?” He’d go on to show me the ropes, and the rest is history…that’s the abridged version for ya, cause this ain’t my story today…I’m here to talk SMAIBLUE. I love the curiousness in the way this song begins and was instantly enticed by that to begin with, but the moment the piano kicked-in after the first minute or so, it was like the freakin’ ground shifted underneath me…the immediate weight of the emotion in this song comes through as radiantly as you could ever possibly hope to hear, sparkling between the light & dark and your lefts & rights as it plays. I have a lot of new favorites from SMAIBLUE that are coming direct from this very record – and without question, “Beside You (Jakarta Cementary)” is absolutely one of them…I think this is a phenomenal song.
One would guess…reasonably I think…that we could assume “John’s Tribute” is probably about John Lennon? If not…good lord SMAI, I feel for ya, cause I think a ton of us music-heads out there are gonna try to interpret this that way. For the record folks, this is just my theory…I have no definitive proof, but my ears have enough to go on for me to suspect this is a fairly safe bet to make. First of all, listen to the design itself…and then think of the vast majority of what you’ll hear from SMAIBLUE and recognize that this track is actually quite different from the rest in the sense that…well…by gosh…it’s almost normal! I’m kidding around here, but the point is true – SMAI’s used a more direct & straightforward melody here and a simple stripped-down guitar to great effect and reinforce the parallel between those sweet & easy to listen to, yet always evocative & usually fairly thought-provoking tunes created by both the Beatles, and Lennon on his own solo. By keeping this song uncomplicated in that regard, he’s bringing you right back to the roots of it all…a man & a guitar…some heart & a song…and here we are. Lo & behold, it’s all we ever really needed – “John’s Tribute” is a stunning reminder of how things can be so comforting if we just allow ourselves a moment or two to appreciate the beauty of simplicity. Lyrically, you’ll find many things that could convincingly make the case to support this being about Lennon as well, and in particular, how his influence continues to echo on throughout the years – this song is proof.
The way SMAIBLUE layers the vocals on “Pavilion” is really effective, and the piano/subtle-beat combo does a great job of establishing a melancholic atmosphere for this dude’s weary vocals to come through with the right energy, sparking up just enough when required, dialing it back when needed just the same. A more interpretive cut…we’re left with a few less clues to get to the heart of what this one’s all about, but you can definitely feel the weight of the mood & emotion that hangs heavy over this song. “Pavilion” explores SMAIBLUE’s poetic side without laying all the cards on the table about what this could mean…I went down a huge rabbit-hole here and started exploring different pavilions all over the world in trying to figure this out…which led me to one particular one in Brighton of the UK, which also happened to be…ba-ba-da-daaaaaaa, wait for it – created by an architect named John. So then I had to go back and listen to “John’s Tribute” all over again to see if that’s what these two songs are about or if they were connected somehow, and the verdict officially IS…I have waaaaaay too much time on my hands. I couldn’t actually tell ya if there’s a connection between these two songs after all that time & effort poking through internet pages…I mean, there are cohesive tie-ins that make it relevant to Volume overall, that’s no problem to recognize…I’m just sayin’ I never really did figure out where this “Pavilion” might be or how it became the centerpiece of this particular tune. It’s helpful to remember that not every minute detail stacks up to something…sometimes things just are what they are – maybe “Pavilion” is just a great word to have as a title, maybe it’s the key piece of info in unlocking what the rest of the song is all about. Life is full of great mysteries, ain’t it folks? No matter how hard we try or how much we Google…some mysteries remain that way…and in many cases, like I’ll make later on down the road in discussing “Pencerahan Pertama,” sometimes it’s even more enjoyable just to not know everything.
“Bashir’s Song” is where us critics need to reign ourselves in a bit, lest we expose ourselves to be needlessly wordy and/or how we can ramble on & on & on & on…this is a pretty straightforward moment that requires little to no commentary really. Personally, I really like it; “Bashir’s Song” is just SMAI and a guitar again, instrumental, chillin’ & playin’ – it sounds like it’s probably a classical-guitar if that detail makes a difference to ya out there…excellent tone & thick melody in these strings he’s playin.’ At a minute & thirty-eight, there’s no doubt it plays somewhat as an interlude within this lineup…a short reprieve for you to collect your thoughts on what you’ve heard so far, and get set for the finale to come.
