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Chas Smith - Descent

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Artist: Chas Smith

Album: Descent

Label: Cold Blue

Review date: Feb. 26, 2006

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.

The title piece begins with long, slow-blooming tones the slow attack and long decay would seem to indicate their origin with Smith's main instrument, steel guitar that coalesce, with the addition of other sounds and electronic treatments, into shifting, barely perceptible melodies and harmonies.

After a while, the overall pitch envelope of the piece begins to spiral slowly down. This takes a long time; along the way, the complexity of sonic textures and spatial imaging of the materials creates a massive and powerful, yet glacially-paced, vortex of downward- seeking sound.

"Endless Mardi Gras" is both awe-inspiring and elegant. It begins with the thunderous, sky-ripping sound of jet engines. Slowly, through precise and radical EQ filtering and the addition of other sounds and instruments, the jet sounds seem to generate a spectral harmonic haze. Through the course of the 21-minute work, the haze moves and changes, acquiring perceived mass as it arrives at and departs from subtle tonal tensions and resolutions. As is the case with most of Smith's work, the composer's careful attention to spatial placement of material within the stereo spectrum adds to the sense of sound as sculptural entity. Along with its pure dimension of sound exploration, "Endless Mardi Gras" also offers a sense of sky blue poetry and wide-open spaciousness: its aural contrails complement the powerful roar and rumble of the source materials.

The final track, "False Clarity" at just under 10 minutes, a much shorter piece is more conventionally ambient in its consonance and warmth of timbres (including flute and voice), although at times it, too, presents a degree of dissonance that might make those seeking calm chill-out background music a bit uneasy.

There is little doubt that Chas Smith's music requires some commitment from the listener. But such an effort might be repaid with the direct experience of music as an all-enveloping transformation: tactile, tensile, and often surprising.

By Kevin Macneil Brown

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