THIS WEBPAGE LAST UPDATED MARCH 20, 2023
Steve Roach's music: a discussion of his calmer releases Ever since hearing his Structures from Silence --
I have followed after his releases, reviewed his music, promoted his music, and bought his music.
After Steve Roach's NDE following a bad motorcycle accident -- having heard some "music" during his NDE
-- Structures from Silence was composed as Roach was trying to recreate that beautiful "music" he heard.
It's release put Roach on the ambient music map. I have now become an ambient musician myself. Roach
began using sequential notes similar to the arpeggios found in the Berlin school of synth music. But early
on Roach tried atmospheric and beat less drones composing that began his signature sound which he
pursued for decades -- creating his own niche that soon many other electronic musicians followed after.
His stylings weren't very stagnant however -- with his soon trying a tribal, percussive, shamanic type of
ancient origins sound. He released more sequenced and rhythmic pieces. My all-time rhythmic, Berlin
school influenced favorite is his Empetus release -- and that -- for me was all I needed of that gestalt. His
atmospheric drones and soundscapes are still his strength -- in my opinion -- having immersed myself in
his work for so many years. My main goal of this article is to recommend his most meditative, calming
and relaxing releases. Many of his immersive drones can sound machine-like, a bit metallic, with a tunnel
hollow reverb quality, and even at times -- threateningly looming over the listener in their overall development.
It is okay of course as that is what Roach felt like creating. But for me -- they were creating an edginess
and tension that I don't want in my ambience. The alien coldness and nonhuman dimensions some of his
work seemed to echo is just too disturbing to this listener seeking to relax. Most importantly for me is the
total lack of beats or rhythmic elements in an ambient piece. It must be pure soundscape like an abstract
watercolor painting for the ear. I typically put ambient recordings on and set my player to endless loop.
That way it becomes an environment so to speak. Releases by Roach that create tension or an alien feeling
realm do not comfort but pull me into a weird and distracting space. I don't enjoy rhythmic or sequenced
elements as they too are distracting and more mesmerizing than calming. This is all subjective of course
but if this happens to me -- I venture to assert the same will happen to other listeners. Oddly enough, my
wife doesn't like ambient music at all -- saying it feels as if something is about to happen but never does.
Several factors will determine how relaxing a synthesizer driven ambient piece is. The synthesist has a
myriad of waveforms to work with. Sine, Triangle, Sawtooth, and Pulse or Square are the four most commonly
utilized synthesizer waveforms. Depending on what type of basic waveform is used and how it is further
manipulated for each note played has a great deal to do with whether or not it is pleasant or irritating to hear.
Also, I find what octave the notes or chords are played in relating to middle C is also key (no pun intended).
Typically, for me, higher octave notes and chords are not nearly as relaxing. A passage in an ambient composition
being played in the middle to lower registers lends itself immediately to sounding more relaxed. Why this is so,
I cannot explain. I believe it is a vibrational brainwave syncing thing. Also key to ambient music is the ADSR
settings on the synthesizer. I design ambient pad presets for various iOS based synth apps so I know a great
deal about ADSR as well as BPM (beats per minute). "A" stands for attack which determines how quickly a note
will sound after the keyboard note or chord is pressed down. "D" is decay or essentially how the note falls off so to speak.
"S" is sustain and "R" is release. So ADSR combined with oscillator(s), modulation, reverb and many other factors
will either make the sound calming or irritating or somewhere in between. Musically speaking, there are a ways to
play, to compose, like major or minor keys, diminished, atonal scales or diatonic and the list goes on and on. Many
synthesizer players prefer one model over the other to get "that sound" they want. I own five hardware synths and
eleven soft synths on my iPad Air. They all have certain features that I enjoy. I even have synth apps that nearly
perfectly recreate that hallowed Mellotron sound, made popular by many progressive rock bands. Some savvy
keyboard players also use certain effects set between the synthesizer and their amps or DAW. All these other factors
can help a composer create beautiful synthesizer pieces. Not keyboards alone -- but guitar, violin, EWI (electronic
wind instrument), etc have all been used for ambient music. If you like -- add field recordings to a piece for more
environments to the music. Frankly, ocean surf, babbling brooks, wind, song birds has been done to death in
ambient music. I find such a tad boring -- but that is my taste. I must admit to using field recording in my most
downloaded piece "Time Warps in Alternate Worlds". But I have digressed enough. So what ambient Roach releases
do I recommend as the most calming, meditative and overall true mental massage? Here they are, not really listed
in any order of best or worst. They aren't meant to be in chronological order either. For ambient music collectors
or those seeking deeper peace via an aural method -- find and purchase these releases by Steve Roach.
Structures from Silence (3CD edition) Quiet Music (3CD edition) Mercurius Slow Heat Texture Maps Live at Grace Cathedral
Immersion 4 New Life Dreaming Low Volume Music The Passing <=very hard to find as a CD but I lucked up on a copy
that Steve signed for me! Stillpoint A Deeper Silence These are releases that are 100% relaxing for me. Many of his
other releases feature pieces or portions that are very relaxing but the rest of the release fails to meet my calming
"standards" as described above. I know that for such a large discography this seems a short list but there you have it.
Other ambient musicians that have released excellent meditative releases are James Johnson and Max Corbacho.
For the most continuous stream of very calming releases I highly recommend Jim Butler. He is the most prolific
ambient creator I know. Lastly, I'd like to mention both IASOS and Dr. Jefferey Thompson as having released some
incredibly calming and relaxation ambient works. I won't mention specific releases by the above artists. With
sites like Bandcamp, Spotify and YouTube -- you can easily discover their best works. I hope this brief discussion
will help ambient music fans discover some new music guaranteed to calm your psyche.
~ EER Editor EER-Music.com AmbientMusic-Radio.com aka SourceCodeX sourcecodex.bandcamp.com
available at Bandcamp released: July 10th, 2020
If you are seeking out-of-print and hard-to-find CDs . . .
try my new eBay page where I post CD finds for sale.
"Jazz Fusion Guy" @ eBay page
I have been reviewing Roach's fine ambient music for many, many years. I can easily affirm that this is some of his very best work I have heard in a long time. It will serve as a hallmark release, being a landmark referred to in future reviews for the years yet to come. It is indeed his signature sound, a fluid, predominately non-rhythmic -- ever-morphing set of soundscapes that are each deeply introspective. Some mildly sculpted, rhythmic elements do appear in the final piece; "Reflection in Ascension". I immediately found it overall to be quite a relaxing listen yet remaining deeply engaging. It is a non-repetitive flow of evocative synth pad imagery that evolves without any immediate passage of time being noticed. Simply said, it is a sublime journey, a serene wandering ascension. Being the artist he is, Roach has managed to sound like himself but this release still offers all new territory. You will find Roach dives into deep registers often on this release, really rumbling the sonic foundations. Thus, it is a pleasure to experience the familiar yet with a novel twist. His working of sound layers into one another is stellar. I will be listening to this A Soul Ascends release over and over, just like I did with his Structures from Silence long ago. Bravo, Steve. Highly recommended for all ambient music fans everywhere. ~ EER Editor EER-Music.com AmbientMusic-Radio.com aka SourceCodeX sourcecodex.bandcamp.com And now I am streaming A Soul Ascends from my desktop PC upstairs to my new TCL Roku QLED TV downstairs and it sounds excellent through the TCL sound bar and wireless sub woofer! Ain't technology wonderful sometimes . . .
Fever Dreams By Steve Roach, with Patrick O'Hearn and Byron Metcalf Projekt, 2004 http://www.steveroach.com
If you are seeking out-of-print and hard-to-find CDs . . .
try my new eBay page where I post CD finds for sale.
