Steven R. Smith / Hala Strana


EJ-60 LP
released Oct 2005

Kohl twists and bends like the P.C.H., revealing flora, fauna and corpses along the way. Whereas much of his solo work (released under his name and as Hala Strana) was lushly produced with many overdubs, Kohl is unique in that it’s practically one man and his electric guitar despite the world. First released on CDR in 2002 on Jewelled Antler, this vinyl version is in a silkscreened jacket which includes a unique woodcut and a sixteen page hand-made book with illustrations / photos for each song along with stapled bags of unrefined coal and isfand seeds (the latter of which is believed to ward off the evil eye when burned).

MP3: "Tent-Pegging"


Three cheers for the good folks at Emperor Jones. Kohl is the most essential release in Steven R. Smith's impressive and lengthy discography. It's a gem of gems. Sadly, it was only released in limited fashion on CD-R on the Jewelled Antler label until now. These solo, angular guitar pieces speak volumes about Smith's talent as a guitarist and composer. Simply, Kohl is magnificent and has never sounded better.

I'd almost given up on Kohl being available on LP as this has been in the works for quite some time. However, the wait was well worth it. Every track here is magical. From the opening, slightly-distorted notes of "Kilim & Dirt" to the closing acoustic longing of "Barkane," you will be completely enveloped within the walls of Smith's mind. In this battle of light and dark, Kohl can be anything to everyone. There is so much raw power and emotion here, presented without frills and ancillary bullshit that it speaks to one's core. It is beautiful.

On the excellent "Tent Pegging," Smith is channelling Loren Mazzacane Connors and then drowning those spirits in the muddy river. This track starts out slow and methodic, like a predator watching its prey's every move. His acoustic guitar rings and screams as he picks up the pace. And now the chase is on and Smith isn't going to lose. The intensity in this song as it reaches its climax is awe-inspiring. Smith is just wailing like a banshee on his guitar. It's flies across the ground like it is weightless. Absolute magic. Absolute fucking magic.

Kohl is an awakening. These tracks all work together in perfect harmony to create a state of mind. This is Steven R. Smith's sound world. By the time the low-pitched scrawl of "Odwalla" seep into your ears, there's nothing left to say or do. This is unfamiliar territory. Even the Hala Strana-tinged Eastern European rumblings of "Eulnek" can't put you back on the straight and narrow. No, this music is almost too much too handle. Almost. Kohl is absolute masterpiece." - (Ten Stars) Brad Rose - Foxy Digitalis

Members of the Jewelled Antler Collective share a fondness for personalizing gestures. This LP, which is a reissue of a 2002 Jewelled Antler CD-R, remains true to that aesthetic. Steven R. Smith, who also plays in the improv quartet Thuja and makes ersatz Eastern European folk collages under the name Hala Strana, made a woodcut for each track and another for the album. He included all save the last in a chapbook that also includes a little bag of seeds and another of powdered coal (check the title, kids). The latter inclusion should not be considered a comment on this record’s merits as a gift; it’d be a mighty swell thing for St. Nicholas to leave under your tree, and not just for the nifty packaging.

Kohl is a benchmark entry in Smith’s burgeoning discography, distinguished by both its performance methods and the emotive qualities of its music. Most of his solo efforts are made over a long period of time and feature overdubbed layers of guitars, keyboards, and other things with strings; these nine instrumental tracks were recorded mostly live, one a night, over a couple weeks, with very little pre-composing, on acoustic and electric guitar. The lack of premeditation, one imagines, allows Smith’s an unfiltered glimpse of the soul and sentiments that have animated such stirring efforts as Fieldings and Lineaments. If so, Smith is possessed by equal measures of melancholy and grim defiance.

The opener “Kilim and Dirt” rings out with stark clarity, its choppy chords as remorseless as a forced retreat from the plague lands under black skies. The title track is composed mostly of echoing harmonics that flash like lightning against a background drone. The effect recalls Loren Connors more reflective late-'90s efforts, especially when a tape of an old fiddle tune creeps in near the end, nearly hidden in the same way that vocalist Suzanne Langille’s called out from way behind Connors’ guitar. On the flip side several acoustic tunes, including a funereal cover of the Art Ensemble of Chicago’s exit march “Odwalla,” extend the tragic, dying campfire vibe. The sense of singularity and significance of mood that Kohl evokes (in concert with its hand-crafted packaging) are things to treasure. - Bill Meyer, Dusted Magazine

Hala Strana
(self-titled debut cd)

EJ-59 CD
released Oct 2003

Hala Strana is a summation of Steven R Smith's interest in the traditional folk musics of Central and Eastern Europe. By incorporating the melodies, scales, and instrumentation of the village music from areas such as Croatia, Hungary, Romania, the Czech Republic and Poland, Steven has pushed his music into yet another new territory. This is not ethnological preservation, but a starting point. In the same manner from which The Band transformed the sounds of early Americana into their own brand of timeless music, Hala Strana has abstracted these melodies and turned them into something uniquely their own.

