Composed in 2020–21, each work on Chas Smith’s album Three (Distance, The Replicant, and The End of Cognizance) is an ever-evolving single gesture, a seamless blend of tones and timbres from his metal sound sculptures (instruments with such names as Que Lastas, Bertoia, Lockheed, Towers, Sceptre, Parabaloid) and his homemade steel guitars (Guitarzilla, Jr. Blue, bass steel), all performed by the composer.
Chas Smith is a formerly Los Angeles–based (now in Grass Valley, CA) composer, performer, and instrument designer and builder who, in the spirit of Harry Partch, creates most of his music for his own exotic instruments. His compositions, which always display his dual fascination with the scientific and the sensual, might owe their split personalities to the diverse collection of composers he studied with in the 1970s—including Morton Subotnick, James Tenney, and Harold Budd. As a performer, Smith has been heard playing both pedal steel guitar and his personally designed instruments on feature film scores by Thomas Newman, Christopher Young, Charlie Clouser, Mark Mothersbaugh, Jeff Danna, Hans Zimmer, John Williams, and others. Smith’s steel guitar playing has also been featured on recordings by composers Harold Budd and Rick Cox and a number of country-western bands. He has performed his own works at new music festivals and art galleries in the US and Europe. His music has appeared on nine previous Cold Blue albums, and he may be heard on such labels as Varèse Sarabande, Decca, Koch, Sony, Rastascan, All Saints, Cantil, and others.
“Chas Smith crafts . . . an oneiric montage of metallic tones and floating haloes, sonically chilly and alien yet with a strange otherworldly allure reminiscent of paintings by surrealist Yves Tanguy.” (Julien Cowley, The Wire) “An unforgettable experience that engulfs the listener softly yet firmly. . . haunting like Ligeti’s best works.” (All-Music Guide) “Alchemical ambient, turning a ton of metal sculptures and homemade steel guitars into a single, drifting, golden feather.” (Igloo Magazine) “[Smith’s] sounds seem to go on to the brink of forever . . . Wagnerian in intensity . . . consistently involving.” (Fanfare)
“Chas Smith is one of a small and select group of American originals, artists who not only possess a distinctive musical vision but realize it using instruments they create. Harry Partch, Ellen Fullman, and Harry Bertoia have been justly celebrated for the pioneering work they’ve done as instrument builders; in having created a series of metal sound sculptures and homemade steel guitars, Smith has earned his rightful place alongside them. By my count, Three is his seventh solo release issued by Cold Blue, the West Coast label that to its credit has provided a home for a large number of visionary innovators like Smith.
“Three pieces, naturally, appear on the release, with Smith generously clarifying the instruments involved in the production of each: Steel guitar, JrBlue, Guitarzilla, Pez Eater, Bertoia, Lockheed, Que Lastas, and Copper Box (Distance); Replicant, Lockheed, Sceptre, Pez Eater, Towers, and Parabaloid (The Replicant); and Towers, Lockheed, Big Ti, and bass steel guitar (The End of Cognizance). All three compositions push past the fifteen-minute mark and thus allow ample time for Smith to indulge his appetite for slow, gradual change and work his alchemical magic.
“The album opens with a steely flourish to send Distance on its way, the floodgates opening thereafter to all manner of ethereal sonorities. In truth, as radical as the instruments are that Smith creates to generate the sounds, the music itself sits comfortably within the ambient-drone genre. In these immersive tapestries, long, drifting trails commingle within the reverberant mass, with the elements rising and falling like the movements of a sleeping body. Metallic textures sweep across the music’s sleek surfaces in graceful arcs, the sound mass engulfing the listener within a resonant, swelling cocoon. Cavernous echo and unearthly bell strikes rapidly distinguish The Replicant from the opener, as does its nightmarish ambiance. It draws the listener into its vortex in a way that recalls Poe’s 1841 short story “A Descent into the Maelström” for its similarly unsettling tone, after which The End of Cognizance perpetuates the character of The Replicant with its own haunted stream of bell accents and muted wails.
“Given the spellbinding character of Smith’s music, it hardly surprises that he’s played his instruments on film soundtracks by Thomas Newman, Hans Zimmer, and others. Speaking of which, if a documentary hasn’t yet been made about Smith, it should be. Listening to the sounds he coaxes from his instruments is one thing; seeing him sourcing those sounds would be another thing altogether. Certainly the photographs on the release package tantalize, especially the one showing Smith dwarfed by an extravagant tower-like apparatus. Being able to observe him playing the instruments would obviously be illuminating and enhance one’s appreciation of this remarkable music-maker all the more.” —Ron Schepper, Textura
“There are occasions when impressions speak louder than facts. If this disc, titled Three, my introduction to the music of instrument builder and composer Chas Smith, is indicative, his work thrives on impression, each sound initially only a fragment of what it becomes, the becoming paramount to the process and to the effect.