"Jazz Fusion Guy" @ eBay page
After 2003's monumental Mystic Chords and Sacred Spaces, Steve Roach returns to the world of consciousness- altering trance rhythms with Fever Dreams. In this collaborative album, Roach is on synthesizers and weird guitar, with the pop and jazz veteran Patrick O'Hearn on bass and shamanic drummer Byron Metcalf on percussion. Byron Metcalf is familiar to Roach fans, since he worked with Steve on two exciting drum-fests, 2000's The Serpent's Lair and 2001's Not Without Risk. Even though Roach and company have been doing shamanic trancemusic for more than 20 years, they still have something new to say. This album moves away from the evocation of Native and aboriginal cultures, into the spooky and ominous world of our modern spiritual life, where ancient religions clash in cyberspace. The first piece, "Wicked Dream," sets a mood of foreboding which continues to remind me, whenever I hear it, of voodoo-haunted New Orleans. Once again we hear the sound of Roach's exotic stone percussion and rattles, underscored by O'Hearn's bass, which now seem to imitate not the sounds of the desert but the scratching creepiness and alarms of a city deep in the wet night. The second piece, "Fever Pulse," features some of Roach's more familiar special effects, as well as his strange guitar bending, which has been part of his repertoire for at least ten years since his work with Suso Saiz and Jorge Reyes on the "Suspended Memories" recordings. You can also hear some of Roach's newer "fractalized" electronic rhythms, echoes of his 2001 album Core. This piece is faster and brighter in mood than the first, with nice swirls of deep reverb. The third piece, "Tantra Mantra," is the longest on the album at just under 30 minutes. It is pure trancemusic, looping its loops and plugging along at a pace just slow enough to send the listener into a hypnotic state. Don't listen to this while driving or working! This is for long evenings of astral travel, led by the drumming of Metcalf and the odd, twisting chords of Roach's guitar which pass in and out of tonality. Over the half-hour the volume slowly builds and the sounds become heavier, with interjections of electronic twertles and glorps by Roach. It fades out as it started, leaving piece number 4 to wake you up. This fourth and last piece, "Moved Beyond," is in my opinion the best on the album. The dark vision of the first piece returns, with eerie electronic sighs and guitar wails from Roach. Soon they are joined by Metcalf's thunderous drums, whose ancient resonance backs up the sirens and dissonance of the twenty-first century. There's no pretty sun-bleached desert nostalgia here; this is music imbued with the spirit of our Age of Mechanized Terror, lit with fluorescent lights and vectored through a virtual landscape where urban shamans battle. June 6, 2004 Hannah M. G. Shapero
Mystic Chords & Sacred Spaces; part 1 and 2 box set complete edition (4-CD, 73:51, 73:48, 73:50, 73:46); Projekt | PRO00144 2003 Projekt Records 142 and 143 Website: www.steveroach.com [mail order only from http://www.projekt.com] I cannot see how Roach can ever hope to top this tour de force, magnum opus of ambient mastery. From the peaceful depths of his Quiet Music, to the gentle whispers of Structures from Silence, across the metaphysical fields of Dreamtime Return, and whirling about the gelid event horizons of the Magnificent Void's utter emptiness -- comes forth this splendid aural confirmation that Steve Roach is the absolute master of ambience. This release renewed my faith that Roach still had it in him to produce a signature massive imprint of deep listening excellence. You will find some environmentally calming Mother Nature moments as in Quiet Music but Roach doesn't overdo it. It is just right -- as Eno might say, "sounds to be in and not listened to . . ." There is that sense of relaxing immensity that overflows the listener's psyche as Structures . . . produced. The cosmic timelessness yet earthly antiquities and resultant trance sense as created in Dreamtime . . . pervades. That chilling realization arises in places, of humanity's mark being so ephemeral and insignificant, a point of light floating in endless oceans of time and onion layers of reality which Roach's . . . Void buried us all in, that sends sporadic shivers up one's spine. Yet overall, Roach successfully intertwines a womblike warmth of being "known and kept" by the "Creator". How any logical person can blindly look about the cosmos and deny Design and Thought, I cannot fathom. The subjective peace this reviewer experiences in these compositions of Roach is akin to a belonging, an unseen protection, and an infinity of promises and destinies as yet unrevealed to flesh and blood. Spirit eternal is inside Roach's compositions. That personal sense of one's well-fleshed and mortal temporality is evident yet our spirit-fired exuberance in a God-given immortality is strongly echoed. Roach's epic vision in his Mystic Chords & Sacred Spaces boxed set is without a doubt, a landmark release that has raised the bar nearly to the stars for all ambient works to come. Bravo, Steve, bravo! And mostly, thank you so much for the experience. Highest of this editor's recommendations.
~ EER Editor, EER-MUSIC.com
Personnel: Steve Roach - nearly every blessed moment, Kathryn Gunzinger - cello on "Within the Mystic", Filtered Sun - guitar on "Nameless", vidnaObmana - organic sample substance on "Open Heart"
Part 1 CD1, Mystic Chords & Sacred Spaces: "Palace of Nectar", "Oracle". "Within the Mystic", "Presence", "Vortex Ring"
CD2, Labyrinth:"Wren and Raven", "The Otherworld", "Wonderworld", "Threshold", "Dream Body", "Slowly Dissolve", "Womb of Night", "Soulwave", "Wordless", "Nameless"
Part 2 CD1, Recent Future: "Open Heart", "Turn to Light", "Shift the Dimension", "This Moment is a Memory", "This Moment is Another Memory", "Slightly Below", "Essence of Phaedra", "Left Perfectly Alone", "A Subtle Body Current", "Personal Nature", "Grounding Place", "Turning Back", "The Spiral of Time's Fire Burns On"
CD 2, Piece of Infinity: " Piece of Infinity"
Mystic Chords & Sacred Spaces; part 1 and 2 box set complete edition (4-CD, 73:51, 73:48, 73:50, 73:46); Projekt | PRO00144 2003 Projekt Records 142 and 143 Website: www.steveroach.com
To call Steve Roach's new 4-CD set "ambitious" is an understatement. In Mystic Chords and Sacred Spaces, Roach has given us more than two years' worth of work, actually originating from ideas he first worked with in 1996. Mystic Chords lasts more than 5 hours if played straight through. That's as long as a full-length Wagner opera, but mercifully without the singing. Indeed, this might be called the "Parsifal" of electronic music: a long, mythic journey into a world filled with esoteric light and spiritual passion.
To enter into the world of Mystic Chords and Sacred Spaces, you must first understand its language and its culture. Roach's music grows from many musical roots; he has taken inspiration from rock, jazz, electronica, "world" and aboriginal music, even "Western" cowboy music. But here, Roach' s musical world is that of what is called "classical" music, or rather, the "serious" music of the late 19th and early to middle 20th century. For Mystic Chords he has chosen to use mostly notes and harmonies which can be found in the work of composers like the late Romantics of Europe and Russia, and the French "Impressionists" as well as more recent composers such as Aaron Copland and even the French avant-garde composer Olivier Messiaen. Most important for Roach's Mystic Chords is the exotic music of the late 19th century Russian composer Alexander Scriabin, who created a huge "mystical universal chord" on which he based many wild works.
