Chas Smith is one of the most unique musicians working today. He has created his own musical world—complete with its own instruments and “language.” It is a world of expansive musical tapestries and carefully sculpted textures that never sit absolutely still, but evolve via a slow, constant change of aural perspective. Smith’s soundworld, however, it is not an altogether alien one, and critics, in their praise of Smith’s work, have repeatedly compared his compositions—some resonantly beautiful, some darkly brooding, some sonically overpowering—to those of Ligeti.
With Descent, Smith continues to create the great, sometimes clangorous soundscapes that have fed the popularity of his earlier Cold Blue releases. The central pitch and structural ideas for the three pieces that comprise this CD were originally conceived for an evening of music that Smith presented at Los Angeles’s historic Schindler House. Here, those initial ideas are expanded and developed.
On this recording, Smith utilizes his large sculptural instruments, which are all made of various metals (and go by such unusual names as Copper Box, Que Lastas, Pez Eater and Jr. Blue), steel guitar, the recorded sounds of jet engines, and Smith’s self-designed-and-built three-neck steel guitar, “guitarzilla,” which he prepares (a la John Cage’s prepared piano) with metal rods and plays with hammered dulcimer hammers.
Chas Smith is a Los Angeles-based composer, performer, and instrument designer and builder who, in the spirit of Harry Partch, creates much of his music for his own exotic instruments. His compositions, which always display his dualistic fascination with the scientific and the sensual, might owe their split personalities to the diverse collection of composers he studied with in the 1970s: Morton Subotnick, Mel Powell, James Tenney, and Harold Budd.
As a performer, Smith regularly appears on feature film scores, playing both pedal steel guitar and his personally designed instruments. He may be heard on such popular film scores by Thomas Newman as The Shawshank Redemption, The Horse Whisperer, and American Beauty. (He has also worked for film composers Christopher Young, Charlie Clouser, Mark Mothersbaugh, Jeff Danna, and John Williams.) Smith, who has been featured on recordings by composers Harold Budd and Rick Cox (and with numerous country-western bands), has performed his own works at various new music festivals and art galleries. His music has been recorded on the Arc Light, Cold Blue, Cantil, MCA, and Straw Dog labels.
Although Smith’s music is sometimes sonically harsh, it is always extremely engaging. As one critic put it when reviewing one of Smith’s earlier recordings: “If the house band on the Titanic sounded this gorgeous when the ship went down, you might have been tempted to stay aboard.”
“Smith’s Descent deploys an idiosyncratic sound design to generate tonal sculptures of massive textural density.… Calling Smith’s instrumentation unusual is an absurd understatement. Aside from the familiar cry of his steel guitar, Descent‘s three long pieces feature sounds produced by metal-based sculptural instruments (which he even names: Copper Box, Que Lastas, Pez Eater, and Jr. Blue) and a custom-built, three-neck steel guitar he calls Guitarzilla. Smith’s compositions are grandiose vistas teeming with twilight sonorities, admittedly destabilizing slabs of modulating sonic material whose woozy unfurl recalls Ligeti. The eighteen-minute title piece establishes the album’s disorienting character immediately with sustained tones that subtly shift until—true to the work’s title—they eventually spiral down in transitions so glacial they verge on imperceptible. A persistent, low-pitched thrum crawls along the bottom of the droning piece, a sound vaguely similar to the bass hum of Tuvan throat-singing. Endless Mardi Gras opens with the faint babble of conversation and the noise of jet engines until crystalline tones slowly supplant the rumbling, while the ambient tapestry of shimmering washes in False Clarity ascends to a remarkably ethereal crescendo that’s so subtly woven into the fabric of the piece it almost escapes notice. As Smith is less concerned with fashioning conventional melodic compositions than depicting sound as a living entity, his work challenges listeners who like their music easily broached. Still, though Descent‘s heaving masses may be alien in character, they’re engrossing nonetheless.” —Ron Schepper, Signal to Noise magazine and Textura
