Few sounds evoke soulful yearning and rural landscapes as the venerable pedal steel guitar. For many listeners its dreamy, tremulous twang is inextricably wound into the roots & branches of country and western music, but over the years some have creatively sought to unshackle it in other genres and contexts. I dare say none of them have turned out as beguiling and restorative as what Chuck Johnson coaxed from the instrument to create the tone paintings and soundscapes on his latest album entitled Balsams.
Recorded in a single two-week session during late 2015, and subject his tender ministrations in the studio the following spring, this is pedal steel like you’ve never heard before – abstract and vaporous, infused with light, elongated, shimmering, and weightless. Johnson sets the instrument free of all boundaries and expectations, setting it aloft languid and unfettered to waft & wander across wide open spaces with only the echoes of its haunting, metallic arcs as an earthly ballast. Can authentic Americana and abstract ambient music go together? Balsams is a beautiful experiment that proves they absolutely can and it will make you feel better for having listened to it.
The spirit of experimentation behind Balsams extends into some of the videos that have been created for the songs. For the gracefully undulating “Calamus”, which opens the record, the healing waves emanating from Johnson’s guitar are visualized by the Macro Cymatic Visual Music Instrument created by Marielle Jakobsons which passes the sonic vibrations through water and converts them into mesmerizing patterns of light. You can also find equally creative official videos for “Riga Black” and “Labradorite Eye”.
Balsams is available as a vinyl release on Steve Lowenthal’s wonderfully esoteric guitar-focused VDSQ (Vin Du Select Qualitite) label. It can also be ordered in digital form from outlets such as Boomkat and Midheaven (links below).