Atmosphere is a word that implies texture, at least in the world of ambient music. When we describe a song as being atmospheric music, we are talking about the feeling of being surrounded by something, of being caught in the web of a feeling or a sound. It’s almost as if we can reach out and touch the sound. In this atmosphere, we almost completely exist inside of it, reacting to it like an environment. In the way we can tune out the streets we walk everyday, we tune out the atmospheric music as it fades into the background and becomes just another part of the environment.
Chuck Johnson’s new album “Balsams” is an exercise in texture, draping worlds of sound upon our ears until we are forced to submit to its atmosphere. On the album the Oakland musician does the work with pedal steel guitar, tapping into warm layers of sound that ebb and flow in a delightfully drugged-out haze. It’s as if you were moving slow motion down a sunset-drenched avenue in California, floating upwards towards the leaves of palm trees framed by a fading blue sky.
Like many ambient recordings, “Balsams” tends to flow in and out of itself. It moves inside of lazy bass lines and through a light haze as it shifts subtly in layers of texture, rising and falling in kaleidoscopes of sound before another movement subtly takes over. There is no hanging on to one sound or effect, as the subtle movement is the song itself. The listener is being taken on a tour through a world of texture, one of dances slowly through a feeling of wonder.
Yet “Balsams” does often get lost in its own flow, droning onward towards oblivion. Still, it’s hard to rate an ambient album on such criteria, since the purpose of the record might have been just that. In the case of “Balsams,” the tracks are meant to be meditative in nature, and in that way the album works perfectly. Each track is only subtly different than the last, moving onward in a muted and familiar flow.
Opener “Calamus” oozes into focus over the first minute, not hurried to fill up the canvas. It seems Johnson doesn’t want to blast our senses too fast. Makes sense, considering how the bandcamp page for the album describes the recording: “Balsams is an album created in the hopes of providing solace and regenerative energies for many years to come.” Right before the minute mark, warm bass hits, subtly shifting notes over the course of the song as a washed-out texture of angelic sounds ebb and flow in the background. Close your eyes and you’re suddenly floating.
Although each track follows a similar course, the sounds shift enough between songs to make “Balsams” feel dynamic and purposeful. Whether it’s a little bit of space where there once was a swirl of noise, or the sudden rise of a steel guitar above the wall of ambient texture, Johnson has a feel for the slow movement of an ambient album. “Riga Black” wails over somber changes before moving into the sweeping rise and fall of “Moonstone.” I suddenly feel I’m moving between dimensions that are almost identical in nature, with the smallest changes suddenly magnified in all their glorious detail.
Johnson, with his cacophony of texture and feeling, has achieved what he sought out to do: Create a meditative album that utilizes the pedal steel guitar in a unique and magical way; moving softly through reflective sonic worlds. Considering his background in solo guitar and other musical projects, Johnson has put the time and energy into his craft. It seems he has put the same amount of dedication into “Balsams,” providing us with a healing piece of art for varied use, whether that be listening or meditation.
So as the sun sets tonight, I’ll lay down on the grass and finish the day with “Balm of Gilead,” watching the colors of the blue sky fade into twilight and then darkness. When I close my eyes, I’ll imagine running through a forest toward a yellow sun or the horizon beyond the ocean, reopening them to find that the night has arrived. Through the haze of sound, I’ll feel the subtle rotation of the earth.