Best Albums of 2020: Cosmic Americana

LUKE SCHNEIDER
Altar of Harmony (Third Man Records)
GOLDEN BROWN
Flora and Fauna of the Uncanny Valley (Bandcamp)
NORTH AMERICANS
Roped In (Third Man Records)

Whether or not ‘cosmic Americana’ is actually a thing, I’ll borrow the tag anyway because it perfectly captures the spirit of these gently psychedelic and distinctly American-flavoured instrumental releases.

Altar of Harmony is kind of a Southern take on early Californian new age, created entirely with a pedal steel guitar by seasoned Nashville session musician Luke Schneider. We all know what pedal steel sounds like, yet there’s also loads of vintage new age and proggy keyboard-like sounds here as well. How he created them all is a mystery, suffice to say it shows a remarkable gift for sound manipulation and synthesis. Liquid, shimmering guitar lines in various guises mesh with choral drones and extended morphing chords that sometimes resemble a barrel organ or the eerie strings of a Mellotron keyboard, all “booming music of the spheres” as the release notes so winningly put it.

The albums from Golden Brown (Colorado’s Stefan Beck) and North Americans (Californian Patrick McDermott and friends) are much more acoustic-based, centering around steel-string acoustic and pedal/lap steel guitars with some synth support and a few other instruments. They’re full of transcendent melodies and rich colours, drawing partly – each in their own way – on the eclectic folk guitar sounds of ‘American primitive’ and its eccentric originator John Fahey (1939-2001). Or to put in more familiar terms, imagine capturing in a bottle what psy-leaning bands like Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin (yes, British bands) found in their quietest, acoustic instrumental moments like “Pillow of Winds” and “Bron-Yr-Aur” – those brief passages of luminous, pastoral wonder where all seemed right with the world.


Best Albums of 2020 Reviews Index


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