Daniel Lentz: On the Leopard Altar
Cold Blue

Chas Smith: Descent
Cold Blue

Having issued seven exquisite singles during the past few years, Cold Blue returns to full-length duty with two dramatically different releases by label mainstays Chas Smith and Daniel Lentz. Smith's Descent deploys an idiosyncratic sound design to generate tonal sculptures of massive textural density while Lentz's more accessible On the Leopard Altar presents a ravishing suite of compositions created from keyboards, voices, and wineglasses.

Calling Smith's instrumentation unusual is an absurd understatement. Aside from the familiar cry of his steel guitar, Descent's three long pieces feature sounds produced by metal-based sculptural instruments (which he even names: Copper Box, Que Lastas, Pez Eater, and Jr. Blue) and a custom-built, three-neck steel guitar he calls Guitarzilla. Smith's compositions are grandiose vistas teeming with twilight sonorities, admittedly destabilizing slabs of modulating sonic material whose woozy unfurl recalls Ligeti. The eighteen-minute title piece establishes the album's disorienting character immediately with sustained tones that subtly shift until—true to the work's title—they eventually spiral down in transitions so glacial they verge on imperceptible. A persistent, low-pitched thrum crawls along the bottom of the droning piece, a sound vaguely similar to the bass hum of Tuvan throat-singing. “Endless Mardi Gras” opens with the faint babble of conversation and the noise of jet engines until crystalline tones slowly supplant the rumbling, while the ambient tapestry of shimmering washes in “False Clarity” ascends to a remarkably ethereal crescendo that's so subtly woven into the fabric of the piece it almost escapes notice. As Smith is less concerned with fashioning conventional melodic compositions than depicting sound as a living entity, his work challenges listeners who like their music easily broached. Still, though Descent's heaving masses may be alien in character, they're engrossing nonetheless.

Lentz's magnificent On the Leopard Altar is clearly the more accessible of the two recordings, as one doesn't merely listen but rather surrenders to its seductive pull. Well-considered pacing and stylistic contrasts are a significant part of its appeal: the first and fourth pieces surge with rush hour-like intensity, while the others are more meditative and less densely arranged. The spectacular opening piece “Is It Love” recalls the mid-‘80s style of classical minimalism with vocal sounds seemingly kin to the solfege style of Einstein On The Beach. Closer listening, however, reveals that Lentz's much different composition unfolds subtractively: after voices begin each line by sounding all of the words' phonemes, those same phonemes and notes are removed until a finished line emerges. Throughout the exuberant work, lush vocal weaves breezily sail over intricate lattices of staccato keyboard patterns. Similarly spirited, the sleek roller-coaster ride “Wolf Is Dead…” is the longest piece but also the least engrossing, despite its immaculate sheen. Conversely, the languorous adagio of crystalline tones that Lentz conjures in “Lascaux” from sixteen rubbed and struck wineglasses is remarkable, while the album's sparest yet most affecting work is its central title piece, a rapturous lullaby (actually six songs, each heard alone and in combination with those preceding it) featuring a glorious vocal performance by Jessica Karraker. And the most amazing thing of all? Though it sounds entirely fresh and wholly current, On the Leopard Altar was first released in 1984 on vinyl and is only now making its first appearance on CD.

April 2006