Chuck Johnson, a composer and musician out of California, has left behind the time-keeping picking structures of picked American primitive guitar and headed for the territories. Last fall, opening for Marielle V. Jacobson (he also played bass for her), you might have caught him in mid-transformation, layering shimmering atmospheres over structures that were recognizably grounded in folk blues – Fahey slowed and set in a vast echoing cavern . Balsams, composed and played on pedal steel, takes the shift even further, unspooling high, vibrating melodic reveries as waves and washes of edgeless sound.
Take “Calamus,” for instance, the opening track, built out of interleaved, translucent tones, a sound full of overtones and undertones that expands and fades organically, like lungs. Johnson gets a variety of muted sensations out of his instrument, a pipe-organ-ish drone, a tremulous string surge like an orchestra warming up, the twang and arc of country guitar cresting querulously over the haze. The cut is named after a Greek hero whose much-beloved friend challenged him to a swimming race. When the friend drowned, Calamus, too, ceased swimming and joined his friend in death. And while, “Calamus” the track tells no literal stories, you can certainly imagine light filtering through algae’d waters, the chill of current, the melancholy, murky depths. The sound brushes past like water pushed by kicks. You feel like a giant tortoise moving through it as it parts for you, envelops you, cools and slows you.
The aesthetic of Balsams so odd and full of unearthly magic that you might welcome a chance to see Johnson in action, wresting miasmas of tone from his single instrument. Too bad. There doesn’t seem to be any performance video of this particular material, and the video for “Riga Black” sheds no light on process or technique. Better, perhaps, to listen in darkness to this moody, slow-moving beauty, as a glacial melody dips and soars over pillow-y foundations, the notes semi-solid, bouncing like blobs of gelatin as they drop. Balsams is as mysterious as it is lovely, and perhaps not knowing is part of the experience.