“Southern California-based composer Chas Smith’s sound constructions occupy a paradoxical place between drifting lightness and dense gravity. They move slowly, accruing and shedding sonic elements as they develop within—and ultimately define—their own aural shapes.… Perhaps it is, in part, Smith’s practical grasp of metallurgy, fabrication, and structural engineering that help lend his music its unique sense of physical mass within space. Indeed, he designs and builds himself many of the musical instruments used in his compositions, and I suspect that those ringing metals and vibrating strings have a lot to do with the density and depth preserved at the root of this, ultimately, electronically-processed music. The two long pieces that make up most of Smith’s new release, Descent, are his most powerful and focused work yet.” —Kevin Macneil Brown, Dusted Magazine
“Listening to Chas Smith’s newest CD, Descent, is like sifting through space. It’s atmospheric and otherworldly, yet never stands still. Here and there are small craters and crescendos of electronic sound, and the harmonic landscape seems to suggest a tonic center, but then it slowly drifts into outer orbits to explore a much larger sound vocabulary. Three tracks are all Smith needed—the first two enjoying fairly long sitting times for you to find your inner Dream House—but all three employ Smith’s own take on the limits, or lack there of, of the southern steel guitar using electronic enhancements.” —Anna Reguero, NewMusicBox (American Music Center)
“During a sunny Californian winter day past January, galactic hobo Chas Smith plays Descent from start to finish in the environment it was created in, and the earth begins to rotate backwards. His crowded hi-tech state of the art studio in Encino, Los Angeles, knocks you out with its welding and metalwork machinery, vintage guitar amps, handmade, colorful cowboy boots, walls adorned with “Girl on The Billboard” voluptuous female figures—and Paul McCarthy drawings. Madly sweet. His sometimes kinetic, Harry Bertoia-related sound sculptures are a by-product of his job as a welder, and they’re specifically conceived for and fully integrated into his own compositions. His pedal steel guitars, sumptuous instruments of elegiac desolation, from a vintage Bigsby to his titanium custom-made Guitarzilla dominate the view in their metallic splendor.… ‘A solitary genius,’ as Susan Alcorn describes him, Chas follows no particular school of composition but his own, modeling sophisticated structures of layered complex harmonics to reach organ-like intensity.… Descent is constructed around the Doppler effect on the pedal steel’s modified pitches and the flawless shift of its sonorities into pure sound manipulation. Its desert grandeur is perversely seductive. The 18-minute title track recedes inexorably, contrary-motion superpositions gradually merging their harmonic long tones with a Gothic downpour of a bowed stainless steel sheet metal. Endless Mardi Gras is 20 minutes of liquid sky travel, notch filters, flutes, zither, Guitarzilla and Copper Box and steel guitar in a hallucinatory rich fountain of overtones, while the closing False Clarity is all pink mountains and lost moments of worship, decaying with the subtlety and color of a shakuhachi. Deep as an abyss, Descent‘s slow resonant orchestration evolves relentlessly, entrancing, angelic choirs riveted in aural alchemy.” —Marcelo Aguirre, Paris Transatlantic
“The line-up of instruments above gives only the vaguest notion of what this recording sounds like. There are three tracks here, averaging about sixteen minutes each. Suffice it to say they probably sound like nothing you’ve ever heard before, certainly like nothing I’ve heard before, not even the other CDs under Smith’s name. Descent is music/sound suggestive of continental drift (it’s that slow). And it’s that…is ‘grand’ the word? It suggests eons. The aura it gives off is like heat shimmering. Its sense of space makes me think of large desert expanses. Endless Mardi Gras is hardly festive. The title’s meant ironically, however. It points out the anti-celebratory, anti-development (at least development in the conventional sense) nature of this extremely slow and very dour soundwork. Anything like this risks serious ennui and it overruns its welcome somewhat at just over twenty minutes. But I’d listen to it again for its generous strangeness. The last cut, False Clarity, fortunately returns to the evocative drift of Descent. It recalls the marvelous bowed piano music of Stephen Scott, but the character here is both tougher and more overtly graceful. It allows itself to revel in the luxuriousness of gradual development.” —Richard Grooms, The Improvisor
“Quite a powerful release.” —Vital Weekly (The Netherlands)
