Chas Smith is a California original—an instrument builder, composer, and performer who creates psychedelic labyrinths of sound using stringed instruments fed through various electronic processors. For the uninitiated, Nakadai, his fifth CD of material released by the intrepid Southern California-based label Cold Blue, might just be the perfect place to begin since it offers a great overview of his work. The disc collects three pieces originally issued on LP back in 1987, another from an anthology issued in 1991, and a brand new work that has never before been made available.
The three works from 1987 mine similar terrain. Nakadai for multitracked pedal steel guitar presents one long sustaining but continuously evolving harmony. Hollister for solo pedal steel guitar is much the same, but adds subtle microtonal shifts to the mix. For A Judas Within, Smith is joined by four percussionists for two alternately scored movements: “Seduction” adds marimba, vibraphone, and hammered dulcimer; “Betrayal” eliminates the dulcimer and adds microtonal chimes, bowed rods, and “small metal objects.” Despite the quicker attacks and decays of some of these instruments, it is frequently difficult to distinguish the individual lines that went into the creation of the resultant sonic splatter.
Joaquin Murphey, a solo for steel guitar from 1991, begins with an uncharacteristically clear, piercing tone which then morphs into a blurry dreamscape that is the most euphoric music on the entire disc, but before long more ominous harmonic amalgamations ensue. For the new work, Ghosts on the Windows, Smith multitracks steel guitar, pedal steel guitar, and something he calls “the Towers,” but the resultant work shows that his approach has remained consistent despite the generation separating this from the other works on the disc.
The booklet for the disc contains a tantalizing photo of the necks of Smith’s steel guitar whose fretboards are marked with the symbols of playing card suits (e.g. hearts, clubs, spades, diamonds), which suggests there might be a playful side to this music. Unfortunately, the packaging enigmatically offers little additional information beyond recording dates and personnel; but perhaps this obscurantist approach best serves such music which ultimately asks more questions than it answers.