“What these instruments are, how they’re played, and how they’re recorded I can’t say. Bow and bell might approximate the acoustic genesis of sounds that are most certainly electronically manipulated. When Keith Rowe allows a tone to escape his guitar, it flirts with conventionality, as timbre and context shape and reshape each other en route. Smith’s sounds increase in size and heft as they develop. A bowed tone gains bass and weight; a bell-like metallic clang may do the same, but it may just as easily bounce around the soundstage before evaporating into the glorified remnants of its components. Each sonic component also has a kind of internal rhythm which Smith may or may not exploit, as The End of Cognizance demonstrates.
“As that final track seems the most conventional in terms of charting a form apparent on the surface, let’s dwell on it. It is the most apparently bell-like of the three. It begins and concludes in the same zone of crystalline drone, but immediately abundant is the ping-pong of articulation that eventually leads to a looped rhythm of its own. At 1:48, the drone itself waves its way through a series of dynamic, almost parabolic, manipulations, and soon after, sounds related to those initial clangs add additional layers of orchestration. To state that there are no discernable tonal centers would be both true and false. Each drone produces points of stasis, but they result from conflicting complexities inherent in the tones themselves. At 9:20, higher frequencies intrude, bringing light and another layer of tonal center to an already dense network. Is it another instrument or shades of the first? The upper edges of the sound unravel as they traverse the sound spectrum and temporarily disappear. All returns at 14:32 with those initial bell timbres, a glorious conglomerate in sympathetic resonance to usher the piece out.
“What kind of music is this? In what fragilely constructed box can we put it? There’s more of Lustmord’s pioneering dark ambiance in it than Pierre Schaeffer’s concrete contributions, though both could be evoked in a transgenerational way. This is music residing in the intersecting planes of deep introspection and, if predilection dictates, fostering meditation to match. There’s no comfort if conventional cadences are what’s desired, but, as the fullness of drone and multilayered reverberation and delay empties all around it, an equilibrium is achieved. A space of static motion opens, and another facet of what Amiri Baraka trenchantly called the “changing same” is illuminated.” —Marc Medwin, Fanfare magazine
“Metal (un)machine music, naked, whooping, and suchlike. Smith’s metallo-drone symphonies belong to a rich heritage of homemade instrument builders working the same reverberant mojo, drawing a straight line from the twin exploratory soundscapes of Harry Bertoia and Partch to the Deep Listening crew’s singing bowl experiments and Henry Wolff and Nancy Hennings’ sacred Tibetan bells meditations. Close your eyes while listening to this bold new Smith release and the vernaculars of deep space music, nu-age, and any number of similarly-themed electronic artists (Steve Roach, Robert Rich, Z’ev, etc.) are summarily revealed. But the key here is that Smith achieves his great, chiming tone poems through purely analog means: whether it’s plucking the strings of beautifully reflective steel guitars or tapping on a whole foundry of resonant metals—springs, pinions, racks, wholly invented new-fangled ‘marimbas’—the depths of these complex, shifting harmonics are as detailed as the pixels of film when glimpsed in microscopic detail. Of the three lengthy tracks here, each connotes a related non-place or environments of strange, unearthly remit. Distance opens with a minimalist burst of steel guitar that feels like birds escaping into a deep, unglimpsed horizon, until the shimmering patinas wrought forth from such mythical instruments as pez eater, copper box, lockheed (and, yes, bertoia) undulate in the breezeway. The Replicant goes darker, its bowed, thwacked, and rubbed surfaces portending the potential arrival of beings cloaked in differing skins than ours. The End of Cognizance” performed on instruments with such massive-sounding names as towers and the Big Ti, is truly immense in its decaying, thunderstruck notes, as if your ears have entered some vast echo chamber where these gigantic notes bounce endlessly across millennia. Epic.” —Darren Bergstein, Downtown Music Gallery Newsletter
“On Three, layers and layers of drone and texture slowly evolve and change as time passes for the listener. Distant chimes ring out, metallic reverberations fade and reappear, speakers shake and tremble, and my daughter asks what on earth I am listening to. This is music to be immersed in, soundscapes which bewitch and disturb but ultimately seduce and embrace as you reach for the repeat button and hope this music will never end.” —Rupert Loydell, International Times