This album could very well be thought of as "classical music," though Roach is using electronic media rather than an orchestra to do it. Yet it is still essentially "ambient," and it uses the musical language of "ambient," with its floating harmonies, its lack of rhythm, and its dreamlike slowness. For this set, Roach has put aside the aboriginal percussion that has been so characteristic of his work (except for one moment of rattle sounds at the beginning of disc 3). He has also left behind the insistent electronic rhythms of his earlier albums, as well as bells, chanting, special sound-effects, didgeridoo, ominous whispers, weird flutes, industrial clanks, and other familiar Roach features. What is left is pure harmony, played on layers and layers of synthesizers (and in places, modified electric guitar) which sometimes sound like an orchestra, sometimes like a great pipe organ. Only one track has an "acoustic" instrument, on Disc 1, where a cello is played as a drone.
On Disc 1, auto-titled "Mystic Chords and Sacred Spaces," Roach sets all this out for the listener: the floating chords, the underlying drones, the oceanic reverberation, and above all, the harmonies. Everything depends on the harmonies that make up the chords: major, minor, modal, dissonant, consonant. Other ambient composers have tried this, and have produced hours of boredom. But Steve Roach can make transcendent music out of this style. The reason for Roach's success is his outstanding musicianship and composing ability. He knows just what chord to use to evoke any emotion, whether happy, sad, warm, ominous, blissful or despairing. And these chords are not just simple guitar changes or plinks on a keyboard. They are highly complex tone-clusters, deliberately built up in each separate musical section from different keys and modes, and blended together with modern digital and sound-looping technology. One reason they are so effective, and unique to Roach, is that the notes in these chords are unusually spaced; a single chord may have notes that are two octaves apart, giving it a vast and open quality. Yet most of these chords can be played on a conventional piano or organ keyboard.
Enough musical analysis. I was not joking when I compared this to Wagner. Mystic Chords and Sacred Spaces can be considered a kind of music drama in four acts. Disc 1, "Act 1," sets forth a kind of grand musical uncertainty, a question; the mood in this first set is wistful, sometimes plaintive, and wondering. The listener is drawn in to the highly personal, yet universal story of a soul on a journey.
Disc 2, titled "Labyrinth," opens with the idyllic "Wren and Raven," which incorporates nature sounds, recorded real-time at Steve's house. The sound of many birds, including not only a wren but a cheerfully tweeting house finch, are paired with somewhat unnerving synthesizer drones. As the set progresses, the nature sounds become more and more filtered and remote, and the synthesizers come into the foreground. It's a chilling passage which depicts the transition from the natural world of birds and sunlight to the deep and often terrifying "Otherworld" (the title of disc 2, track 2). This disc, "act 2," is a dramatic expression of that otherworld journey, as Roach and so many other shamanic and inner travelers have experienced it. Disc 2 features the scariest, and most dissonant, music on the album. It also contains some of the most exalted and passionate sounds -- swells of yearning and dark sinks of despair, all of them portrayed just by the harmonies, moving along in their stately slow rhythm of change. Later on Disc 2, the harmonies change again, in a fascinating mix of tonal (playable on "normal" keyboards) and microtonal sounds. Track 11, "Soulwave," is the artistic climax of Disc 2, where pure vast vistas of starlit desert space emerge out of murky microtonal mist. It's like looking out into the vastness of space and finding that you and the distant galaxies are on the same wavelength, resonating to a gorgeous, multi-level synthesizer chord. Disc 2, which had started in Steve Roach's backyard, ends in sparkling, galactic bliss. But we are in no way done with the journey.
Disc 3, "Recent Future," is in my opinion the best one of the four. It has the most varied and inventive music, and the widest diversity of mood and musical narrative. Here some of Roach's titles edge towards the "New Age" ("Open Heart," "Turn to Light,") but this is hardly the twaddle which is still emitted by "new age" players. Rapturous shimmering tone-clusters, which sound almost like organ music, establish Disc 3 as a direct ray pointing into mystical consciousness, rising above any specific religious or cultural context. Interestingly, Roach reprises a chord from his frenetic Core (2001) in one of these serene, contemplative passages, in Track 4, "This Moment is a Memory." The next track, "This Moment is Another Memory," is also filled with un-mystical bent guitar notes and weird creature noises. Perhaps these are musical memories of previous Roach albums! The middle tracks on "Recent Future" return to the mystical mood and get smoother and softer, until they drift off to a quiet, minimalist sonic sleep in tracks 8, 9, and 10. Track 11, "Grounding Place," sings not of sleep and bliss, but of melancholy and sadness, which even mystics cannot escape.
And then at the end of Disc 3, after the desolate "Grounding Place" fades out, come two tracks which I regard as the highest point not only of the disc, but the whole 4-disc set. Track 12, "Turning Back," is a short but majestic "orchestral" tone-poem which closely resembles a quiet moment late in the first movement of American composer Aaron Copland's "Symphony no. 3' (really! listen and you'll agree!) which then leads into my favorite track of all of them (and favorite title, too), track 13, "The Spiral of Time's Fire Burns On." This is the pivotal and most intense piece of the whole set, where the meaning starts to emerge; it's like the vision of enlightened fire, the goal which draws the mystic journeyer onward. Dazzling cascades and sequences of parallel 10th-chords build to a brilliant crescendo, echoing against each other in a glorious galactic cathedral sound. Yet, remarkably, it doesn't end here. The photonic cathedral fades away, into a strange coda of murky, nocturnal, muffled dissonance. Even after the vision, the dark Otherworld, and the musical question, remains. There is one more "act" to go.
Disc 4, "act 4," is titled "Piece of Infinity," and it is all one 74-minute track. This extended ambient piece is along the lines of Roach's other sound-environments, such as The Dream Circle, Slow Heat, or the more recent Darkest Before Dawn (which is derived from one of Roach's "mystic chords" used on this album). Unlike the other three albums in this set, it is not meant for dramatic or narrative effect, but as an aural meditation or background to quiet contemplation. Musically, it is based on a slowly repeating arpeggiation of one of the basic "mystic chords," slowly revolving upward over and over again. High, drifting synthesizer tones accompany this bassline, but do not intrude. It's all much quieter in volume and in mood than the previous three albums. Here, the otherworld is left behind, and the journey is stilled. Is this the "answer" to Roach's musical and spiritual question? If Roach were a lesser composer, he would just pick a sweet chord, relax, and flow downstream into smug prettiness. Disc 4's music is comforting, but it's also strange. This Infinity is not sweetness and light, and these slow orbits don't provide an easy answer. The listener, and the journeyer, is left looking out into the darkness where despite all the memories of brilliance, the way is still unclear.
