Smerz has never shied away from displaying their influences: Their music is built from the composite parts of experimental dance, siphoned into a profoundly insular listening experience. The duo—made up of Catharina Stoltenberg and Henriette Motzfeldt—released their first EP, Okey, in 2017. That project felt like a midpoint between the luminescent footwork of DJ Rashad and the whispered techno stylings of Nina Kraviz. If anything, Smerz’s first full–length album, Believer, represents a pivot further away from the dancefloor.
From the record’s outset, Stoltenberg and Motzfeldt are intent on creating moments that surprise and subvert their listeners’ expectations. On album opener “Gitarriff,” an introduction of shimmering wind chimes yields to thundering bass. Smerz cultivates an atmosphere of trepidation, as if they’re leading you from room to room in a house where something might jump out around any corner.
Take a song like the follow–up “Max,” which has absolutely no build until shortly after the 1:00 mark, when a barrage of whooshing synthesizers suddenly burst to the front of the mix. The atmospheric vocals on early highlight “Rain” lend an ASMR–like quality to the mix. In another subversion of the band’s earlier material, the song’s laid–back beat feels less like a pounding pulse in the club and more like a steady tap against your solar plexus.
The video for “Worth It,” from Have fun, takes place as a surreal fashion show. On Believer, Smerz embodies this aesthetic of elegant detachment, as on one composition titled “Versace Strings.” Discussions of frosty, Nordic fashion instantly recall the album cover of Björk’s Homogenic, a progenitor of Believer’s sonic palette of beats and strings. These strings are perhaps the defining feature of the duo’s new album when compared to their back catalog. They prove extremely versatile across the record, alternately imparting pomp and circumstance or escalating drama. Many of Smerz’s arrangements also pay homage to their Norwegian heritage, influenced by the same regional folk music as composers like Edvard Grieg or Ole Bull.
For much of its runtime, Believer’s flow feels like a suite of classical music. Half of the album’s 16 tracks are around two minutes or less. Many of these shorter pieces, like “4 temaer,” are collages of chamber orchestration that merit comparisons to the likes of Bach. It would be tempting to label these shorter songs as “interludes,” but Smerz has created an album that is more of a holistic composition. There are even motifs across the tracklisting, like the string swells from “Rain” that pop up again on “Grand Piano.” The breakdown of Believer into individual tracks lets listeners separate their favorite songs into playlists, while the album as a whole is more easily digestible than a project like XL labelmate Arca’s hour–long single “@@@@@.”
Both “Versace Strings” and “The favourite” feature choral vocals—heretofore unheard on a Smerz record—courtesy of Motzfeldt’s youth spent singing in choirs. Alternatively, one might come upon the album’s spoken–word “Rap interlude,” which has a playfulness and carefree swagger akin to Kreayshawn. The work of French–Canadian electronic artist Marie Davidson is a key touchstone for Smerz, particularly on her 2016 record Adieux Au Dancefloor. On that project, Davidson combines spoken word and club music to produce scathing indictments of club culture itself. Play and experimentation are key to Smerz’s appeal, the kind which can only be achieved through a long–term friendship's trust and openness.
“Rap interlude” offers the clearest glimpse of the oblique narrative running beneath Believer’s surface. This story may be lost on first listen, but lyrics like “and you told me that you loved me / that you’d never let me down / you used to help me before / now I got nowhere to go” communicate a narrative of romantic disillusionment and disappointment. In fact, “Smerz” is shorthand for the German phrase for heartbreak. “Grand Piano” continues this trajectory by directly questioning the lover: “Would you be there if I tell you that's what I wanted?” Smerz has made an album that is intentionally difficult for the listener to parse in the same way as this withholding partner. This ambiguity may turn some away from the record.
If there’s one song on Believer that can expand Smerz’s appeal far beyond fans of their previous work or the genres they draw from, it’s “Flashing.” Built on barely more than a bed of arpeggiating synthesizers that sound suspiciously like “Better Off Alone,” this weightless ballad sounds like an even emptier version of Janet Jackson’s “Empty.” The vocal performance in "Flashing" extends the record’s vulnerable and sensual moods, as well as the expressiveness of the more operatic passages to the duration of an entire track. At the same time, it opens up an entirely new vein of electro–acoustic R&B influence for the duo. All of Believer is a stunning summation of Smerz’s talents and inspirations up to this point, but it’s “Flashing” that may provide the clearest portrait of where they’re heading next.