As one of Portland’s top pedal steel players, Barry Walker Jr. has granted his talents to many notable cosmic-folk luminaries, including North Americans, Jeffrey Silverstein, and his primary outfit Mouth Painter. His crisp, stoned-out playing style has an undeniable flavor, furnishing every instrumental he touches with depth and atmosphere. On his latest solo project, the serene and space-tearing Shoulda Zenith, Walker blends New Age, psychedelia, exotica, and cosmic country while pushing the outer limits of his instrument’s traditional vocabulary.
Musically, Walker has always been intentional about his approach to the pedal steel guitar: challenge convention and expand the scope of its capabilities. The earthy soundscapes on Shoulda Zenith, which range from hazy and bucolic to noisy and unthinkably disruptive, capture this essence perfectly. As a player, Walker manipulates the pedal steel like a trusty all-in-one tool. One moment, he’s finessing it for beautiful textural flourishes, the next he’s using it as a purveyor of chaos and destruction. In both respects, the results are captivating.
The transition from “Totally Tan” into the blissful choogle of “Derr of the Schwann (Break Of The Dawn”) evokes the calm passage of a warm sunrise in to the early morning. On “Insect Interlude (Circa The Airbase),” the opening steel arpeggios sound like The Who’s “Baba O’Riley” before gradually morphing into something far more alien and spatial. Elsewhere, the sublime “Easy As The Phainopepla” catches one in a state of near-disillusion after the turmoil of “Trinity Payload.” The record’s most truly psychedelic moment, however, comes on “Shoulda Zenith,” a song that reaches levels of clashing dissonance after erupting into a blazing frenzy of shrieking garage psych.
Among the most enjoyable tracks is the closer, “Like A Prisoner,” which sees Walker on rhythm guitar and lead vocals, the lone cut on the album with any singing. Here he does his best interpretation of the high and lonesome sound and shoots it into the cosmos, presenting a charming Nashville-style ballad complete with Valerie Osterberg’s harmonies on the chorus. It makes for a surprisingly sweet finish to an otherwise mind-bending album.
Shoulda Zenith aurally pulls you out of this world and into a new one, in which Walker demystifies cosmic country idealism and marches triumphantly on to new grounds. For all the great instrumental music that surfaced in 2020, few records from this year are as equally challenging and rewarding as this one.