“A musician, a builder, and, most importantly, a dreamer, Chas Smith releases striking works of enigmatic proportions. Fully invested in making its own kind of magic in its own time his album Three fills the air with an unremitting expressive force. As this music’s innate surrealism fully flowers, we venture into the musical terrain of a unique innovation. Listeners will need to be brave and just jump into this metalized universe. Conversing using not any established language, but rather the sheer manipulation of steel sound, Smith thoughtfully and purposefully bows, bangs, taps, raps, rubs and otherwise manipulates his hand-fabricated ferrous instruments. Producing a range of sustaining burnished tones—which mingle and layer into everything from imaginative soundscapes and floating textures, to thought-zone drones and nightmarish metal fields—we sense a tremor of floating lustrous shapes in disconnected geometries. When the product of this metallurgic encounter surrounds shuddering, steel strings electric, the unsettled meditation grinds with an industrial intonation. Humming over the shifting shapes and expressive shades of sound, trivial tones reside alongside the apocalyptic in such proximity that they combine—and point toward something beyond itself. In what furnace did these dreams forge? Behind the toll of no earthly bell Smith’s Three goes on into its own vibrating wilderness, and invites the listener along on the journey. Traversing distances of thought, we follow the drama, where we may meet the spirits of Harry Bertoia and Robert Rutman—and their proclamations from the deep.” —Chuck van Zyl, Star’s End
“The advance material I received for this album states that each of these pieces is ‘an ever-evolving single gesture, a seamless blend of tones and timbres from [Smith’s] metal sound sculptures … and his homemade steel guitars.’ Looking back on past articles about albums, I realized that this was the latest in several offerings that reminded me of the ‘ambient’ compositions of Brian Eno and the series of albums he released of similar approaches taken by other composers. Where Smith is concerned, it would be appropriate to observe that he builds his own instruments; and his acts of construction are as much a part of the music as is how he plays those instruments in the creation of the three tracks on this album.
“Somewhat in the spirit of Harry Partch, those instruments are given names that are just as engaging as the sounds they emit. The metal sound sculptures that Smith plays include Que Lastas, Bertoia, Lockheed, Towers, Sceptre, and Parabaloid. The jacket that holds the CD has five photographs of these sculptures but no captions to identify which is which. The guitars include a bass steel along with two invented instruments, Guitarzilla and Jr. Blue. Smith has also deployed his guitar work to perform the music of Harold Budd, whose music often shares Eno’s ‘ambient aesthetic.’ Furthermore, because listening to Smith’s music cultivates attention to subtle details in the fabric of a deceptively uniform environment, he establishes at least a modest kinship with the ‘deep listening’ performances organized by Pauline Oliveros.
“It goes without saying that patience is prerequisite for listening to Three. If one tries too hard to sort out foreground from background, one is likely to get frustrated very quickly. While this is a genre that appeals to me now as much as it did when I encountered it in recordings produced by Eno, I realize that I am probably part of a minority.” —Stephen Smoliar, The Rehearsal Studio
“Multiinstrumentalist Chas Smith’s recording Three is not simply atmospheric, its ethereal sonic palette comes with a twist in that the ripples on his ocean of sound spread vertically, seemingly piercing the very dome of the sky. Even the title is subtly idiomatic; its reference being more Trinitarian than merely numeric.
“The musical hypnosis begins almost immediately in the whispered, metallic hiss of a myriad of instruments on Distance, continuing through The Replicant and into the denouement of this recording on a piece aptly called The End of Cognizance. The record label says that ‘the spirit of Harry Partch’ pervades throughout. But even a first run-through of this repertoire suggests overtones of the soundtrack of a Philip K. Dick cinematic narrative. ln particular, the short story ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?’—which became Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner—comes presciently to mind.
“The music throughout seems to hang in the air like dense vapor of a sonic kind. But the seeming stasis is constantly changing, metamorphosing into something quite different at every tum. Its dark melodic fragments spin and pirouette constantly, revealing Smith’s singular balletic lyricism. The three parts of the music are layered one atop the other like sonic strata evocative of the massive natural forces pervading a planet spinning its way into infinity in triumph against time. The orchestration is as brilliantly inventive as the instruments that are employed to play it; all constructed by the composer.” — Raul da Gama, TheWholeNote
“In the spirit of Harry Partch, Chas Smith creates his personal musical world by creating his own instruments. With these, he creates ‘a world of expansive musical tapestries, carefully woven textures, that evolve via slow, constant processes of change. His music and his instruments have featured in many film scores and on recordings by artists such as Harold Budd, Rick Cox, and others.
