Review: Stephanie Cheng Smith – Forms (a wave press, Mar 1)

With Forms, LA-based sound artist Stephanie Cheng Smith accomplishes that rare feat of a distinctively halved LP-length set in which each of the halves are markedly different but pull equal weight in terms of intrigue, quality, and overall structure. I knew of Smith from her participation in the now-unnamed Animal Crossing performance quartet that streamed several unforgettable sets via Twitch last year, but this CD collects two solo works recorded between 2018 and 2019 that exhibit the eclectic artist’s knack for harnessing the magic of the real world as well. “Bird,” with regard to both its concept and its actual textural palette, is a dream come true for me: a lush, discretely cacophonous swarm of the tiny touches and contacts of many objects suspended in a system of vibrating plastic bowls (dubbed “b-z-bowls” by the artist) that shifts from meditative avalanche to swirling gestural slices to soothing pitter-patter. I’m sure seeing Smith actually perform with the setup adds a whole new dimension, but even with just audio it’s a breathtaking piece. “Fish” couldn’t be more of a stylistic shift; where “Bird” was mechanically effervescent and emotionally neutral, it is dark, brooding, expressive, teasingly tonal. The “dark energy synthesizer” almost drags things down with a rather cheesy sci-fi/deep space type patch, but Smith’s Flynt-esque violin scrapes and shrieks handily steal the show. And soon enough the synth too spirals out of control, oscillating between distant hum and noisy wrack for the remainder of the composition, which retreats and quietly seethes for a bit before exploding into a piercing maelstrom of glitch churn and vicious string abuse that would make even the most extreme Mego releases blush.