It is possible to respect, even admire, an artist’s chutzpah and ambition without uniformly enjoying the results. It doesn’t often happen in music as opposed to, for example, literature where you can discern an author grappling with large scale themes in much starker terms, but modern musicians are, on the whole, loath to venture outside their comfort zone and away from familiar sonic iconography. Nick Demopoulos, however, has no such reservations.
The trained guitarist employs instruments Demopoulos has designed and are aimed towards performing interactive computer music. The assortment of beats dropped in throughout these compositions, samples, ambient soundscapes, and abstract textures sometimes coalesce into airy performances and, other times, intense and near claustrophobic sound collages. Demopoulos’ musical pedigree is impeccable despite whatever flaws individual listeners might find in the music.
He commands widespread and obvious respect. He contributed stellar guitar work to NEA jazz master Chico Hamilton between 2008-2013 recording the albums Revelation, The Inquiring Mind, and Euphoric. He released music with the jazz/electronic outfit Exegesis and, in 2008, served as a cultural diplomat for the United States State Department performing music in far flung locales like Kuwait, Oman, Bahrain, and Yemen. He has recorded with top flight musical artists as diverse as Vernon Reid, Jimmy Owens, Camille Brown, and George Bohannon.
Smomid’s new album Pyramidi Scheme is a successor to the project’s two preceding albums – 2015’s Rhythms of Light and 2017’s A Smoment in Time. There is a great deal of experimentation going on throughout this new release, but traditional music listeners will be able to latch on to some tracks over others. The first track “Message to the Moai” is an excellent cut to open the album with thanks to its reliance on a central melody that aids grounding the performance in a quantifiable reality. “Message to the Moai”, much like many other tracks included on Pyramidi Scheme, runs a little over five minutes in length. It has enough creativity to support its length.
“Ziggurat” has a strong synth-driven flavor and some melodic merit. It has a much darker hue than what we hear with the first track but shares the same patient pace for the bulk of the performance. Whatever loose grip it maintains on melody soon fades away as listeners as the track transforms into a dramatic yet dazzling display of electronic music. It is dense, but well organized and never overwhelming. His approach falls flatter, however, during “Pyramid of the Sun”. It isn’t difficult to appreciate how he marshals a bevy of electronic devices and instruments to create an ambient maelstrom, but many listeners will hear the song and wonder, with some cause, what these sorts of performances can achieve beyond making listeners say “gee whiz”.
“Mountain of Light” is the album’s second longest track, only “Ziggurat” is longer, but falls into the same trap as “Pyramid of the Sun”. It is a percussion showcase without ever utilizing traditional drums and mixes distorted human voices into the composition – the electronic skewering of those voices gives them a distinct inhuman quality. The track does invoke emotion, however – an unsettling hallucinatory pallor that offers listeners no quarter/ “Gate of the Sun” takes its foot off the listener’s neck and pursues a much lighter approach in contrast. This reveals a canny instinct behind Demopoulos’ art – he recognizes the importance of contrasting light and shadow rather than exhausting listeners with darkness. The light touch of the computerized music isn’t an abdication of Smomid’s musical vision but, rather, illustrates its potential versatility.
“Hidden Chambers” has a hushed approach at its opening and doesn’t deviate from that path for much of the performance. It assumes a similar template as the more experimental tracks recorded for this release and, while the presentation is consistent with the album as a whole, it feels and sounds like a measure of repetition coming near the album’s conclusion. The last track “Age of Leo” recalls the earlier “Gate of the Sun” as it lowers the overall intensity defining the release in favor of bringing a quieter and thoughtful ending to Pyramidi Scheme. It is another example of the intelligent construction underlying this release.
It is a stunning success – in fits and starts. The experimental moments on the release is where Demopoulos’ ambition sometimes falls flat. This is the nature of pushing the envelope and moving beyond time-tested formulas. Smomid’s Pyramidi Scheme deserves a lot of plaudits and praise for its willingness to take risks, but doesn’t always find its mark. It is, nonetheless, well worth hearing and purchasing.