Chas Smith is one of the most unique musicians working today. He has created his own musical worldcomplete 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 Smiths work, have repeatedly compared his compositionssome resonantly beautiful, some darkly brooding, some sonically overpoweringto 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' 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 Cages 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 Smiths music is sometimes sonically harsh, it is always extremely engaging. As one critic put it when reviewing one of Smiths 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 untiltrue to the work's titlethey 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 withinand ultimately definetheir 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 neededthe first two enjoying fairly long sitting times for you to find your inner Dream Housebut 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)
"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 Blues] production resides in Chas Smiths 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)
"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 Enos finest traditionjet plane, copper box, Pez eater, stainless steel sheetmarrying 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, whats 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