I think it’s also completely natural to not always feel like you need every single detail from behind the scenes to enjoy any given song out there & I’m no different in that respect than any of you out there. Of course I have times where I just listen without all the Googling in the background – I mean, ultimately, that’s the ONLY way to really listen to a record like Volume…to sit & give it the whole of your attention. That’s when you leave your own world and step into what SMAIBLUE does for real…where songs like “Pencerahan Pertama” completely come alive with detail, and sparks the imagery in your mind. SMAI’s gonna go on a really solid roll from this point forward to the end of the record in an extremely strong second-half to Volume in this ten-song set. “Pencerahan Pertama” is like a philosophy course & spirituality session combined…and as poignantly as ever, SMAIBLUE also makes several relevant points in relation to the barriers of language, and what communication we share is also universal. Through a well-crafted tale of a man that has lost his only son and conversations musing around themes of what makes people pray & find faith in whatever form they do – you’ll find SMAI has done a literally incredible job of creating a narrative to this song based on what’s clearly real-life experience. He’s even put himself right into this story if you’re listening closely…and to me, that felt like a brilliantly personal spin to twist this tale into an experience that is that much more real for us all to share, like we were there in the room witnessing this story being told. It’s an outstandingly well-detailed tale and a story well-worth being told – and in particular, how it wraps up by the end makes the entire journey worthwhile; not even story has to have a moral – but this one does, and you can’t help by admire its beautiful & heartfelt sentiment. Through this tale of loss, we learn there is still much to be grateful for.
Oh. My. SMAI! You’re a genius mate. So much of “Simple Days” documents, in stunningly poetic & resoundingly insightful words…more or less exactly what I personally believe, and I’d imagine a couple of you out there listening as well. “Simple Days” is all about the FACT that you’re in charge of deciding what kind of life you want to live when it comes to your passions, hopes, dreams, and attitude. SMAIBLUE will repeatedly crush this song with all kinds of perspective and raw honesty that should straight up STING some of you in realizing this dude may actually be singing about YOU. At first, I wasn’t fully sure where he’d be going with “Simple Days” – and if I had any critique it would simply be that the second verse almost detracts a bit from the overall theme of what he’s going for in this specific song, yet in the process, does also tie it in to relevant commentary he’s been making from track one forward as well – that make any sense? The rest of this song…the surrounding four verses of it, are entirely on-point and utterly brilliant – take this verse for example: “There’s artists drawing for countless days/trying to perfect a simple shape/yet you can walk in and outdraw them all/but they’ll accomplish what you won’t.” I’m not even remotely kidding when I say I’ve considered tattooing this onto myself as a reminder of what’s important. Desire. Passion. Motivation. Drive. Will. Genuine Interest. These things matter so much in terms of what creates personal success that you can be satisfied with; and the flipside of that coin is, you can have all the talent in the world and if you don’t have any of those other things I just listed, it’ll amount to all of zero. I have told people countless times that I would happily take an artist or band at 75% awesomeness and 100% desire than the other way around – because some people out there are simply born great, but if they don’t have the hustle inside them…that WANT…for whatever their art, music, hobby, vocation may be…you’ll find it just leads to an endless & winding path of failure in multiple ways. Think of “Simple Days” as the sweetest warning you’re ever gonna hear to find whatever reason you need to get your ass off of the couch and pursue your passions with full force. It’s a genuinely enchanting song when it comes to the composition and the way SMAI sings it – and in my own humble opinion, “Simple Days” would be right up there among my top favorites in his catalog.
