Smoke & Mirrors

(Copyright © 2006 Piero Scaruffi | Legal restrictions - Termini d'uso )

The Perfume of Creosote: Desert Exotica Part One (2003), 5.5/10
Deities (2004) , 7/10
White Roses Painted Red (2005), 6.5/10
Michael and Spider: Iridescent Garden (2008), 6/10

Smoke & Mirrors were an Arizona-based instrumental duo composed of keyboardist Michael Ely and guitarist Spider Taylor. The duo had been together in Red Wedding in the early 1980s, when they were a rare openly-gay band in the Los Angeles scene playing futuristic disco-punk and whose work was later collected on Red Wedding 1981-1985 (Lavender, 2007).

The 23 desert hallucinations of Smoke & Mirrors' debut album, The Perfume of Creosote: Desert Exotica Part One (Aural Fixation, 2003), showed a broad range of influences, from acid-rock to electronica, sometimes mixing them in the same piece (Surya covers both elegant world-music and languid metal guitar). A bit too much on the side of kitschy new-age melodies, it nonetheless boasts the ferocious dance music of When The Devil Was A Little Boy.

The two-CD 22-track concept album Deities (Aural Fixation, 2004), devoted to musical representations of Hindu deities, relies on a smaller stylistic palette but a deeper exploration of moods. A few pieces are complex cinematic tales. The three-part Brahma the Creator smoothly transitions from a dramatic psychedelic vortex littered with piano dissonances into dark pounding orchestral music that in turn leads to a crescendo of ethnic percussions and choir. Another ten-minute evolving composition, Vishnu the Protector, opens with a few minutes of murky melodic fragments before a majestic theme soars above turbulent winds and slowly disappears in a shimmering echo of colors. Announced by a horn fanfare, Krishna the Divine is structured like a procession piece, with syncopated polyrhythms by ethnic instruments and symphonic explosions to highlight the march.
However, the bulk of the first disc is descriptive rather than cinematic, each track crafting a musical portrait of the deity. A typical setting is the combination of Indra the Rainmaker: sweet drones of strings and voices that combine with a chaotic multitude of metallic sounds. Less typical is the desert hallucination of the ten-minute psalm Saraswati the Wise, that turns into a more conventional form of instrumental guitar rock, despite spiritual languors a` la John McLaughlin. It is one of the many moments in which the duo sounds under the influence of psychedelic music. The impressionistic Peacocks and Swans is another one: distorted guitar lines play with animal sounds, electronic shadows and barely-plucked instruments.
Alas, the second disc seems to bring out the hedonist side of things with a series of danceable tracks. This ranges from the tribal Hanuman the Monkey God to the Brazilian-sounding Durga the Warrior to the exotic jazz-rock of Ganesha the Remover of Obstacles and Cobras and Garlands. Needless to say, this second disc is hardly original or intriguing or even entertaining. The one exception is Parvati the Powerful, twelve minutes of pastoral-psychedelic ecstasy, but perhaps eleven minutes too long. By the last track, though, Shiva The Destroyer evokes the other more or less obvious connection, the one with the grandiloquent progressive-rock of King Crimson and their followers.

Ostansibly based on the story of Lewis Carroll's "The Adventures of Alice in Wonderland", White Roses Painted Red (Aural Fixation, 2005) is a collection of instrumental vignettes of post-Brian Eno electronic-pop. However, the stylistic range has broadened again compared with the previous album. Introduced by a sample of a vintage classical record, Alice is a makeshift Mozart-ian movement, with synthesized strings and minuet-ing piano, set to the tempo of a drum machine. The White Rabbit is a collage of field recordings of rural animals, a distorted music-box and a ticking clock. Falling Into the Underground is a psychedelic fantasy (wavering guitar tones, eerie drones, orchestral surges, gongs). The Duchess has a simple melody that has subjected to all sorts of mutation over a steady syncopated beat. The continuous mutation is also the underlying principle of exotic dances such as The Cheshire Cat. The contrast in the sequencing can be quite striking, following a Michael Nyman-esque string crescendo with a piece of kitsch muzak. Several dreamy guitar-driven melodic excursions such as The Smoky Caterpillar (a new age update of Duan Eddy or of the Ventures) alternate with the more futuristic pieces. The whole displays the naive, pastoral quality of Mike Oldfield's suites. This is the ultimate soundtrack to Alice's surreal adventures. The only drawback is the rhythm machine, that often detracts rather than adding to the magic of the project. Only in a handful of the tracks are the rhythms truly important (notably The Mad Tea Party, for broken kitchenware, African polyrhythms, gamelan-like metallic percussion, distorted guitar melody, and growing cacophony a` la Fleetwood Mac's Tusk).

Smoke & Mirrors changed name to Michael and Spider and released Iridescent Garden (2008), a collection of twenty charming nostalgic instrumentals that pay tribute to the exotica genre of the 1950s and 1960s (Ventures, Santo & Johnny, Les Baxter, Martin Denny, etc). The slow, languid pieces (often augmented with funky beats) belong more to the new-age spirit than to rock music. Notable exceptions are the lively White Diamonds and the boogie Davy Jones' Locker (but not so much the over-the-top French Sailors). At the other extreme of the spectrum, Starfish in a Liquid Sky is abstract chamber music.

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(Copyright © 2006 Piero Scaruffi | Legal restrictions - Termini d'uso )
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