Like his previous solo work, Hala Strana’s richly layered sounds are carefully placed but have a spontaneous feel. Instruments like gourd guitar, clay flowerpots, glockenspiel, violin and even bottles find their way into the mix.

This self-titled debut LP follows the self-released Karst 3” EP on Jewelled Antler.

MP3: "Streets of Raised Platforms"

“Like Blixa Bargeld covering Swell Maps instrumentals, effortlessly waltzing through a cinematic version of psychedelia.” The Wire

Steven R. Smith - Lineaments

EJ 51 CD
released June 2002

These songs are shorter and more focused and contain sounds so warm and familiar, you want to reach into the cone and touch them.

MP3: "The Morning Cart"

Steven R. Smith is some guy from someplace and I'm sure if I dug up the press kit I could tell you all sorts of wonderful and interesting things about him but that is not what I am here to do and besides that I don't read press kits. He has immaculate design sense. All his records use an identical font for their titles & song titles, which lends them a marvelous uniformity. He makes instrumental records, mainly guitar stuff, maybe entirely guitars. I don't know. The liner notes are really spare and don't really tell you all that much. The cover of the new one is so damned pretty I could look at it all day. But that's neither here nor there. The thing is that Steven R. Smith has a vision, and visions are hard to come by, and his is quieter than most, and my fatigue is only going to allow me one or maybe two more paragraphs in which to tell you about it, so we had better get going.

Steven R. Smith's vision is related to the drone but it is not the drone. It is tangentially related to the song but it is not the song. (On previous records he's done covers of songs by the Smiths and Leonard Cohen, an incredibly perverse thing for an all-instrumentals performer to do, given that most of the point of the Smiths and the entire point of Leonard Cohen is the words to which the music has been set: not the tune.) Steven R Smith sets down some piano and some squeaking squealing guitar and then some chiming churning guitar and then a little sleepily jangling guitar besides, and then he throws in a couple of unintrusive percussion sounds or a violin here or there and lets his songs roll by like waves. Drone pieces repeat themselves with a view toward producing a trance or state of heightened awareness; Smith's songs invoke languor, invite Lucifer, and laissez-faire with Baudelaire. Proper songs go somewhere; Smith makes toys that dangle from the needlessly ornate furnishings of some southern Gothic mansion back among some trees older than God. Songs that just make use of drones are dilettantes; the ten songs on Lineaments, which is the title of Smith's new one, his strongest record to date, are drones in miniature, Terry Riley pieces who've taken birth in the bodies of two- or three-chord workouts more concerned with conveying than reflexively expressing. They are not eagles. They are heavy, tremendous, philosophical, permanently peripheral crows. They jump from curb to asphalt and their descent appears, if you're watching it right, like a spacecraft landing on the moon: slow, careful approach, full of purpose and weight, quietly massive, momentous and historical.

All this is awfully purple, I know; perhaps my initial resistance to instrumental music has more to do with how difficult it is to write about the stuff. I can describe the instrumentation (guitars, violins, keys) and I can talk about the overall sound (recorded on an eight-track, it is enriched by a less-than-full bottom end and a decidedly unorthodox emphasis on the high-middle), but in the end there's just this thing that doesn't explore scales, or find a theme and repeat variations, or pay tribute to the great composers that came before it. It just seethes, and rather darkly, too. Lineaments is the latest in what is proving to be a very interesting, exquisitely satisfying public journey by a guy named Steven R. Smith into the heart of his muse. I think when he gets to the center of all this he's going to find himself at the axis of some pretty knotty emotional terrain -- the track on this record called "Artesia" is as spooky as the older, quieter songs on Einsturzende Neubauten records, which generally speaking aren't a bad indication of where Smith is coming from -- and I think that's terrific. Because I can chill out to this stuff and then get up feeling like I just watched three Dario Argento movies in a row. Which I would in fact now do if it were not high time that I got myself some sleep. I will see you next week. - Last Plane to Jakarta

Steven R. Smith - Tableland

EJ 35 CD
released May 2001

Steven R Smith speaks in a language that hasn't been explored to death already. He's one of the few artists making instrumental music who isn't traveling familiar paths.

MP3: "Blood Partridges"

Steven R. Smith - The Death of Last Year's Man

released Jan 2001

Celestial versions of songs by The Smiths, Leonard Cohen, Muzsikas and Tim Hardin. This is an expanded version of a self-released 7". One of PJ Harvey's Top 10 releases of 2001.


