It’s hard not to wax rhapsodic about the dreamy textures and lush moods created by Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith. She possesses the uncanny ability to update the synth soundscapes of Suzanne Ciani and Wendy Carlos for the 21st century in ways that are respectful of her influences while pushing those ideas forward. Listening to how she can weave together myriad electronic sounds to create something nearly organic to the ears reveals a profound capacity for art, craft, and intentionality. Along with contemporaries like Claire Rousay, Smith serves as a model for how to create experimental ambient music with heart and emotion.
That being said, my ears weren’t prepared for the levels of sonic trickery and frenetic energy on display on her latest release through Ghostly, Let’s Turn It Into Sound, especially the combination of increased vocals and fractured tempos. It was as if Smith had decided to channel ambitious art pop via her inner Björk through the lens of the digital overload of Flying Lotus and Dan Deacon. But after a few spins, everything began to make sense. Bristling breakbeats and restless rhythmic renderings flirt with pronounced pop predilections to deliver a bold and aggressive permutation of the familiar KAS aesthetic.
The ethereal and elegant elements heard on 2020’s The Mosaic of Transformation have been inverted with playful energy centered around how Smith processes her vocals. What could be a lovely mezzo-soprano floating gently across the music gets twisted into endless shapes and forms, all depending upon what a given track needs. Occasionally serving as the melodic lead, her voice serves more as a lead guitar riff or a keyboard solo that accentuates the overall mood of a song. At times, the tone of certain sections gives off a curious spoken-word vibe in terms of how Smith employs inflection and pacing even as the words are unrecognizable because of the degree to which she’s pitch-bent her voice.
“Have You Felt Lately?” opens up the album and will immediately warrant double-checking the liner notes to confirm this is a KAS project. Gurgling synths and bouncy rhythms flit around your ears, never allowing them to sit still, yet that search for an aural anchor provides the necessary focal point to truly engage the song. With “Is It Me or Is It You?,” clattering snare polyrhythms and pulsing keyboards performing broken arpeggios deliver an opening salvo that threaten to send you swirling into the ether. When the tune approaches its middle third, the cacophony retreats into off-kilter minor-key chords run through a woodwind patch. It’s only in the latter third that these competing elements coalesce into deep mid tempo jungle groove that would get people moving on the dance floor.
My favorite track on the album, “Unbraid: The Merge” kicks off like a traditional Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith composition, complete with lush banks of synths lull the mind into tranquility while still allowing it the freedom to soar. However, 90 seconds into this five-and-a-half-minute song, Smith strips away that atmosphere and introduces a small chorale of harmonizing voices lounging on a bed of electronic curlicues spiraling upward. At the halfway point, the vocals continues their curious contortions while an undulating rhythms section right out of ‘90s deep house groove carries the tune into the sunset.
If “easy listening prog” isn’t already a thing, at least this iteration of Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith suggests its invention. What makes Let’s Turn It Into Sound such a compelling listening experience is how she develops her sounds with such underlying precision even as the music feel frenzied on the surface. How often do you come across music that conjures up equal parts John Tesh, Yanni, and Brian Eno in ways that make your eyes and ears come alive?
While Smith’s entire oeuvre is that of a kind of experiential New Age music, this album exults in making the listener feel discombobulated. I found her eager willingness to explore the outer limits of her aesthetic to be sublime and enthralling, especially in how she connects trip-hop rhythms with airy synths, creeping keyboard melodies, and bubbling background soundscapes. These ten songs consciously captured the tenuous and fraught anxiety that dominates contemporary life in that, while the layers and moods don’t always connect on an individual level, they always make sense as a whole—no matter how disorienting they might be.