Hannah M.G. Shapero June 5, 2003
Mystic Chords & Sacred Spaces; part 1 and 2 box set complete edition (4-CD, 73:51, 73:48, 73:50, 73:46); Projekt | PRO00144 2003 Projekt Records 142 and 143 Website: www.steveroach.com
Steve Roach has never been one to rest on his laurels. After releasing a stunning trilogy (totaling four CD's) to commemorate the tenth release on his own TimeRoom label, he has stunned the e-music community again. He has released a four disc set - Mystic Chords and Sacred Spaces. Each disc has its own sonic and thematic integrity and each takes steps to - with apologies to Aldous Huxley - A Brave New World. Disc one is Mystic Chords and Sacred Spaces. Steve does not fool around as this disc goes straight to the heart of the matter. The obvious juxtapositions actually make sense. The dark strokes of the "ambient paint brush" create bold and vivid sonic Technicolor. The music, while subtle in its ambient and minimalist natures, is anything but subtle. It transports casual listeners to cavernous bio-sonic catacombs. Deep listeners will venture with Steve as he goes to plateaus at the highest realms and the deepest miasmas. The travelers gather knowledge. Knowledge is good. Goodness is truth. Truth answers all questions. Disc two, Labyrinth, is - as the name implies - suitable for losing the listener. Steve has gathered a series of dark organic atmospheres to intensify the mysteries surrounding this shamanic ritual. The mystic chords have strong overtone and psychoactive properties. There will be no casual listening. It is, quite simply, not an option! Deep listeners will follow the progression of the trance as Steve delves deeper and higher - further - into his own psyche. These atmospheres and soundworlds are so unique that they are reminiscent of everything. The journey continues to begin. Each note is a fresh start. Every atmosphere is a new experience. The journey begins again - and it is half over. Recent Future, disc three, will not buy into the pessimistic concept of "half over." Rather, listeners are half fulfilled. This disc continues the continuation and the continuity. This is interrelated to everything. The absolute appeal of this magnificent and elegant soundscape is numbing. Listeners must become part of the fold. The soundscape is an intoxicant. Meditators will question nothing and succumb to the will of the spirit. The brilliance of this sound design is that it seems to have no design. The simplicity is intricate. The intricacy is simple. Is it a chicken or an egg? It is both. It is neither. Piece of Infinity is a classic "Steve Roach-ian" long-form composition. This is 74 minutes of electronic minimalism as only he can do it. There are the beginnings of some ends and the ends of some beginnings as he starts to come down from the mountain. The languid structure takes listeners on a gentle and gradual surrender. The surrender is to the inner workings of their own inner psyches. It is in the surrender to the self that one finds the true self. Truth answers all questions. This set is absolute classic Steve Roach. The emotional and spiritual experiences continue to cascade as each atmosphere unfolds into a new soundworld. The entire set - almost five hours of brilliance - takes on existential and Zen personae. It questions everything and validates nothing. It questions nothing and validates everything. Reviewed by Jim Brenholts
The Gatherings Various artists compilation Synkronos Music, 2002 http://www.synkronosmusic.com http://www.thegatherings.org
Ambient, electronic, and space music has a Friend in Pennsylvania, in Chuck Van Zyl. For more than 10 years, he has produced concerts of this esoteric music in various venues, including a cathedral, in Philadelphia. All the finest names in electronic ambient and spacemusic have played there: Steve Roach, Robert Rich, Vidna Obmana, Jeff Pearce, Vir Unis, as well as some not-so-familiar musicians. In 2002, Van Zyl decided to release a compilation album that would showcase the best of the Gathering series, in excerpts from live shows. It seems an impossible job, to winnow out a representative sample from more than a decade of shows, but Van Zyl has tried to choose music from both the famous (at least famous in ambient listening circles) and the not-so-famous. The criteria for the choice seem to be a sense of coherence and flow, as well as a recognizable melodic line and harmonies. There is a reassuring musicality to all the selections -- there are thankfully no glitchy, atonal, cut-up, or bizarre entries to annoy the listener. All of the tracks except the last one are excerpted from live performances at Gatherings concerts. The first two excerpts, from entities called The Ministry of Inside Things, and Bionaut, hark back to the classic European style of electronic rock or pop. There's a melodic line, modal or even pentatonic, played on a synthesizer keyboard in a tone-color which wouldn't be out of place in Vangelis' studio. Synthesizer whooshes recall the big sound of Jean-Michel Jarre or Kitaro. The third excerpt, from Ben Neill, features insistent electronic drum machine rhythms, and a repeating melodic fragment which is played not just on a trumpet, but on Neill's own custom-built "Mutantrumpet." This incredible multi-instrument can not only play muted and unmuted notes in rapid alternation, but can also be played with a slide like a trombone. And on top of that, it's tied in to an electronic network which can direct not only other instruments, but the light-show on the stage as well! The Neill piece has a nervous, cynical, even grim mood that is characteristic of the jazz-rock-electronica known as 'trip-hop.' The star attraction of this compilation is Steve Roach, who has the longest excerpt at over 17 minutes. This entry is a perfect example of Roach's grand, dramatic style. He uses sources from two of his albums in this section, his 1997 On This Planet and his 1992 collaboration with Robert Rich, Soma. Roach adds live improvisation on synthesizer and didgeridoo (with chanting and thunderclaps at the end) over these percussion loops and synthesizer bases, to create another one of his intense, majestic desert space experiences. The other major artist in this set is Robert Rich, who is represented by a version, played live (along with pre-recorded elements), of a piece ('Mosaic') from his 1991 masterpiece album, Gaudi. In contrast to the dynamic Roach piece, this is ethereal and delicate, played in Rich's signature 'just intonation' harmony which is not quite the harmony we Western listeners recognize. Later in the Rich excerpt, he adds in a tracery of electronic sequences, while his lap guitar sings over it in high, floating lines. It's Rich at his very best. Track 6, by Kevin Bartlett, has an enigmatic, you had to be there title: GDS1? Ask Larissa, she knows. It features misty chords with slightly oriental bell tones, over which an acoustic guitar gently picks in a nostalgic, prog-rock, psychedelic style. The last track is the only one which was not recorded live at a Gathering concert, but was re-created in the studio since the concert was not recorded. Jeff Greinke is known in the ambient world for his weird, non-tonal, even grotesque sound, and this piece is a fair example of his work, though he is using recognizable notes. He pairs croaking overtone chanting with a slow, ominous background of chilling notes, also derived from voice sounds; the last track on this album is by far the darkest. Van Zyl had a tough job indeed choosing which artists to include in this compilation. This compilation derives mostly from performances in the early and mid-90's. Later Gatherings have included the brilliant Vir Unis, whose performances at the Gathering have been the basis for some of his most wonderful studio work, such as his 2000 album Aeonian Glow. Other concerts have featured mystical guitarist Jeff Pearce, creator of warm visions of heavenly peace and light, as well as the Belgian multi-instrumentalist "Vidna Obmana," who evokes a far darker world of mist, dissonance, and mystery. I look forward to hearing these and many more in subsequent compilations from the Gatherings. Hannah M.G. Shapero June 19, 2003
STEVE ROACH IN 2002 (TIME OF THE EARTH DVD review also included!)
Three albums: Darkest before Dawn, Day out of Time, All is Now 2 CD set. All Timeroom editions. http://www.steveroach.com
Steve Roach, after almost thirty years, is a pillar and foundation of the genre of electronic-ambient music in America. But his reputation and long record of achievement has not slowed down his restless creativity and search for new ways of _expression in this difficult medium. In 2002 he released Trance Spirits, a shamanic percussion album with Jeffrey Fayman, and the eerie Innerzone with longtime collaborator Vidna Obmana. Roach also published three solo ventures in 2002, each one quite different in theme, sound, and mood -- but all of them very characteristic of Roach's personal vision.
The first of the three is Darkest before Dawn. Every so often, Roach creates a long-form sound environment, which is meant to be listened to at low volume in the background. These are his more minimalist works, meant to affect consciousness but not intrude on it. Structures from Silence, Quiet Music, The Dream Circle, and Slow Heat are some of these environmental pieces. In 2002 he adds Darkest before Dawn to that collection. Though it's in the same form -- 74 uninterrupted minutes -- it's quite different from the others. Darkest before Dawn features muted, long-echoing, cloudy notes, fading from tonelessness into tone-clusters, and then periodically into a cathedral-like major chord. Two long loops are set against each other, subtly phasing in and out of agreement, blended and blurred, with no edges and no rhythm. All of this material is created on a modified electric guitar, though it doesn't have much resemblance to any ordinary guitar sounds. It sounds like the booming sound of wind breathing in and out of some deep cave, or perhaps the song of two ponderously orbiting stars out on the far reaches of our galaxy. Slow Heat, with its desert environmental cricket sounds and kindly synthesizer harmonies, was serene and comforting; Darkest before Dawn is literally a darker environment, with its black-on-black, almost wordless CD (non)graphics package. This is a soundscape for contemplating exotic astrophysical phenomena: molecular clouds, cosmic background radiation, and the musical event horizons of spinning black holes.
