The last time that Steven R. Smith came around here solo was for 2019’s A Sketchbook of Endings, a dark return to psychedelic folk after a few collaborations and the cinder-scrubbed work under his various Ulaan monikers (Khol, Passarine, Markhor, Janthina). While the other aliases allow Smith to work within scarred mindsets and pastoral repose, Smith has always saved a more song-oriented psych-folk for his solo works. In The Spires returns to this fold quickly, finding him chalking the opening track with a bit of the leftover charcoal burn from his Ulaan outings, but letting the compass point back towards his Jewlled Antler days and the invisible hand of Swedish prog-folk that has always steered his works.
The dissonance rises in the background like a looming threat in all these pieces but he lets a somber beauty overtake it, allowing violins to weep through the wires while his guitars tangle though the twin valleys of Six Organs and Seven Woods. That oxygen burn of distortion singes tracks like “Spires” and the opening “Needle In A Pin Field,” but there’s a softer underbelly to the album. The comforting drone of harmonium hums like a heater in winter, while elsewhere Smith makes bouzouki and hurdy gurdy sound like campfire staples, wrapping the rhythms of the instruments around his works like curls of smoke and fire glow. The record finds the ravine between Smith’s early works and his latter day soundtracks of decline, walking the line well, dipping into both the devastation he’s perfected and the exuberant noise he left behind. The terrain tracks the trail of disease, but never ceases to use the sun as its guide.
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