Many of the sounds that German guitarist Steffen Basho Junghans makes aren't exactly new. Plenty of young musicians (this writer included) have tossed aside their Mel Bay books in frustration and tried to harness the surprising number of acoustic possibilities of the steel-string guitar. Don't tell my mom, but when I was nine years old, I was such a rebel! I never practiced "The Old Grey Mare," like my teacher wanted me to. Instead, I would put my index finger on one of my strings and shake it, causing that string and the open strings near it to ring. Or I would lay a slide across a fret and absent-mindedly pluck every string individually before pulling the slide backwards, causing all the notes to descend in pitch.
Junghans' new solo steel-string guitar record, Waters in Azure, is made up almost entirely of these sorts of sounds, which most young guitarists probably stumble upon accidentally. Junghans repeatedly taps the instrument's open strings with a slide, or with his fingers, causing the strings to reverberate. He pulls the strings behind the fretboard to create a harsh slapping sound. He plays using only one finger for minutes at a time. There's nothing accidental about the end result, though: Waters in Azure is carefully constructed, compositionally inventive and gorgeously recorded.
Junghans never uses his playing techniques (which have been superficially "discovered" by many but recorded by few, as far as I can tell) as ends in themselves; instead, he employs them in the service of pulsating, evocative compositions with clear and effective dramatic arcs. Waters in Azure is a well-executed exercise in tension and release: the songs move without warning from meditative, John Fahey-like resignation to explosive, thobbing rumbles that can make the listener forget she's even listening to a guitar. Junghans' wild but logical mood swings make the record almost impossible to ignore. Despite the fact that Junghans has obviously been influenced by American minimalists like Terry Riley (who springs immediately to mind because of his and Junghans' mutual interest in North Indian raga), and despite the glorious layer of reverb that blankets Junghans' every note, Waters in Azure, even more than last year's excellent Inside, is about as non-ambient as you can get.
Chalk this one up as another winner for the promising new Strange Attractors label. Junghans has been active in Germany since the 1970s, but only now are his recordings beginning to be released in the U.S. If the rest of his recorded output is anything like Waters in Azure, then I would like nothing more than to hear a steady stream of domestic reissues.
By Charlie Wilmoth