Day out of Time is the soundtrack to a film by Steve Lazur, Time of the Earth, released on DVD in 2001. Time of the Earth is a 77-minute journey through some of the wildest environments in the American West. Steve Roach has lived for more than a decade in Arizona; its vast desert landscape is an environment which he knows intimately. Roach's music perfectly accompanies visions of vast desert vistas, roiling clouds, jagged peaks, and grotesque stone pinnacles carved by wind, sand, and water into fantastic alien sculptures. Only toward the end does the landscape change into Western forests and finally a gentler vista of the Pacific Ocean shore at sunset. There is no evidence of human presence, except perhaps for a trail or two. Lazur's film provides a pristine, uninhabited vision of the Earth without the intrusion of humans, as if you, the viewer, were the first person ever to see this planet.
The Time of the Earth soundtrack is a compilation of pieces, or excerpts from pieces, which Roach and Lazur chose for their atmospheric quality. Though there are some rhythmic sequences, most of the sounds are sustained and floating, matching the clouds and shadows that flow over the desert and its formations. The selected pieces tend towards abstraction and are often dissonant, for instance the enigmatic sequences from Early Man, Begins Looking Skyward and Walking Upright. This compilation features a number of Roach pieces from other compilation or collaboration albums, some of which were hard to find. Most notable are the spooky but masterful eleven-minute The Dreamer Descends, and the mystical Eternal Expanse, which accompanies restful scenes of woods, rocks, and waterfalls.
This collection works quite well as a pure sound album, even if you don't see the images from the Lazur film. Once you have seen the film, though, these images of stone and scrub and sand and sky and sea give a visual dimension to Roach's music. These are alien landscapes that you can listen to as well as visit through the magical screen.
All is Now, Roach's third solo offering for 2002, is a 2-CD set featuring music from his live performances during that year. The first CD, self-titled All Is Now, contains excerpts from shows in Oakland, Portland, and San Francisco. The second CD, titled Formations Creation, (an allusion to those weird stone desert formations) comes from a single show, recorded in Sedona, Arizona on May 3, 2002.
Steve Roach has been doing live performances of his music for more than 20 years. Ambient-electronic music doesn't have the same kind of live performance tradition as rock, jazz, or classical music; the action and visual focus is different. There's no theatrical band with costumes and special effects, nor is there a formally clad orchestra with a gesticulating conductor out in front. A Roach concert is a primal ritual lit by candles and perfumed with incense, a mind-expanding light show, and a meditative experience, all wrapped in that trademark sound whose reverb, whether in the studio or in the performance space, seems to go on forever. Roach himself is the opposite of the gyrating rock showman or pompous classical virtuoso; dressed in dark clothing and almost hidden behind the array of electronics, he is the wizard behind the curtain who delivers real magic.
And yet, as with prog-rock or jazz, every performance of this music is an improvisation, dependent on dozens of different elements both electronic and acoustic which must all work together to re-create the Roach sound. The setup alone is wildly complex -- synthesizers and mixers and modifiers, a line-up of CD players and hard drives ready to add in sounds from his repertoire, acoustic items like guitar, didgeridoo, flutes, stone percussion, rattles, and drums, and laptop computers to control the whole thing. As anyone who has done live shows knows, something will always go wrong -- a simple power surge, switching mistake, or computer failure can wipe out a whole night's preparation. So producing this kind of music live is a feat in itself, requiring the nerve of a test pilot, all before the audience hears a single sound. It's not a chamber ensemble equipped with old familiar instruments, it's one guy with a roomful of temperamental electronics.
Therefore when ambient-electronica goes live, you never know what you are going to get. Roach's first CD compiles the best of moments from a number of concerts, all of which are worthy listening. But the second CD is the winner for 2002. Again, as anyone who has done (or attended) live shows knows, every so often there's a show where everything comes together, and something happens which transcends all the work and the waiting and the electronic poking and tinkering. This Sedona show is that kind of performance.
As Roach explains rather tersely in his notes, he had a musical script for this show, which opens with cool and meditative guitar chords, accompanied by night insect noises (recorded, since this show was indoors). But after about twenty minutes (or perhaps earlier) he decided to discard his program and just improvise according to his own vision for the moment. It was a good decision. His slow guitar fades into a deep dark electronic roar, which builds into an initial rhythmic sequence reminiscent of the early sections of his 2001 album Core. And then he is off like a racecar, and he doesn't stop. Characteristic, heroic Roach chords fly over the rushing electronic rhythms. This rolls into undulating, metallic waves of synthesizer sound, which then back up another insistent rhythm sequence. As always, Roach's pacing is superb -- he never lets anything go on too long, and he constantly brings in different sounds and textures so that there's always something new to be heard. Even listening to this performance on a recording, I'm on the edge of my seat, wondering what will come next. The later sections of the performance feature thunderous drum loops mixed with electronics, which then melt into a slow, light-filled synthesizer meditation, more like the cloudy atmospherics of the Time of the Earth soundtrack. He ends the show with a familiar motif; the tamboura and drone sequence from Light Fantastic, blended together with high flute notes shining in the reverberating darkness, leaving his listeners filled with serenity and wonder.
There are no audience sounds on this album (there was no audience microphone), so not only is there no coughing or murmuring, there is no applause, either. This live performance is technically indistinguishable from a studio recording! But the drama and the intensity, as well as the coherence, of this brilliant set could come only from the out-on-a-limb risk factors of a live performance. The performer does not have the option, as he does in the studio, of going back over and over again to correct and improve things. According to the notes, the only modification that was done to the Sedona recording was an edit to reduce the time duration, so that it would fit onto a CD. There it is, real-time Roach: a couple of hours' playing resulting in an album that is comparable to the best of his studio work, and definitely his best for 2002.
Hannah M.G. Shapero, EER-MUSIC.com 3/12/03
It is interesting that Roach's guitar ambient album Streams and Currents came out in the same year as this one. The two Roachworks could not be more different. Streams has hardly any rhythm at all -- it's pure harmony, a music of rest and dream. Trance Spirits is all about exciting, entrancing rhythm, with harmony kept in the background. The two drummers, Fayman and Momodou Kah, perform live and acoustic -- no electronic generators or looping for them. As a result, the interactions between the ensemble beats become as complex as any fractal programming could produce, with the subtle irregularities and constant changes only possible with the work of human hands. Sometimes the drums carry on with galloping intensity, as in track 6, "Year of the Horse," where you ride with wild Central Asian horsemen over virtual steppes. At other times, the drums boom slowly, sending mysterious messages over the sustained notes of the electric guitars and synthesizers.
