Release Date: Apr 1, 2016
Record label: Western Vinyl Records
Genre(s): Electronic, Ambient, Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock, Indie Electronic
Though known for otherworldly bleeps and bloops, the revered Buchla synthesizer has its roots in '60s hippie Americana. Don Buchla formed the company in 1963, nestled in a Berkeley, CA, community focused on mind expansion. Instruments like his colorful Music Easel were the invention of "acid eaters" with roots in "new age lifestyles and the reinvention of art and music," to quote Andy Votel's Finders Keepers label.
Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith composes her swirling, colorful electronic songs on Buchla synthesizers, particularly the portable, user-friendly Music Easel. Her warm, vibrant music inevitably recalls the work of Buchla masters such as Suzanne Ciani and Laurie Spiegel, but it's playful and exuberant enough to land her opening gigs for Dan Deacon and Animal Collective. It's bubbly and tranquil enough to elicit comparisons to 21st century underground synthesizer artists such as Panabrite or Dolphins into the Future, but Smith's music is still a bit too hyperactive to really label ambient or new age, even though it generally doesn't include drums.
In 1980, the trumpeter Jon Hassell partnered with Brian Eno on an album called Fourth World Vol. 1: Possible Musics. The record’s title gives away its m.o.; they were trying to imagine a music that was native to a place that didn’t exist. Hassell had a background in jazz, Indian music, and classical minimalism; Eno had a background in art rock and ambient music and using the recording studio as instrument.
A core theme threading Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith’s slowly mushrooming discography is the glory of genesis, of becoming, of flustered incoherence straining towards coherence: Scraps of matter, raw and refined alike, hurtle sideways through space in accordance with an elusive choreography. In retrospect, each release the inventive Bay Area composer has committed to tape — a smattering of Bandcamp-only offerings like 2012’s Useful Trees and 2014’s Tides, and then last year’s excellent, aqueous Euclid — feels like a stepping stone culminating in her latest, Ears. In timbre and voice alike, the new LP is startlingly, richly fulsome, commingling the mysticism of Smithsonian Folkways LPs, IDM’s furrowed futurism, and the free-fall questing of Laurie Spiegel’s 1980 landmark, The Expanding Universe.
Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith’s debut Euclid was one of the prettiest albums of 2015—a fantasia playground of wispy, synthesized sunbeams. It started bubbly and excited, and then settled us down for a calm, soothing nap. The latter mostly happened on 12 tracks named “Labyrinth”, each differentiated by a Roman numeral (“Labryinth I”, “Labryinth II”, “Labyrinth III”, etc.).
There’s a moment about 10 minutes into “EARS,” the latest album from Berklee-trained West Coast synthesist and composer Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith, when all the lines become a blur: The line between organic and electronic, solo and group performance, corporeal and ethereal, all are washed out by waves of lush, resonant wind tones. It is a subtle moment, one that redirects the harmonic narrative of the song “Envelop” into a surprising new trajectory. “EARS” is full of such moments, humanizing the oscillations of her modular synthesizer.