The appealingly unpredictable debut from the Norwegian duo thrives off the dueling forces of unease and temptation.
Smerz’s tightly coiled synth pop is designed to keep you on edge. Henriette Motzfeldt and Catharina Stoltenberg place their zombified vocals atop ruptured synths and murky breakbeats, creating an air of chilly menace. On Believer, the Norwegian duo’s first full-length for XL, Smerz take this sound to even harsher places; as with 2018’s off-kilter Have fun EP, the music works best when it glowers, throwing you off balance and getting under your skin.
Believer’s title track throbs with a looped, saw-toothed synth and stomping trip-hop beat that’s the hardest the pair have ever made. Mid-album highlight “Rain” (one of several tracks sung in their native Norwegian) moves with similar swagger, propped up by a lopsided beat and ominous strings that sound lifted from Homogenic-era Björk. There’s a creeping insistence to this music, thriving off a dual sense of unease and temptation, and the best songs blur the line between hedonism and anxiety.
Smerz recorded Believer over three years in Copenhagen, drawing on their youth in choirs as well as current academic pursuits in music composition and mathematics. Tensile MIDI harp samples bristle against actual violins and cellos, creating a digital and acoustic orchestra that lends Believer its appealing unpredictability. The minimalist interludes sprinkled throughout are intentionally theatrical (there’s a hearty round of applause on “Grand Piano”), complicating the album’s momentum with patches of eerie stillness. “The favourite” and “Versace Strings” are melancholy and full of echo, so it’s like hearing the trilling keys and Motzfeldt’s operatic voice from within a sprawling theater.
Believer dances along a tense, agitated line and doesn’t settle for long. “Flashing” includes Motzfeldt and Stoltenberg’s most expressive vocal performance, reeling off what sounds like a yearning inner monologue: “I don’t see you get close/About the things that I say that matter most.”. The passionate vocals stand out from the rest of Believer, with its glassine pop-R&B delivery. Smerz’s usual brooding, dead-eyed vacancy, punctuated with mumbled interjections, has a magnetic pull in concentrated blasts, but it can also feel like a slight crutch when songs like “Flashing” and the album’s interludes prove they can go in different, evocative directions at a whim. Believer flourishes in those moments, showing the full breadth of what Smerz can do.
Buy: Rough Trade