The Roach sound we have come to know and love is here, too; his modified electric guitar, which seems to be his current instrument of choice, is joined with the shimmering drones of the synthesizer, holding down complex and dissonant tone-clusters. In track 3, "Off Spring," the drum is nearly silent and the echoing electronic/guitar horizons are all you hear. In track 4, Roach, going solo, sends forth what he calls a "hybrid groove," a rhythm that mixes elements from both electronic and acoustic sources. The album ends with a grand ensemble of all players together, along with Fripp's guitar and Roach's "mystic chord," a towering sound- structure from the late 19th century (composers like Scriabin, Debussy, etc.) which Roach has adapted for the 21st. Trance Spirits is an album of our time, blending the futuristic and the prehistoric, drums of skin and wood working together with computers of plastic and silicon. A visual note: The cover and interior of the CD papers feature the eerie, Deco-Mayan-visionary sculptures of Ralph Prata, (more of them are visible at http://www.ralphprata.com) which do the same thing in carved concrete which Roach and company do in sound. Hannah M.G. Shapero 7/30/02
Steve Roach and vidnaObmana: The Inner Zone 2002 The English language has not yet produced enough superlatives to describe Inner Zone, by Vidna Obmana, nee Dirk Serries, and Steve Roach. "Fantastalacious" has a nice ring to it. "Fantastalacious" it is! This CD has many different influences and is a bit of a departure from Steve's and Dirk's norm. There are certainly traces of the electro-tribal ambience that their fans expect. And there is more! This disc has echoes of Steve's work with Vir Unis, Dirk's recent solo efforts, pure space minimalism, desert ambience and deep atmospheres. It is, quite simply, a diverse effort with something for everybody. And it has traces of the electronic music symphony that Steve has been constructing and developing for years. His signature wash and swoosh synth timbres give it away. Each note has its own depth and character. The synth riffs are smooth and stunning. There are no holes, no missing parts. From, note one to note last, this is pure electronic enjoyment. And it gets better with each listen! (This CD release coincided with the Projektfest/Gathering happening on Memorial Day weekend in Philadelphia.) - Jim Brenholts, EER-MUSIC.com
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Other artists such as Jeff Pearce and Mark Dwane have also used electric guitar as sole sound-source, but when Roach takes up the instrumentation you immediately know it can be no one else but him. The trademark majestic "Roach harmony" built of superimposed fifths and fourths and widely spaced major chords, is now played on sustained electric guitar rather than synthesizer. This is not "traditional" playing, picking out tunes; the instrument is used as an abstract sound-source rather than a rock-style lead or rhythm guitar. Nevertheless, the "live" element is there, as most of this album was recorded "real-time" rather than compiled and overdubbed from many sessions. The voice of the single live player is then enhanced through the use of multiple loops mostly in long periods, adding layers which reflect on each other as each new note is played. All of this sound is then blended with that familiar endless reverb which creates a sonic illusion of vast open space.
The mood of Streams and Currents is nocturnal, but not dark. The notes and harmonies are clearer than those of the earlier Midnight Moon. Roach gives us a different harmonic soundworld in each of the six pieces; the longest, "Spirit Moves," begins with rhythm and then subsides into a dreamy meditation mostly in major harmonies. Track 3, "Slow Rising," moves into a more dissonant harmonic set of sevenths, ninths, and augmented fourths, reminiscent of some of his work on his monumental 1993 album Origins, though much quieter. In the three last pieces, Roach returns to a more cheerful major harmony, and individual notes all but disappear, melting into shimmering waves echoing in near-infinite remoteness. This is very, very quiet, some of the lowest-volume music Roach has ever produced, almost not there except for the serene mood it produces. It is a tribute to Steve Roach's versatility that the composer of the dazzlingly intense Core can also soothe the listener with soft musical mist. Hannah M.G. Shapero 7/29/02
A mysterious little package arrived in my mailbox one day. In it was just one stick of incense, and an elegantly typeset note on grey paper saying "16 years later, a true classic still burns bright!". I was mystified, though I figured it had to be a music promotion. Sure enough, this copy of Structures from Silence later appeared which explained the incense and the note. Sixteen years later, Roach's pioneering ambient work from 1984 has been re-released on the Projekt label.
The incense metaphor is well-applied. Structures from Silence can easily be described as "audible incense," something that gives its fragrance slowly and softly to the atmosphere without intruding. It is composed of long synthesizer notes in mostly major-key tonal harmony, with delicate rhythms and no percussion except a few shakes of Roach's famous cocoon rattles. The hard edges, driving rhythms, and dissonant harmonies of Roach's later works are far from here. The serene mood is reinforced by slow repetition of the harmonic changes; listening to this is sort of like watching a sundial during a quiet bright afternoon.
Even though this is "pure" ambient and therefore more simple in harmony and structure than other music meant for more active listening, you can still appreciate Roach's compositional talents; his chord choices are soothing without being boring. You can hear a foreshadowing of his majestic "desert" style in the long title track, "Structures from Silence." The chords and distant mood he brings to this will later be expanded and made more complex in his breakthrough work from 1988, Dreamtime Return. Even when Roach is being quiet, he's still remarkable. And the incense smelled good, too.
HMGS rating: 8 out of 10 Hannah M.G. Shapero, EER-MUSIC.com 10/02/01
CORE by Steve Roach Timeroom Editions, 2001 http://www.steveroach.com
Steve Roach's music, composed over the more than twenty years of his career, draws you into his own personal journey as a fellow-traveler. From his German-influenced electronic sequencer pieces of the late 70s through mid-80s, to the emergence of his much-imitated desert style of floating chords and aboriginal-inspired rhythms, into his percussion-heavy shamanic style of the mid-90s, and then into his newest work with sophisticated computer-generated fractal electronica, Roach has constantly evolved and changed and added richness to his compositions. Along the way, he has experimented with side trips to guitar-led Western-genre pieces, long-form atmospherics, and dark ambient. And he has collaborated with a constellation of talents, from Robert Rich to Vidna Obmana, Jorge Reyes and Roger King, and currently with Vir Unis. CORE, Roach's latest solo album, reflects every one of these experiences, and more. There is definitely a Roach Retrospective aspect to this album, an attempt to look back over those twenty-plus years. The result is one of Roach's most complex albums yet. (There is so much on this album that this will be a LONG review.) CORE's seventy-four minutes are divided up into a panorama of 12 pieces. Though they are smoothly linked into each other, they are not, like some of his recent albums, integrated into one symphonic order. Rather, they are like 12 orbiting planetary soundworlds which one enters and leaves along with the flow of the album. Each piece contains elements that echo earlier Roach works, not as exact imitations, but as musical or textural allusions. This answers a question I have always wanted to ask Roach -- whether he could, if he wanted, return to the sounds and themes he created in previous works, like a composer or performer playing a repertoire. In other words, could he play it again, without resorting to simply re-playing the recording? Now I know. He weaves all sorts of refrains into CORE; one could spend hours analyzing just what album or sound he is alluding to in the various pieces. For instance, in track 2, Wings of Icarus, he mixes the elegant and highly characteristic wide-spaced desert chords of 1992's World's Edge with the swift and always-morphing fractal rhythms of his 1999 Light Fantastic. And in the central track, number 6/7, Core Meditation, he returns to the shamanic power of his monumental albums from the mid-90s, Origins (1993) and Artifacts (1994), mixing it with some of the dark metallic drones from The Magnificent Void (1996) as well as the thunderous looped percussion of On This Planet (1997). He doesn't forget his collaborators, either; there are echoes of Obmana, Reyes, and especially Vir Unis, who adds in material in one track. But self-reference isn't the purpose of CORE. This is Roach's testament to a new century, now forever broken off from the old. Here he is saying, This is where I've been, and this is where I'm going. Of all the artistic efforts I've heard since the cataclysm of