Unlike past collections, the eight tracks on Hypermodern are all instrumental and all short (the longest is just over three minutes, the shortest is 37 seconds). Smith has proved a master of brevity before, but these offerings feel less like songs and more like sound studies. Or song encapsulations. Songs distilled into their very essences.
Which is not to detract from their entertainment value or moody beauty. “Rook” is an exotic nocturne, captioned by hand drums, lithe piano and dashes of strings, all of which seems to float against a luminous and star-lit sky.
Other tracks also take their names from chess pieces: “Queen” flutters and buzzes with sunny excitement. “Pawn” warbles and trips up and down scales, dancing along some razor’s edge between danger and delight. “Bishop” straddles two worlds — organic, earthy rhythms and spacey, high-tech atmospherics. “Knight” is a dark and searching track, its tension felt in its thrumming low notes and silences. And “King,” staccato in its upper register and commanding in its deep rumble, is all about regal bearing.
The longest tracks are “Opening” and “Endgame,” which bookend the album. The first, sweeping, expansive and unhurried, breathes into the long and resonant sounds of strings. It’s a sunrise over a still pond, a first flush of color that shouldn’t seem miraculous yet scores the very sigh it elicits. The latter may well be the slow sinking of the sun below the horizon. It’s a tender drift through muted shades of blue and grey, imparting more about synesthesia than any board game.
So is Hypermodern about chess, or inspired by some aspect of the game? Hard to say. Smith usually crafts buoyant, indie-pop songs whose brightness belies deeper emotions. He’s a composer who plays it close to the vest even as he extends the invitation to the secret worlds within the Isolation Studies series.