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Stream ‘SMM: Opiate,’ Ghostly International’s Cinematic Exploration of the Ambient Vanguard

Album Of The Week: SMM: Opiate Stream Interview

The concept of SMM — a vague catch-all for warm, austere, ambient electronic music with organic textures — was concocted by Ghostly International founder Sam Valenti IV around 2004 for a series of 12-inches that the label was releasing. “The concept started then,” says label manager Jeff Owens, who has since taken over the series — “and he hasn’t told me what the acronym stands for.”

In Owens’ capable hands, the SMM concept has turned from a loose cobbling together of droney outsiders to an attempt to produce a compilation with a cinematic eye. Unlike overstuffed label comps, SMM: Opiate, the second disc under Owens’ watch, has only nine tracks and less than 45 minutes of music. “I don’t want people to think that it’s a struggle to listen,” he says. “You can make a compilation with a thoughtfulness and a patience that seems to be rare.”

In turn, SMM: Opiate slowly cycles through numerous ebbs and flows while still showcasing the soft, dark-hued edges of the ambient vanguard — the piano flutters of Berlin chamber-drone duo A Winged Victory for the Sullen, the ecstatic swaddle of prolific Tokyo fuzzmasters Celer, the haunting churchlike drones of anonymous Brooklyn knob-twister Black Swan, and the nightmarish noir of Norway’s Pjusk.

“With Opiate, I wanted it to sort convey how I was feeling at the time,” says Owens, who requests multiple tracks from the artists and then plays with the order until the whole album tells a story. “In the Old West times when people were starting to settle down, I think opiate was a drug that was not talked about, but a lot of people were addicted to it. I was thinking about how it relates to now: How our culture has an addictive mentality. I feel like there’s a lot of peaks and valleys in the comp, and to me it represented the feelings that I have when I’m struggling with how I feel about the culture we live in, which is very much based on abundance and quick consumption.”

SMM: Opiate is out next week. Hear it below and read along as each of the nine artists share a little about their track.


Simon Scott – “Water Shadow”
Scott: “After spending two years recording sound out in East Anglia, [England], the area where I was born and now live, I became consumed by the destruction of the ecosystem here. The long shadow of devastation that spread across this landscape, due to the draining of [East English marshes] the Fens, is still present as you drive six feet above the black soil that is still often prone to flooding. Sadly, it is now a man-made environment that is a shadow of its former waterlogged days. Recordings from Holme Fen, the lowest cartographical location in England, were composed with digitally processed sounds to create a sonification of a place that I will forever call home.”

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A Winged Victory for the Sullen – “Ti Prego Memory Man”
Adam Wiltzie: “‘Ti Prego Memory Man’ is an outtake from our virgin voyage recording session at Grunewald Church in Berlin around the Spring of 2009. Originally it was planned for inclusion on our self-titled debut, but for whatever reason, we left it off. For our ears, it is still one of the best-sounding Bösendorfer pianos left on earth.”

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Celer – “Nothing So Mystical”
Celer: “Take a single memory, and stretch it out. Replay its climax, the peaks and valleys, and it becomes bigger, clearer, and more beautiful. Afterwards, that’s how you remember it, because that’s how it happened.”

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Black Swan – “Passings, Heartbreak” 
Black Swan: “‘Passings, Heartbreak’ was recorded as a theme for loss, such as the pain we feel when left alone due to means beyond our control.

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Jim Haynes – “This is Radio Sweden”
Jim Haynes: “Shortwave radio is a common tool in my compositions and sound designs; and that is true for ‘This Is Radio Sweden’ which builds from ’empty’ signals that haunt the radio spectrum through erratic gray noises and modulated sine-waves.  A rhythmic ‘dash dot dot’ (the letter ‘D’ in International Morse Code) transmits through the foggy drones as what could be heard as a residual human marking in a grander cosmology. When I composed this piece, I originally thought this was a languid, almost ‘pretty’ piece of music; but when nestled into this compilation, the piece strongly articulates a looming sense of dread. Context is king.”

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EN – “White”
Maxwell August Croy and James Devane: “‘White’ is the unlikely coupling of a Japanese koto and a broken Farfisa. Recorded in a dust-covered room adjacent to a masonry cutting factory.”


Pjusk – “Djorsk”
Jostein Dahl Gjelsvik: “Sounds from the dark and desolate Norwegian wilderness.”


Fieldhead – “37th”
Paul Elam: “Whilst living in Vancouver a few years ago, I would often take a bike ride around the city when at a loss for something else to do, often under the city’s standard-issue heavy grey skies. 37th Street always felt like some kind of arbitrary dividing line on these trips, and once I was on it, you could catch an occasional glimpse of the North Shore Mountains looming over the city. This track is an attempt to recreate the feeling of watching the city from that street, written thousands of miles away in an equally grey British town.”


Noveller – “Bright Clouds Bloom”
Sarah Lipstate: “Written for a film that was never released, ‘Bright Clouds Bloom’ is a departure into new territory of expanded orchestration beyond [Noveller’s] signature electric guitar sound.”

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