“Three is not his third album. In fact, this is already his ninth for the Cold Blue Music label alone. Three refers to the number of tracks on this album: three tracks each around fifteen minutes in length, carefully taking time to evolve and display the broad scope of possibilities of the instruments Smith uses.
“From the list of instruments, you’ll probably only recognize the steel guitar and the bass steel guitar. The other instrument names are a fascinating list in itself: JrBlue, Guitarzilla, Pez Eater, Bertoia, Lockheed, Que Lastas, Copper Box, Replicant, Lockheed, Sceptre, Parabaloid, Towers, Big Ti. . . . Together, they are mixed into immersive and evocative drones and soundscapes in such a way that it’s no longer necessary to know how these soundscapes are created: it’s best to simply surrender to it.” —Ambientblog
“Three is a new CD release from Cold Blue Music by musician and master-machinist Chas Smith. Now residing in rural Grass Valley, California, Smith lived for many years in the San Fernando Valley, and this put him squarely in the center of the Los Angeles aerospace and movie industries. . . . Smith’s long experience as a machinist has resulted in the ability to fabricate specialized musical instruments and intriguing sound sculptures . . . and his sound sculptures have been heard in a number of feature films. Several of these mechanical creations, with evocative names such as Que Lastas, Bertoia, Lockheed, Towers and Parabaloid, are heard on this new CD. Smith is also an accomplished steel guitarist and performs on two of the tracks. Chas Smith follows in the footsteps of pioneer Harry Partch and others who have conceived, designed and built their own instruments in order to realize a unique musical vision.
“What does all this sound like? All of the tracks share a common form: an ambient cloud of sound, always in slow motion and subtly changing its emotional coloring.
“Distance, the first track, opens with a buzzing and zooming sound while a sustained musical tone enters underneath. There are a variety of sounds present, but they all work together with exceptional coherence to create a warm glow. There is a sense of movement and power in lower registers that quietly rises and falls, as if passing by the listener at a distance. A low humming, like the beating of a multi-engine propeller aircraft is suggested, but this never dominates. No fewer than seven of Smith’s sonic sculptures and his steel guitar are included on this piece, yet these elements are perfectly realized and artfully mixed; they are always musical yet never lose their suggestion of the mechanical. The sounds are consistently engaging, but raise no expectations through tension and release. In the last two minutes bass pedal tones predominate, gradually reducing the sensation of movement and power as Distance fades to a deep finish, completing a captivating journey.
“The Replicant, track 2, has a very different feel, starting with a deep, spacey sound that carries a mysterious, alien coolness and a sense of vast emptiness. There are artful combinations of musical tones and steely sounds, but in this piece a greater contrast is heard with the mechanical, now mostly in the foreground. Steely sounds in the middle registers seem to quiver like long, vibrating rods. Chimes are also heard, slightly less resonant than, say, church tower bells, but still well-shaped and full of presence. At about seven minutes in, deep, throbbing bass tones are heard, like the snoring of some great sleeping beast. As the piece proceeds, the texture is consistently rich but always changing on its surface. There is a gradual decrescendo in the final stages, as if we are slipping away in a dream.
“The Replicant clearly features the mechanical sounds more prominently and while they often dominate, they are never intimidating. Smith’s realizations occupy a perfect middle ground between sound and music in the listener’s brain, and this works to expand one’s aural perception. Beautifully mixed and processed, The Replicant beguiles and engages.
“The final track is The End of Cognizance and this acts as a summing up of all the sounds heard on this album. The structure is similar to the earlier tracks, but fewer of Smith’s sound sculptures are included. The End of Cognizance has an upward-looking feel, managing to be simultaneously introspective and optimistic. Bright, mechanical chiming dominates, especially in the upper registers, with continuous tones accompanying in the bass. The experience resembles being inside a large wind-up clock and the mechanical undercurrent is artfully combined with the sunny sounds of the chimes. As this piece proceeds, a soft growling is heard in the deep registers as the metallic sounds become lower in pitch, darker and more ominous. An increase in the harsher metallic sounds soon overtakes the more musical elements below. “By 10:00 all this attains an intent that now feels malevolent. At about 14:40, several higher pitched chimes are heard, solitary and spaced out, like welcome beacons of hope shining forth from the gathering gloom. The chimes descend again to the lower registers, like the sinking of a ship, with a long decrescendo and the thinning of texture until the piece fades to a finish.
