During a 2019 episode of Portland-based electronic music podcast Form the Head, Moss Wand's Troy Michaeu and Brianna Sas dive deep into the world of sound baths. The duo uses singing bowls to curate meditative experiences, looping resonant tones to fill a space. The vibratory drones hit every listener differently, but when an audience is sufficiently relaxed, they may collectively settle in a state of inner peace.
This recorded interview piqued my attention because the previous evening I took in Chuck Johnson's The Cinder Grove, which according to its Bandcamp description, is also characterized as a "sound bath" of sorts. Two hits in two days. How serendipitous. But I wondered what about Johnson's album might inspire inner peace. After all, the prolific Oakland-based pedal steel player crafted this album with disappearing forests in mind. Wildfires now ravage western states every summer as a byproduct of capitalistic hubris, and scenes such as the one referenced in Johnson's album title are increasingly ubiquitous. Where's the peace in that?
The fact is that while Johnson's ambient constructions do feel deeply mournful for long stretches, there are moments of hope, too, and perhaps even allusions to an ultimate cosmic peace.
The Cinder Grove is a collection of five songs between seven and eleven minutes long. Johnson's signature pedal steel might be the most distinguishable instrument across the album, but he also uses quite a bit of synth and organ as backbone. DC favorite Sarah Davachi makes a guest appearance playing piano on Constellation (we think), and strings provide a weeping texture on the following track, Red Branch Bell. Those two songs leading into the major-chord climax The Laurel are arresting in the deepest way. I am certain that I am not the only west coaster who feels a sense of loss when thinking about our forests, and The Cinder Grove definitely touched a nerve. The theme of irreplaceablity runs strong through the album's core, and I felt it.
And yet Johnson signs off in a major key. He recorded these five songs using specific affects to approximate the acoustics of a redwood forest, so perhaps we are left standing in a grove of giants who survived. They are eternal, we are but a blip. Or maybe he wanted to capture the green of new life after a fresh burn. We can only guess at the artist's intent, but in the end he provides a peaceful conclusion to a story of loss. It would be incorrect to describe our final feeling as "contentment" because the fight against environmental degradation is ongoing, but for a moment at least, Johnson's sound bath has led us to rest.
Pictured above: the Northern California Redwoods we traversed in November 2017.
The Cinder Grove is out now and can be found through this link, and listen to a sample track below.