“Fuji Gunung (侘寂)” is another song you’re certainly not going to find on every record out there, and another highlight of that inherent uniqueness in what SMAIBLUE creates that no one else likely could. And even then, supposing IF they could – would they? See the aforementioned song “Simple Days” and re-read what you just read a moment ago for the answer…that’s where the heart of what SMAIBLUE brings to his music will always outshine the rest – this man is not here to lead his life into “Simple Days” and a rocking chair on the porch. Passion and desire and beautiful intentions are gonna keep this guy going for years & years…even amidst the despair of the one & only line you’ll find repeated in this song, that humbly exquisite sound of SMAIBLUE always beams right through. “Fuji Gunung (侘寂)” has a great atmospheric quality to it, breathtaking use of vocals as an instrument, ambient sound, and the inclusion of a bold piano melody…which is fast proving to be one of my absolute favorite parts of SMAIBLUE’s music. You feel tracks like “Fuji Gunung (侘寂),” and that’s the exact intention here; in fact…I’d wager a bet that most of you out there might not even know WHAT he’s singing until you read it on his pages out there – and I 100% believe that’s the intended effect. Like I said, SMAI’s using his voice as an instrument here…and I love it when singers use this ability to their advantage – why wouldn’t they? The mouth IS an instrument – make it make some noise y’all! Be-bop or scat, or avant-garde artistically-designed melodic verses like this that flow in unique ways our ears won’t expect…it’s an under-utilized aspect of making music that SMAIBLUE explores fearlessly here on “Fuji Gunung (侘寂).” I will leave you all to learn about & discover what he’s singing on this song to yourselves…I don’t want to give everything away when you should be out there listening – but suffice it to say…if you were to take a FULL SONG and choose just a couple lines to write into the lyricism…you won’t find many more devastating than these. I wouldn’t say listening to it feels the same way…it’s a very inspired tune really – and I’d imagine you COULD argue that there’s a hopeful aspect to a few of these words & spirited sound…but I’m gonna have to side with the final part of the verse SMAI’s written and how its weight could literally crush you.
The final song on this record is another spectacular gem and essentially reveals the strength in the connection between SMAIBLUE, the emotion in the music he creates, his ability to write both poetic & thought-provoking lyricism, and uncanny ability to move US as listeners in the results. “Soothing The Most Pain Ever Felt (Heal To Return, Better)” is a subtle stunner in every conceivable way, dialing back the ingredients to a pensively played solo piano, and hardly any words at all. When they do show up, they’re in spoken word form…right in our ear, like that voice you hear in your mind right before you wake up…and hopefully, after you’ve listened to this record, that’s true on a somewhat metaphorical level…hopefully we all wake up a little bit and take a cue from SMAIBLUE to focus on what’s important. I really felt like he nailed the cohesion on this record impeccably well…he’s always done a decent job in the past of staying true to his vision & style, but he’s really put forth ten tracks here that shine a bright light on so much of what makes SMAIBLUE one of the most special projects you’ll find out there in any corner of our music-scene right now. Uniqueness simply doesn’t cover it. “Soothing The Most Pain Ever Felt (Heal To Return, Better)” could do what it promises to do…you could put this song on after the worst of your days and feel the soul-soothing relief you need, or a valid excuse to release your emotions and just let go for a moment. Quite often, you’ll find yourself dreaming along with SMAIBLUE as you listen to his music, and definitely throughout this set on Volume…you’ll find these exquisite moments like this final song that allow the instrumentation to hang in the air & allow to absorb the aura, mood, emotion, and atmosphere…and perhaps more than even SMAIBLUE realizes, it’s genuinely spellbinding.
I’d never expect it to make sense to each and every one of you out there, but man it sure connects to me – SMAIBLUE offers something different than anything else out there in the scene does, and I love it.
It should be noted that: “All artist revenue from this album will be donated to the charity Against Malaria as a fundraising effort.” – find out more about that & how to get involved through this link here: https://www.againstmalaria.com/Fundraiser.aspx?FundraiserID=8463
And HEY look at that – it’s Bandcamp Friday! Even if it’s not by the time you read this, SMAIBLUE will STILL be there! Find the music at this link to the official page: https://smaiblue.bandcamp.com
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