Review: Smerz – ‘Have Fun’ (XL Recordings)

Norwegian left-field pop duo Smerz (Catharina Stoltenberg and Henriette Motzfeldt) have performed across Europe and the US, signed to XL Recordings and secured a support slot for Mount Kimbie’s North American Tour; in a relatively short space of time, this is cult-worthy.

Have fun is their first release of collective material since 2016’s Okey, on the Danish label Escho. It points the pair in a direction more aligned to their recent techno output on NTS. While the record shares their bass-centric and percussive focus, the application here is more malleable, spanning different tempos and styles; a subtle reminder that the techno aesthetic can operate effectively outside 125-130bpm. Comparisons can be made elsewhere too. The swung percussion and space on ‘Oh my my’ are also present in mid-2000s Deep Medi/Tempa records. Later on, the hazy synth on ‘Bail on me’ resembles soundscapes found on Shigeto and Gold Panda Ghostly International releases.

Tracks on Have fun are often episodic and broken into distinct parts. The progression from bass to voice and eventual tempo decline on ‘Worth it’ illustrates this well, as does the transition from ‘Half Life’ to near silence at the onset of ‘Fitness’; arguably the most striking moment of the EP given the stark contrast between stillness and brutality created. It’s easy to overcomplicate to accommodate strong and sometimes abrupt shifts like these but Smerz see that each element is justified.

The weightlessness in the opening of ‘Girl 2’ lets the listener focus on atmosphere and voice, the latter of which is the most distinguishing trait of Smerz as a whole. The pair harmonise as well as deviate in lyrics and delivery, notably on ‘Bail on me’. This variation conveys a sense that even shared experience can also be in some respects unique. This, coupled with the appearance of the same vocal samples across tracks, for example when ‘oh my my’ is heard in ‘Girl 2’, fortifies the pair’s narrative constructed on heartbreak, uncertainty and confusion.

Have fun is a noticeable switch away from Okey in terms of palette and mood. Through careful arrangement of both distinctive and inaudible voice, overdriven percussion and resourceful synth work, Smerz eloquently explore the multi-faceted nature of their common experience and how it can be interpreted.

Words: Nick Moore

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