September 11, this is the first that gives me hope. Yes, it was all done before the events, but somehow it is able to reach through and beyond terror and despair to show the road ahead, both dark and light. And this is a road paved with rhythm. CORE is almost entirely built on driving electronic trance-rhythms, whether acoustic, shamanic, fractal, looped or delicately randomized. Though there are exquisite floating moments of rest and suspension here and there, the rhythms are central. The listener is flung headlong through the album; Roach's fine sense of pacing never lags. The first few tracks are light and even delicate at times. Track three, Train of Thought, is a wry hint towards Roach's fondness for railroad trains and their own ticking rhythms, while Resonation Revelation takes the sound of the Australian didgeridoo, once a central instrument on many of his mid-90s albums, and turns it into a digital-didgeridoo. It is at track 6, Core Meditation, that Roach reaches the heart of the album (it is an interesting pun that in Latin, the word core means heart) and unleashes the cosmic powers. Volcanic rhythms build to a huge intensity, while metallic drones underscore it. It gets good and loud here! And if you are listening to this in your car, beware -- if you are going 60 miles an hour while listening to this, you will feel as if you are going 600 miles an hour. After this triumphant roar, he then retreats into the echoing caves for a few tracks, letting up on the weight if not the pace. Track 10, Endorphin Dreamtime, again alludes to his classic album Dreamtime Return, but with a fractal twist; it also harks back to his sequencer pieces from the early and mid-80s. It's full of clear, optimistic harmonies, shiny textures, and a simpler structure, perhaps from a simpler time. But then comes a transition into what I think of as the best piece on the album, track 11, Hyperportal. Of all the planetary soundworlds on CORE, this is the one that is the most forward-looking -- this is the Roach of the '00s and beyond. And it is also the darkest piece on the album. The fractal rhythms not only speed up, but take on a frantic, almost obsessive tone. The harmonies dissolve into microtones and strangeness. For the first half, Roach borrows some of Vir Unis' spooky weirdness from Aeonian Glow(2000). Then, in the second half of this 12-minute epic, Roach shoots into an apocalyptic electron-driven night journey, full of unnerving industrial and engine sounds, finally fading into the void. And yet in true Roach fashion, he will not leave us there. The last track, Indigo Yearning, brings back the slow guitar notes of the first piece, a bit of the sunlit space of his Western soundtrack Dust to Dust (1998). The gentler harmonies return, though set against grim underlying grumbles. CORE ends serenely though not sweetly, with a vision like dawnlight rising over dark clouds and ancient or modern ruins. HMGS rating: 10 out of 10 My vote for the best ambient/electronic album of 2001 EER-MUSIC.com
EARLY MAN By Steve Roach Manifold Records/Timeroom Special Edition, 2000 http://www.manifoldrecords.com This Steve Roach release has the most unusual packaging I've ever seen on a CD. Instead of the usual brittle plastic box, the CD is sandwiched in between two quarter-inch-thick slabs of real slate rock. The plastic holder, with a printed paper insert, is stuck to the slate, and the two six-inch-square slabs are held together with four patches of incongruously futuristic Velcro. Try putting this one in your CD caddy! (An expanded version of this album will be released on Projekt next year, in a "conventional" CD case.) Well, once you open this up and play it, what does it sound like? From the beginning, you know you are in Roach Country, with its cavernous reverberation, mysterious industrial and cave sounds, whispers and whistles, slowly building rhythms on Native drums, and of course the shimmering swells of the synthesizer, which no one in the electronic music business does better. These are all familiar Roach repertoire, but as with every new Roach album, you never know quite how he will combine them, and what you are going to get. The title suggests anthropology, and the Flintstones-style packaging also points toward a "cave man" theme, but this is not a cliche evocation of hairy, fur-clad Cro-Magnons drumming and dancing round a fire. Rather, it is an exploration of the sounds of the Earth as these very ancient people might have heard them, perhaps before our modern consciousness separated us from nature. It is not just a "picture" of "early man," it invites the listener to BE "early man." Roach's recent albums for the last few years, from On This Planet to Body Electric and the spectacular Light Fantastic, have featured a fierce intensity, often high volume, and superfast rhythms. But here in Early Man the rhythms are much slower, the mood is quieter, and the volume is low almost throughout the album. This time, Roach spins trancemusic, especially in the 25-minute title track 2, "Early Man." A hypnotic, very even rhythm beckons the listener to sway to the beat. Slow guitar riffs (played by Steve), looped to repeat, and heavily filtered and reverbed, add a watery depth to the sound mix. It's actually restful; its mood is summery, warm, and nocturnal without being "dark." The next tracks are more explicitly electronic, with long passages of atonal, mysterious environments wrapped in reverberation. These pieces are examples of Roach's "abstract" style, which he has occasionally used in more "desert"-oriented albums such as Desert Solitaires or Artifacts. This "abstract" style is one of his more esoteric modes, and here it is made somewhat more accessible by a steady (but again slow) percussion beat (some of it added by "Vir Unis"), as in track 4, "Walking Upright." Track 5, "Hunting and Gathering," features the only speed on the album, a twanging electronic sequence which soon sinks low onto the sound-horizon and eventually disappears into the dusk. Towards the end of "Hunting and Gathering," and into the last track, #6, "Flow Stone," the real reason for the slate packaging becomes clear. Into the mist comes the bell-like sound of a grinding stone, one of Steve's many "found object percussion" items. When you pick up the slate slabs of the CD cover, and slowly draw them against each other in various ways, you have that very sound that Roach is generating -- though of course without the cavernous reverb. This must be the only CD where the artist has given you one of his actual musical instruments in the packaging! It is another way that Early Man invites the participation of the listener. Early Man is definitely not a "popular"- oriented album, crafted to cause excitement. Nor is it along the lines of his strictly ambient, long-format pieces like The Dream Circle or Slow Heat. It is challenging, thoughtful, designed to subtly alter the listener's consciousness through trance rhythms. And yet even though it is challenging, it is also surprisingly serene, a "music of the earth" encased in some of earth's very own stone. Hannah M.G. Shapero 12/20/2000
Early Man + Early Man, Decomposed (2-CD set) By Steve Roach Projekt Records, 2001 http://www.projekt.com
Last fall Steve Roach released the first edition of Early Man as a collectors' item, a single CD encased in two slabs of slate rock. There were only 1000 copies made of this, and since there was demand for a more accessible format for this music, Roach arranged to re-release the album in a conventional CD case from the Projekt label. Not only has he done this, he has added another CD, called Early Man, Decomposed in which he takes the first album and re-works it into another set of ambient pieces. (My review of Early Man part one, is available on this site.) You can definitely hear echoes of the original album on Decomposed, but Roach has scrambled the sounds, changing the sequence in which they appear, the sound-mix that modifies them, and even their pitch and rhythm, all this through the wonders of digital sound-manipulation. Although Decomposed is presented as a list of tracks, it really forms one complete entity, rather like Roach's long pure ambient albums such as Slow Heat (1998) or Atmospheric Conditions(1999). Like these previous pieces, Decomposed is more a sound environment than a piece of conventional structured music. It is a classic example of the abstract Roach, featuring, as I have described in earlier reviews, long, often quiet passages of atonal noises and tones, wrapped in cavernous reverberation. Synthesizer notes, percussion, found sounds and singing stones, industrial clanks, soft rhythms, whispers, loops and echoes, all blend together into a rather chilly, drifting atmosphere, more reminiscent (as in Atmospheric Conditions) of a cave or a mine than of the sun-baked desert of Roach's usual landscape. Decomposed is not easy listening. It has a different mood from its more accessible, even bouncy predecessor on the first disc of the album. This second disc is ambient made out of ambient, at a double distance from the predictable soundworld of electronic music. As a result, Decomposed will probably attract fewer listeners than its companion disc. Those who do listen will hear a dark, mysterious soundscape that seems to emanate from the remote depths of the earth. Hannah M.G. Shapero 4/28/01
