Smoke The Monster Out is the brave, brilliant and very personal debut album from Damian Lazarus, brought to you by Get Physical.
Londoner Lazarus, now based in L.A., is best known for founding the Crosstown Rebels label and helping shape the sound of contemporary techno in his twin roles as taste-making A&R and globally renowned DJ. Having been asked on countless occasions when he would step out from behind the decks and into the producer’s chair, Lazarus has finally capitulated – and the results are far more unusual and engaging than what anyone could have imagined.
It would have been easy, or at least expected, for Lazarus to make a strictly instrumental, dancefloor-oriented album, perhaps enlisting the help of “celebrity” vocalists to flesh it out – but Smoke The Monster Out is a far more ambitious and considered project than that. First up, it really is an album, a rangy and cleverly paced narrative inspired chiefly by the dancefloor’s play of darkness and light, but also classic love songs and emotive, gut-wrenching pop music old and new.
Though Lazarus’s grounding in house and techno is apparent throughout, this record is really a song-based affair, full of unusual acoustic instrumentation and delicately wrought arrangements, which Lazarus wrote with collaborator Arthur Jeffes - son of the Penguin Café Orchestra’s Simon Jeffes. The Rebels boss has taken a long view of his life as a music-lover, drawing on older influences as diverse as Photek, Jeff Buckley and Bjork, taking their essence and suffusing it with the twisted dancefloor alchemy we associate with his DJ sets. Perhaps most significantly, not to mention surprisingly, Lazarus himself sings on several of the album’s tracks, investing his songs with his own distinct personality and quiet expressiveness. This is Damian Lazarus as you’ve never heard him before.
The album opens with its title track, an atmospheric blend of cinematic strings and creaking ambient registers which betray its makers long-running fascination with film music and the work of Brian Eno. Lead single ‘Moment’ is an epic, gently unfolding piece which begins with Lazarus plaintively crooning a lullaby-like melody over piano. Rich, swirling, cosmic-style electronic textures drift into the foreground before the ethereal, childlike vocals of Taxi Taxi – AKA 18-year-old Swedish twins Johanna and Miriam Berhan – pick up the story.
‘Moment’ establishes one of the key album’s themes: the clash of innocence and experience, of our attempts to reconcile our sense of adventure and hedonism with our very human need for comfort, peace, security. Taxi Taxi appear on four of the album’s tracks, acting as Lazarus’ protagonists and antagonists, and excelling themselves on an spellbinding cover of Scott Walker’s ‘It’s Raining Today’ - all lush, sweeping strings and spine-tingling harp-runs. ‘Memory Box’ finds Lazarus “in character”, whispering and sneering malevolent lyrics which conjure the moral ambiguity of club-life lived to the limit. Elsewhere something approaching a warm, soul-infused folk-rock sensibility is on show, with Lazarus paying explicit tribute to one of his heroes, Neil Diamond, on ‘Diamond In The Dark’.
On ‘Bloop Bleep’ Lazarus indulges his love of experimental pop with an insanely catchy tune that renders a Bacharach-like melody in playful musique concrete-style abstraction. ‘After Rave Delight’ is typical of Smoke The Monster Out’s heartfelt but knowing vibe, a gauzy ballad rippled with double-bass and guitar chords which nod to Lou Reed. On ‘Come and Play’, Lazarus extrapolates his role as DJ, playing the role of a devil-like figure enticing young clubbers into his lair. ‘Lullabies’ is growling techno washed in strings and melodious chimes reminiscent of Philip Glass, while ‘Neverending’ is nothing less than an ebullient slice of electronic pop, replete with vocodered vocals…
Everything about Smoke The Monster Out feels idiosyncratic, direct and carefully thought-out: both the artwork (by Santiago Chaumont) and the title (which references Alice in Wonderland) evoke Lazarus’s interest in the loss and the return of innocence, the imagery of fairytale fables, and the battle to control and satisfy the emotions without losing sight of humour. Lazarus has a vision, and isn’t afraid to realize it.