“Crystalline in its execution and highly lyrical in nature, Descent is another winner from Chas Smith.” —Tom Sekowski, Gaz-Eta (Poland)
“Chas Smith continues to explore a more jagged soundscape, mixing the noise of metal, jet planes, flute and voice with his own unique handmade instruments. Descent is less surprising than his previous releases but just as careful and intelligent in the way it collages and sculpts sound.” —Rupert Loydell, Tangents magazine (UK)
“The core of [Cold Blue’s] production resides in Chas Smith’s works. Already there in the beginning, when the label was producing its first LPs, this composer, guitarist and authentic desert enthusiast has developed his own soundworld using unique instruments he designs and builds himself. The heir of Harry Partch and several other instrument inventors, he has given birth to highly beautiful and formal microtonal music. It is rich in complex harmonics and often structured around alternating rising and falling movements. On Descent, he plays a triple-neck pedal-steel guitar christened Guitarzilla and large metallic sound structures with evocative names, like Copper Box, Que Lastas, Pez Eater, and Jr. Blue. Other sculptures (Bass Tweed, Tio, Lockheed, Dado, Mantis) are pictured in the booklet of the magnificent Nikko Wolverine CD.” — Gérard Nicollet, Octopus (France)
“Descent is Chas Smith’s fifth album under his own name—only his fifth, one is tempted to add, as Mr. Smith is no beginner.… His work always revolves around a quest for unusual sounds. That’s how he became passionate about pedal steel guitar, which he dragged out of its traditional country music setting and into contemporary music territory.… By definition, Descent’s sound world is like no other. Listening to it quickly becomes an obsession. Sounds successively become illuminating, dark and disquieting, mysterious and fascinating. It would be absurd to call up the usual ambient music metaphor of the soundscape. The music on Descent does not bring up any mental images. In Smith’s own words: ‘You are not looking at the landscape, you are standing in it.’ Descent consists of three extended pieces in which dilated gong-like resonances appear, evolve and fade away, and one can hear sounds similar to those usually produced by a clarinet, a passenger plane sample blended into the sonic mass woven by the manufactured instruments, strings vibrating under a bow that must be a few meters long…. The listener is deeply immersed into notes that resonate, last, crossfade and crisscross each other. Chas Smith is not after beauty at any cost. Some sounds sound really strange, as if a large orchestra was sustaining a ‘wrong note’ for a long time. Descent is a true acoustic experience that changes according to various parameters: the size of the room, volume level, time of day.… This album seems to be the result of a double paradox. First, the paradox of an abstract sound creation based on concrete acoustic research. Second, the paradox of an abstraction wearing its expressionism on its sleeve.” —Neosphere (France)
“Ethereal and intangible is Chas Smith’s Descent…which transforms his guitar chords and the slowed-down and treated sounds of a flute and airplanes into a translucent envelope. He gets an oddly earthy and warm atmosphere out of metal.”—Classica-Repertoire (France)
“Using handmade steel instruments (often of giant proportions) that each have a unique sound mixed with the sliding tones of the steel guitar, a flute, and the frequent sounds of noisy jet engines, the resulting album steps out of normal genre standards.” —His Voice (Czech Republic)
“Using found objects and noisemakers in the spirit of Eno’s finest tradition—jet plane, copper box, Pez eater, stainless steel sheet—marrying them to some smartly played steel guitars and then electronically manipulating the hell out of the whole assemblage, Smith concocts some fiery, ripping-good drone-o-spheres. Descent literally takes you down to the seventh level of Hell, the walls painted dripping-red, where stark resonances echo off the strata where they are gradually sucked into depths of abyssal dimensions. Endless Mardi Gras is like being caught in the eye of a tornado, eyes transfixed on the detritus whirling about; and when the storm dies down, what’s left is the sound of liquified earth decomposing. Then the sunshine returns on Lost Clarity to provide some measure of guidance through the fogbank, timbers of dawn sluicing through the darkness. What a gargantuan chamber hall to get lost in, a sense of largesse that razes the senses. Cold and Blue, being lowered into this maelstrom is one trip worth taking.”—Darren Bergstein, e/i magazine