20 Years: 3 out of 5
SMIRR: 4 out of 5
Songphase: 3 out of 5
Live!!!: 5 out of 5
Label: VHF Records
Produced by: Richard Youngs & Simon Wickham-Smith (?)
Such is the prodigious output of Richard Youngs and Simon-Wickham Smith – separately, together – that you can put out 4 albums of new material, 3 of which are unreleased sets from a decade back, like it ain’t a big deal. Package it rather unassumingly – small photos of the artists, one of each from now and one of each from 20 years back – and bundle four CDs into the vinyl packaging, looking like and being priced as a single LP. Just imagine such a set from any mainstream artist, and you can conjure premium pricetags and space-hogging packaging, and maybe major gaps in quality output surrounding such a release, as it’s more likely the kind of things to come out as an odds & sods contract filler.
But that’s how these inventive and multi-talented oddballs roll, and what’s even more impressive is that the background on this set isn’t necessary: it’s modern; it’s timeless; and it offers a non-odds & sods feel, as each disc / LP is an actual album and thus comes with its own sense of flow. Of course, your preference of R!!! and S!!! sounds will likely determine which of those albums you drift towards, as it does cover a range, but I’d also venture that appreciators of these two may have a somewhat open ear which won’t outright reject any of the material, regardless of how atonal, or how delicate. And for those who have been following along for a long time, the opening LP that gives this bundle its title, 20 years, is an electro-acoustic reworking of an (also unreleased) set of songs from those many years back, giving the whole slew an interesting concept: songs from the beginning made anew, then flashing back to sets that’d been put aside, for some reason or another, halfway through the journey up to this point.
“20 Years” is blistering. It’s a brave kickoff for such a deep bench of tracks, and it is absolutely combative, up there with Matthew Bower’s Total / Skullflower noise workouts, but subtracted of the psychedelia. I am definitely partial to this kind of stuff, and about half of the albun plays right into that – screeches of barely-music that you have to work to find rhythms and patterns in, but once over the wall of sound, it becomes entrancing. And the sheer volume lends the album an underpinning of terror, which I also enjoy. However, I can’t quite get into such stuff when that noise becomes white, and that’s how approximately the whole middle of 20 years lands for me. It’s bookended with perfect, vital, grabbing stuff, and then fades into comparative static in the betweens. The songs are not over long, thankfully, and there is variation between the types of effects employed, so it’s not boring, or tiresome, but only about half of this excites me.
SMIRR is “classic” Youngs and Wickham-Smith, consisting of extended sessions that hover between acoustics and electronics, drone and ambience. It glows; it’s peaceful and warm, and wonderfully immersive. That tip-toe between repetition and improv gets pushed a bit on the two longer tracks (Fast Rise After Slow at 24+ minutes; Fischer Mix at 18+ minutes), as when you’ve settled into one state the track shifts to another, so you can’t quite zone out, but that excess length is also a benefit in that sense, since you then get time to adjust.
Songphase, for me, is the least appealing album because it’s the two indulging in relatively more traditional, folky material. I dig the warbly, unpracticed nature Youngs brings to this kind of stuff, and there are some really haunting tracks here where the music starts out rather predictably and then goes afield, such as on opener Everydayness, and 8-minute closer Dream Song is appropriately named, fuzzy and shoegazey as hell, and mesmerizing. The album is pleasant, but probably has more mileage for listeners who prefer when R!!! & S!!! are delivering more structured works.
LIVE!!! – having never seen these two in person, my assumption for a live set would be something that I’d probably fall asleep to. It’s no offense intended to the artists, as I own and enjoy much of their work, but I guess I would think they’d play up the more drawn out and improvisational sides of their work, and when I’m stuck staring at people performing that, regardless of how loud it might be, I drift off. However, ironically, LIVE!!! is the most exciting album of all of these, gathering up bits and pieces of everything these two do, and then cherry-picking the weirdest (and catchiest??) bits for some really fun medleys. It’s also great to hear them laugh at different points in the recording, as it adds a very human, humbling component that can sometimes get lost. I don’t know if this is indicative of many of their live sets, but I’d like to think that, had I been in attendance for this one, and it was my first exposure to Youngs and Wickham-Smith, I would’ve been fascinated by how sprawling and yet composed it all is – this masterful cross-section of freeform and precision.
(Also worth noting: the liner notes on this are both a hoot, and then fascinating in learning more about the duo’s processes. Maybe as a result of appreciating more of what I was listening to after reading, or as a result of just having the thing on repeat while I went through the tributes from noted fans and an interview with R!!! and S!!!, I found myself warming up to the moments that I wasn’t initially able to connect with.)