In the late '90s Arhoolie Records' Sacred Steel series finally exposed the joyous gospel tradition of steel guitar to a wider audience, proving that country and Hawaiian music were not the exclusive domain of pedal and lap steel guitars. Inspired by that series, Elliott Sharp decided to join in the fun and asked a bunch of steel players to contribute to Secular Steel, a fascinating and freewheeling demonstration of just how far these instruments can be taken. In fact, there are tracks where the listener would be hard-pressed to correctly identify the instrument being played, as on "Leslie the Alien" or "Slow Lights." Eugene Chadbourne plays a traditional (?) tune on what sounds like a prepared lap steel, while Bob Hoffnar summons droning howls, surpassed in terms of menace only by Mark Dagley's powerful and almost frightening "Steel Guitar Moan." "Orion on the Horizon" is also built on a drone and has a slightly Middle Eastern sound, which is more pronounced on Andy Marshall's "East by Southwest," where he adds dumbek, saz, and oud to his lap steel to great effect. Henry Kaiser plays a sly double tribute with "Ahoy Sonny," a tip of the hat to Sonny Sharrock's deranged slide playing where Kaiser uses the same freaky guitar effect as Frank Zappa on "Ship Ahoy." Oddly enough, Lucky Oceans, steel player for Western swing revivalists Asleep at the Wheel, turns in one of the most "out there" pieces, while that of guitar maverick and curator Elliott Sharp is among the most conventional sounding. Despite being dedicated to the undersung bluesman Earl Hooker, David Toop's track is another one of the more avant-garde-sounding pieces, while Joe Goldmark and Stephen Ulrich contribute what one might first expect from a steel guitar compilation. Secular Steel has a little something for everyone interested in steel guitar, from pretty straight-up country to completely avant-garde free improv and a healthy dose of good humor that runs throughout. The pacing of the album is excellent, such that the outer limits never gang up on more timid listeners, but there are more than enough risks taken so that listeners coming at this from the Sharp camp won't be disappointed. Steel guitar fans really ought to check this one out.
Secular Steel Review
by Sean Westergaard