The Stunning Automation of ‘Dangerous Things’ from Simon M. Smith
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The future of music may already be here.
That is – the automation of music. With the backlash lately against automation, algorithms and artificial intelligence, it would be understandable if music enthusiasts were skeptical of computer-generated music.
In fairness, for many people, computer-generated music is that which they have heard on cheap apps, games and other tacky mediums.
That’s until you hear Simon Mark Smith‘s near-fully automated music album, Dangerous Things. History may have been made just by the release of this album; but it’s the music that really matters.
The 17-track album is over-flowing with moody, compelling, thoughtful and enjoyable songs. This by itself is a rare accomplishment in our experience. Often times, albums with more than nine or 10 tracks contain somewhere between three to five or more ‘filler’ tracks.
In this case, Smith was obviously deliberate about the placement – not just the creation (which is a whole other amazing story you won’t come across again) – of each song.
At first, one might say: “Oh man 17 tracks?! There’s going to be fat on this baby and we have to figure where to cut.”
But surprise, surprise. Without exaggeration, track after track on Dangerous Things measures up to the very best on the album – as if this was Smith’s greatest hits collection after a decade or more of hits.
But even more inspirational when one thinks of such an accomplishment, Smith was born without arms, a condition called Holt-Oram syndrome. He does not consider himself ‘disabled’ and addressed that subject, h says, in his first album.
That said, Smith completely understands that some people, especially other musicians, are amazed when they learn that his highly inventive, yet also familiar, album was done so largely through automation.
Perhaps most surprising is when one stops to consider that to make just one song, Smith had to first imagine each track first. Then, he had to figure out which instruments he was going to use in a song.
Next, he went about a process of individually programming – one by one – every note for each instrument. After that, he had to mix the tracking of each instrument and listen to them over and over again, making tweaks along the way, in order to get the right sound.
This is incalculably more difficult than a one-man band in his basement who can record each instrument and then (and here’s the key) play along with that recording with a new instrument in order to get the timing right in real-time. Smith had to do all of this the very long way round.
Without the assistance of computers and increasingly automated software programs, Smith may not have been able to achieve the final sound he wanted.
He claims it is “one of the first albums to feature mainly virtual musicians,” asking the question: “Do you think you can tell that a computer played – not just recorded – the music?”
Smith actually created virtual band members, with full identities, in order to delegate their roles more easily. The amount of organization and coordination with himself and his cast of computer-generated band members is impressive.
“What’s strange is that using computers is very similar to working with real musicians,” he remarks; “I tell the computer what keys, chords, tempo and style I want and it comes up with loads of ideas which I then edit to create a song. The difference between now and a few years ago is just how human the music sounds.”
“Driving Me Wild” opens up the album with a classic rock vibe veiled in a bit of theatrical rock complete with a chorus and rapid chord changes.
That smoking opener is followed by the slower, funkier track, “Protected,” that the listener can detect is helped by computers. Smith calls this track, compared to the others on the album, “off the wall.” A heavy bluesy organ, female backing vocals, sexy jazzy sax trills – all packed into one robust track that doesn’t miss a beat.
There is a definite Beck-like vibe to parts of the song as Smith changes it up genre-wise, and overall musically, a few times throughout with stunning effects. Speaking of Beck, another track that sounds like the indie/alt god is the funky, jazzy swing of “Your Name.”
By the middle of the album, the listener is treated to some of the juiciest parts with spectacular, mood-shifting songs like the atmospheric “Break It”, the disco-infused and amazing “Words of Prey” and the funky pop jams of “I Feel You in My Life.”
It’s not hard to see disco-inspired songs like “A Story of Love” being played as dance mixes at a nightclub party.
As Smith rolls out the carpet, he continues to surprise with genre and mood-shifting tracks, introducing songs from an era many decades ago like on the swing/jazz-infused retro hybrid track, “Dreams.”
The more one sinks into the comfortable, dazzling and cinematic album, it becomes more and more apparent to some that the production is more like a movie in which we have the visuals and sounds provided by the music itself.
Categorizing a splendid, and stylistically revolutionary, song like “Dreams” is almost a futile effort. It stands by itself. Perhaps it was intentional and strategic because at this point in the album it is becoming more apparent that Smith is a musical genius.
A little bit like “A Story of Love,” the energetic “Not Enough” is a pumped-up, disco-fueled song on the album that is about all of the things in the world that are “not enough”, he says, with the focus on love. Not enough love: a powerful message at a confusing and tumultuous time.
The title track, “Dangerous Things,” is one of the standout songs on a standout album. It is one of the most emotional tracks on the album with Smith showing off his heart-string-pulling skills.
Smith says about the title track: “This is mainly a song about temptation, but I wanted to focus on the issue that whilst we may feel we are tempted by something, it is the possibility of self-destruction that makes the temptation so powerful.”
Lines like: “This desire/ that guides me/ It’s a long way from home/ But I, I got it here/ it’s in my heart/ It wants to leave me alone” leave the listener intrigued.
“Sometimes I would have dreams about the sea’s waves crashing against my house,” growing up in the U.K.
“When I thought about this I wondered if the sea was my own emotions and desires wanting to smash my own ‘internal’ home down. You might think that would be illogical, but if we have a self-destructive part of us, then that might make sense,” he says.
“Dangerous Things” is one of the strongest compositions on the album. It’s slow-burning, melancholy story, Smith’s heart-wrenching vocals, and the remarkably arranged instrumentations make it impossible to turn away from.
It’d be a killer song in a film or TV sequence. The comparisons that come to mind goes like this: “Think Bowie mixed with Pink Floyd and some Clapton for good measure.” And again, folks, this is all done on a computer – no real instruments. Can you tell?
And that’s where Smith has something truly unique that sets him apart from the vast majority of musicians – it’s automated music.
Take a trip to the 70s with the Gordon Lightfoot-like acoustic track, “Losing Me,” with its touch of Roy Orbison and tinges of country-rock.
The vocals effects and techniques employed here stand out from the music itself, which is by no means a negative (just the opposite) commentary on the music itself, but rather to say that Smith has a mastery of moods and sounds that are largely inspired, it seems, by his vocal intuitions.
He sways from style to style, emotion to emotion, on tracks like the bluesy groove of “Dream Girl” and the somber, heart-wrenching love song, “Fallen Angel,” complete with a cello droning in the background.
The last one-third portion of the album explores more the stories and emotions of love with touching songs like “Our Love Lives Forever” and “Forever Today” – both tracks are obviously thematically aligned.
The acoustic-driven “Just A Friend” marries nicely with the Tom Waits-like closing track, “Neon Sun,” complete with its smooth tropical jazz vibe, a nice end to a wild and amazing sonic ride of sounds, vocals, genres, styles and yes, automation.
Put simply: this exceptionally unique album is something that you’ll need to definitely hear yourself from front to back. If you’re like us, you’ll need to listen to the album a number of times – not just because it is so different, or has 17 tracks, but also because it’s just simply stunning.
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