Smegma was formed in Pasadena, California in the early 70s, found no fans there and moved to Portland, Oregon, though they’re still an important part of the Los Angeles Free Music Society. Geographical lessons aside, in addition they have made wonderful avant-garde free noise improv music ever since. So a new release by Smegma is always something to look forward to, and not to be drowned in mainstream categories. Mirage is no exception.
So it begins. Cabaret singing and free-jazz mixed with some weird strangeness of another world. To knock it into bits and pieces, descriptions such as: a variety of horns, feedback, spoken words, operatic song, scream, krautrock rhythms, a cacophony of industrial noises, or references to music concrète, and it is done. Looks easier in words, but sounds a lot more complicated. Smegma has always been difficult to categorize, and on Mirage it seems they don’t care or they care so much that they are proving the point within the wonderful chaos they are creating. Next up is the title track. Change of scene. They create a mix of subtle atonal melody from strings and pre-recorded small sounds and loops, thus creating a wonderful dark mood. Even a simple whistler fits the way this track is put together. I almost bumped into the trap of being philosophical about the title hitting my moods, but I pulled myself together, and you don’t have to worry about anything but the music!
Suddenly a short rockin’ rockabilly track appears, almost out of the blue, but with a blue mood vocal hidden in their strangeness. Smegma rocks this world. Also; the F-85 engine runs.
Ok, let’s just go through the rest of the tracks then. “Oh Yeh” – it’s just that – oh yeh! A wonderful mix of simple guitar with strange recordings and weird made sounds on the spot, I believe. It has a very live feel to it, almost as it is recorded during a jam on the spot (and it probably is), although the track sounds as it is very well planned ahead, since the harmonies in the sounds fit together very well. Many sounds are just hints or very subtle, but they never fall into the trap of getting to ambitious with each individual sound, almost as if Smegma has made just the right space for every little bit that is created. Whistles and flutes of various kinds are cutting through the soundscape from time to time, and the guitar or lute is always evident, while distorted recordings are used to create a loop that hints of a rhythm. Wonderful!
“That Part of Wales” – which gets me wondering… what part of Wales? as it sounds like a part of Wales I might have been to. The first impression is a classical/ freejazz /improv combo, concrete use of percussions, and/or untraditional use of traditional string instruments and horns. Then I remember. This track sets me back to Germany, not Wales. I remember a concert with the ensemble DACHDumitrescu / Avram / Cutler / Hodgkinson () that I saw at the Avantgarde Festival Schiphorst a few years ago. They had almost the same attitude towards instruments and soundscapes, although not the same song (!) (Note to myself: Must go and see Smegma live one of these days!).
A bonus track on the CD, “Quiet on the set” (1974) gives this release the extra edge (as if it needs one…), and it’s a joy of a bonus track: Sun Ra meets The Mothers meets Arne Nordheim (all in the 70s!). There is also a jam exclusive to the LP version, so better run and get that as well.
Smegma is a breath of fresh air. Manic fresh. Subtle. Complex simplicity. Not at all minimalistic. I love it!