“The End of Cognizance, as with the other tracks, is masterfully realized and brings beauty to the ear. The mix of musical and mechanically generated sound is seamless. The recording was by Chas Smith in his studio at Grass Valley and the mastering by Scott Fraser in Los Angeles—and the results are truly impressive. Three achieves a level of integration between the sound sculptures and a steel guitar that reach out to new musical horizons. We can all look forward to hearing more from Grass Valley.” —Paul Muller, Sequenza21
“Smith builds his instruments, rather than buying them in a store, and these instruments are made of metal. They have exotic names such as Que Lastas, Lockheed Towers, Sceptre and Bertoia (well, that isn’t as cryptic, of course), while his steel guitars are called Guitarzilla, Jr. Blue and bass steel. On this new CD there are three compositions and in all of them he plays various instruments. His pieces aren’t the result of playing them live, I assume. I might be wrong here of course, and maybe a set-up is possible to have various metallic objects sing at the same time. Because singing it is. Smith isn’t the metal basher along the lines of Z’EV or Neubauten. I assume he uses bows to play these objects and that brings out some of the greatest overtone singing I heard in quite some time. Three pieces, each around sixteen minutes, of gorgeous slow music. Everything is on a peaceful dark drift. You could think that it is electronic, or reverb-heavy, but it is not. Objects are set in motion by Smith and sustain all by themselves. There is very little by way of human interaction it seems. It is as almost these sounds are made by machines. Just when I made this observation, I heard a bow sound over one of the instruments. Much to my surprise I read in the information that his instruments have been used by Hollywood soundtrack composers, and I realized, yes, totally obvious. These sounds can easily be used for more suspenseful passages in movies.” —Frans de Waard, Vital Weekly (Netherlands)
“Here’s an awe-inspiring triplet of echoing soundscapes . . . . Whenever Smith decides to set foot in his studio, the experimentation he carries out is made up of months of trial and error. . . . All this and much more is reflected in these superb pieces, whose reverberating core belongs to instruments entirely conceived and manufactured by the composer, who baptizes them with great names.” —Massimo Ricci, Touching Extremes (Italy)
“Chas Smith has a musical vision that is unique enough that it requires him to invent his own instruments. Each of the three pieces on this disc was created using several of these custom-created instruments. For example, The End of Cognizance is a piece for ‘Towers, Lockheed, Big Ti, (and) bass steel guitar,’ whereas the monumental The Replicant is performed on ‘steel guitars, JrBlue, Guitarzilla, Pez Eater, Bertoia, Lockheed, Que Lastas, (and) copper box.’ One wishes that more photos and descriptions of the instruments were provided, but on the other hand it’s kind of fun to listen to these somber, floating soundscapes and try to imagine the objects creating the sounds. There’s something unsettling but also deeply moving about these works—listen to them at high volume on really good speakers and prepare to be transported.”—Rick Anderson, CD Hotlist: New Releases for Libraries
“Chas Smith is primarily known for his unique instrument creations and the recordings he makes with them, as well as being an in-demand pedal steel player, and a collaborator with the likes of Harold Budd, Thomas Newman, and many others. One could think if him as something of a modern-day Harry Partch for his instrument creations alone, but he’s done much more, and has been actively making recordings since the beginning of the ‘80s. He has recently relocated from his former home base of Los Angeles to the relatively quieter domicile of Grass Valley, northeast of Sacramento. Three is not his third album (probably his tenth by my count), but a collection of three pieces of recent vintage that conceptually fit well together, each with its own character, and using many of his home-made exotic instruments (four are shown on the six panel CD jacket, more can be found searching the web). . . . Each of the three pieces are effectively the length of an LP side, and offer sonic constructions that are ‘floating ambient’ in nature, but there are no synths or conventional electronics here, the instruments are mechanical devices that seem to be bowed or struck, and offer a long sustain, sometimes seemingly looped. Distance is the opener, a gently swirling vortex of sound that appears to be at least partially the result of bowed metal, though one can’t be sure; the result is a gentle calming effect on the listener. Next comes The Replicant, which showcases the instrument of the same name, offering a bit more of an industrial sound, but no less compelling from the standpoint of a listener. Closing the proceedings is The End of Cognizance, which starts with struck metal producing bell-like sounds that seem to have an infinite sustain, working like waves that drive a beautiful and cavernous sonic universe. If one loves mysterious ambient soundworlds, Three should be definitely be of interest.”—Exposé