Chuck Johnson ‘Balsams’ CD (tak:til) 4/5

Californian guitarist Chuck Johnson has been making solo guitar recordings since the late 90’s, focussing on different styles, from solo acoustic fingerpicking through to electric ensemble pieces. “Balsams” is an expressive album that sees Johnson switching from the traditional guitar, to the not so often lauded pedal steel guitar. But if you’re thinking pedal steel in the shape of what you’d expect to hear on many a traditional country music album, then think again.

Essentially “Balsams” is an ambient album that uses the pedal steel as the lead instrument. The composer creates sonic soundscapes by layering the instrument with the use of loops and effects pedals, very much in a similar vein to some of the great exponents of ambient guitar playing, such as guitarists Eivind Aarset, David Torn and Jeff Pearce.

Creating a beautiful ambient wash of sound is a skill in itself. It takes time, compositional invention and subtlety of touch that is sometimes easily lost among the plethora of options available to a musician. To produce an album such as this, is, on the one hand, visionary thinking from Johnson to use the pedal steel guitar, yet on the other hand perhaps not too surprising given the range of possibilities the instrument gives. Either way, Johnson has produced an album of ambient loveliness.

To pinpoint one or two particular tracks from the album would to my mind do it an injustice. One needs to listen to and appreciate the album as a whole. The mood is wonderfully atmospheric. Sonic clusters of gentle sound wash through my ears as I take in the gorgeous, lush soundscapes that are so intelligently crafted. The music being performed captures my imagination in so many ways. It’s meditative and contemplative, yet also full of expression and verve.

Johnson may have taken in many influences from his musical background, from folk and country to blues and jazz, but in using the pedal steel guitar in such a creative way, one might think more of ambient trailblazers such as Eno and Aphex Twin. “Balsams” can’t really be pigeon-holed by genre, it is in many ways a unique album, richly swimming in its own energy of atmospheric beauty.

Mike Gates