One of my fondest, most vivid memories from childhood is exploring the vast wilderness behind the neighborhood tennis court. I ventured out from the familiarity of concrete into the obscurity of dirt and dusty roads, flanked on each side by oceans of shoulder-height wheat grass. Pressing on, I eventually reached the end of the road, and I gazed straight up at the monolithic electrical towers – towers that straddled the horizon from my house. Pushing even further, I hit the woods, a maze of mystery for the heart of an eight-year-old. Exploring it was fun, exciting, and about as close as that child ever came to feeling like Indiana Jones. I bring this up not as some sappy personal tidbit, but as a sort of bridge into what makes the Stargazer’s Assistant’s Remoteness of Light so wholly gratifying. David J. Smith’s newest project, through its twisting washes of ambient evocations, may lack the youthful vibrancy of those distant, childish excursions, but it rekindles that critical sense of discovery.
Here, songs are as absent as light itself, leaving the listener to flounder and fumble through the album’s wilderness. Sound slow drips through speakers like water through caverns, and no vocals anchor the proceedings with relatable personality. Album opener “Agents of Attitude” extends its wispy fingers in alluring invitation: minimal percussion feather-dances over cyclical, airy woodwinds, repeating and reverberating before collapsing into oppressive washes of white noise. At 19 minutes, it’s a big ask for undivided attention, but the obtuse, open-ended nature of the track justifies itself in its willingness to let the listener loose in the dark. Stargazer’s Assistant conjures a mire of shifting soundscapes and asks the rhetorical question “are you ready to step inside?” The rhetorical becomes literal when the album’s closer, “The Remoteness of Light,” bursts into a frenzy of swirling synths and free-form percussion; the answer is “yes.” It’s the payoff to an hour-long voyage into the unknown. In a climactic confrontation of scraping, digital blips and tribal rhythms, clawing against the washboard surfaces and punctuated spasms of electric guitar, Smith and his entourage lure the listener through a maelstrom into a vast and empty space of nothing. The record ends, unresolved, undecided. More than anything, it’s the record’s statement of intent. Morose and mysterious in equal measure, The Remoteness of Light is an album without a destination, and its all the better for it.