The Death of Last Year's Man EP

Stark and cluttered. Spare and overflowing. Familiar and magnificent. Dignified and messy. The solo noise of Mirza member Steven R. Smith gleefully/morosely embraces all of the contradictory intricacies of a poignant sound that few have the spirit to muster. And to think that the broad, sweeping expanses of The Death of Last Year's Man were all captured on a four-track. This EP takes the usually groan-worthy, toadying concept of a "covers album" and turns it into a vibrant Cubist painting -- the source material is recognizable, but Smith presents it from a dizzying number of different angles. For instance, revered wordsmiths like Leonard Cohen and Morrissey are muted and hushed, and Smith fills the spaces by picking at the guts of the music seemingly in the middle of the desert. Artists

covered are The Smiths, Leonard Cohen, Tim Rose, and Muzsikas. Since I've got nil experience with the latter two, I'll be brief. Rose's "Morning Dew" is anchored by soft organ and electric piano while a guitar screeches and retches and shudders in the background. The Muzsikas tune is recast as a shushed space hum, with a patient and chiming guitar line playing over and over again. The real blood on the tracks of course, lies in the Cohen and Smiths tunes. What's left, when the words are swept away? Plenty. "The Death of a Disco Dancer" is recast as a series of disparate moments. The classic creeping intro is intact, but interpreted by an army of glass crickets, followed surely by a black hole of bass guitar, that is itself replaced by the kind of acoustic guitar playing that gives you bloody fingers, and some absolutely ferocious twin-guitar abuse. And still true to the spirit of the original. Leonard Cohen's "I Tried to Leave You" is too Appalachian dramatic to be real. Every note is pounded raw and abused, full of the thundering menace and passion of a tent revival meeting. Ten ton drums, screeing guitar, broken acoustic strings, flourishes and bells, tears and bleeding ulcers. Damn.

Somehow, full-length Tableland radiates even more glacial majesty, and it's not just because this record was done on eight-tracks. Think about the precise finality of Joy Division's Closer, the end time theories of Godspeed You Black Emperor!, and the ragged glory of Howe Gelb and Giant Sand. Monumental sprawling stuff. Just lumping it in with Morricone and spaghetti westerns does Tableland a vast injustice; the music does more than set a mood, it communicates specific longings and urges with direct lyricism. Combine that with a Metallica-y "Black Album" sleeve and inner artwork that suggests both parched landcapes and cabins hidden deep in the hills of Virginia, and you're dealing with a mysterious, shamanistic presence.

The record begins with "Tableland," pretty much an all-out depressive sonic odyssey. Dense church bells ring with no chance for redemption. From there, delicate electric piano (reminds me of the soft interlude in "Riders on the Storm"), organ, steely guitar, and deep-ass dub bass dance around one another in willfully oblique yet hypnotic circles. Soft drums take their time joining in this intricate dance. Elements drop in and out, sometimes all of the participants end up passed out on the floor, staring ecstatically up at the starlit sky. Finally they martial their strength, and the song coheres into a fucking fantastic space jam, with a slow inevitable build that will have you crying with joy as it hits a series of sonic climaxes. As seems to be a habit in Smith's work, at the very moment of greatest strength, the song recedes into the gray distance replaced by introspective atmospherics and found sound swirls.

"Blood Partridges" and "A Celebration" are like Einsturzende Neubauten if they were from deep West Virginia country, using more standard tools of the trade (guitar, organ, drums instead of drills and steel barrels) to be sure, but using them to communicate a different musical language, where the only structural and aesthetic requirements are that of the most direct and personal expression. Replace urban angst/claustrophobia with wide-open spaces and longings that could never be spoken. Plenty of dark corners and solitary nights. These two tracks are too grandiose and yearning for words, more movements than pop songs.

"Caprock And Shelf" is pretty damn near my personal favorite, building up from aimless guitar noodling into a chiming Velvet Underground strum accompanied by brush-stroked percussion and a spine-tingling basswork. As this central pattern threatens to repeat to infinity, a lonesome harmonica and random guitar scratchings and abuse swirl in the background, then overwhelm the initial lockstep. But of course, the ghost of Sterling Morrison rises from the dewy earth and takes up that wonderful rhythmic strum with his bony fingers. Just like all good things, it ends with an organ drone. "Glade" finishes the entire affair off with "Tableland"'s church bells that segue into a tinny, ringing central riff suggesting so many raw feeling, dogged at every corner by another guitar humming and buzzing like a mosquito, then quietly fading into the thick black silence of the record sleeve.

Astonishing. Don't let either of these pass you by.

Matthew Moyer, Ink 19

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