Steve Roach: Streams and Currents Projekt #1288, 2002 www.steveroach.com www.projekt.com email@example.com firstname.lastname@example.org
Steve Roach sets his own musical limits. Then he exceeds them. Midnight Moon was a landmark release for Steve. It opened his doorway to his processed guitar soundworlds. Steve recorded Streams and Currents late at night during the final Core sessions. He went back to the uniqueness of the guitar. This album, on Projekt, features guitars, Ebow and looping and processing equipment. Track two, "Spirit Moves," also features a "mantra beat." The CD was "created for low volume continuous playback." It is wonderful in that mode. The subtleties and nuances have their greatest effect with focused listening. Low volume and continuous play yield the most intense listening. Focused listening has multiple rewards. Deep listeners will feel the biorhythmic pull of the vast atmospheres that Steve has designed. And too little has been written about the accuracy of Steve's titles and their relationship to the responses to the music. He has titled this disc and its components perfectly! The opening title, "Present Moment," sets the focus on the here and now. Track two, "Spirit Moves," begins the journey. The first leg of the journey, Slow Rising," unfolds languidly and dreamily. Wanderers nearly achieve the goal on "Almost Touching," track four. Track five, "Ebb," reminds listeners that change and the unexpected are inevitable. The finale, "Flow," completes the circle as the journey ends and continues. So the ceiling of Steve's perpendicular universe has been lifted once again. And there are more soundworlds and musical universes for him to master. He just has to define them! Reviewed by Jim Brenholts
Steve Roach: Pure Flow Timeroom, 2001 www.steveroach.com email@example.com
Pure Flow is "an essential flow of atmospheric soundscapes by Steve Roach." It is a collection of six pieces from Timeroom CD's and a previously unreleased track, "Hovering." The pieces are sequenced by the feelings evoked, not by chronology. Steve still has the uncanny ability to present his work outside its original format in an enhanced environment. These pieces, some excerpted from long continuous play compositions, evoke new and exciting responses in this sequence. It is a monumental achievement to flow tracks from Atmospheric Conditions, Truth and Beauty, Slow Heat, The Dream Circle and Vine, Bark and Sporewith the unreleased track. This CD is also a continuous play essential. Focused listeners will get new responses. Nothing is recycled. This has all the positive attributes of a new Timeroom CD. (For the rest of 2001, this CD is free with any purchase of $7.99 or more from www.steveroach.com. And it is holiday priced at $7.98 for the perfect gift for the ambient music lover!) Reviewed by Jim Brenholts
Blood Machine By Steve Roach and "Vir Unis" GreenHouseMusic, 2001 http://www.greenhousemusic.com
The long-awaited follow-up to Steve Roach and Vir Unis' explosive Body Electric is finally here. Blood Machine is inspired by the futuristic neurobiology and biotechnology which breaks into the news with almost daily reports of new discoveries. Here, two futuristic masters of electronica combine to bring us discoveries in sound and synapse, rhythm and bio-interface. If you are expecting a slam-bang sequel to the noisy and boisterous Body Electric, you will be surprised, because though Blood Machine has plenty of driving rhythms, it has quite a different feel to it. This album is smoother, softer, and less obvious than its predecessor. Roach, in his liner notes, calls it "elegant futurism," which is a perfect description of its sound. And yet, like the machine of its title, when it revs up, it cranks along at an insistent, ticking pace, shooting off fascinating rays of sound as it goes. These steady rhythmic sequences, all produced electronically, are often highly abstract, moving quickly through their fractal variations while retaining their basic beat structure. In fact, this is a "cerebral" album which makes the listener think, rather than just move. Listen closely and you will find an almost mathematical quality to it, as rhythms are played against other rhythms, and their patterns are nested within yet other patterns. But Roach and Unis, despite their powerful new cybernetic instrumentarium, haven't forgotten their musicianship. Though their collaboration is seamless, you can still identify the "musical gesture" of each artist. For instance, you will hear Roach's time-honored "floating chords" accompanying the rhythmic sequences, providing both melodic elements and aural perspective. And every so often there will be a moment which sounds a bit like Unis' Aeonian Glow transformed from Gnostic Gothic to cyber-light fantastic. The pacing of this long (73 minutes) album alternates between extended rhythm sequences and passages of ambient drift. It has a large dynamic range, moving from a fanfare-like loudness at the beginning to long, low-volume, almost muttering passages in the middle, and then back into bright loud waves of sound in the later tracks. Like Roach's 1999 Light Fantastic, Blood Machine fits together into one symphonic composition, in which the tracks are more like "movements" than separate pieces. The centerpieces of this album are track 4, "Neurotropic," (which is my favorite section) and track 5, "Mindheart Infusion," another outstanding track. But throughout the whole composition, there are moments of stark beauty, mystical insight, and near-silent contemplation. Blood Machine sustains the sense of wonder all the way through its pulsing course. HMGS rating: 10 out of 10 Hannah M.G. Shapero, EER-MUSIC.com 5/16/01
Midnight Moon By Steve Roach Projekt Records, 2000 http://www.steveroach.com http://www.projekt.com
Steve Roach, the brilliantly creative Arizona-based electronic composer, is always ready to try new sounds. In his Dust to Dust (Projekt, 1998), collaborating with Western guitarist and producer Roger King, he re-created the twangy guitar sound of the American West in the characteristic Roach style of vast drifting ambient. Here in Midnight Moon he continues that sound, though without the drama and storytelling of Dust. This is pure ambient, devoid of rhythm, very slow-paced, somnolent and repetitive. Composed mainly with long-period tape loops, there are few changes once a sound-cycle has been established. It is also much softer in volume than most Roach productions. Midnight Moon uses dissonant harmonies and microtones, though in some sections ("Deadwood," cut 3, "Broken Town" cut 4) there are fragmentary echoes of the blues or country and western. Yet any conventional musical material seems very far away. The guitar is used not as a virtuoso or melodic instrument but purely as a sound-source, and it seems to wail and weep, rather than tell stories. This creates possibly the bleakest mood that Roach has ever evoked on an album. It is interesting that the composer of the ecstatic Light Fantastic could also make something so somber as this album. It shows how versatile Steve Roach can be. Yet I have to admit, as a longtime Roach fan I prefer the expansive, upbeat Roach of Light Fantastic far more than this sometimes melancholy vision of the darkness over the Western desert. HMGS rating: 6 out of 10 EER-MUSIC.com August 23, 2000
Atmospheric Conditions by Steve Roach Timeroom Editions, 1999 http://www.steveroach.com
This album is in the series of Roach's extended ambient works, which also includes the earlier Quiet Music, Dream Circle and Slow Heat, as well as the second CD from the World's Edge album, "To the Threshold of Silence." Each one is a distillation of Roach's musical thought at the time, which is then stretched out into a long-playing piece designed not for concentrated listening but for setting a mood. This newer album, Atmospheric Conditions, is similar in sound to his work during the period of Artifacts, rather than his newer work. It is a great, expansive, reverb-drenched sound; when it is soft, it is like rustles and echoes in a vast cathedral-like space. Despite its title, I was not reminded of atmospheres or the outdoors at all; Atmospheric Conditions evokes an inner, vaulted, perhaps even subterranean space filled with bats and birds and other invisible noisemakers, echoing endlessly through caves. Its first section builds, as Roach is fond of doing, to a "wall of sound" which then melts into non-tonal sounds reminiscent of insects (some of them borrowed from a little-known Roach piece called "Shard I" which appeared in the 1995 compilation Swarm of Drones). There is also an unusual influence of Robert Rich's style throughout this whole album; it's Desert Steve in an uncharacteristically wet and glurpy moment. Sections 2 and 3 feature a melancholy flow of synthesizer drones, which later picks up a quiet synth-percussion rhythm as the piece progresses. This characteristic Roach rhythmic touch prevents the piece from getting too liquid and dreary. There is still a strong undertone of sadness and melancholy, which becomes more pervasive as the album goes on. Sections 4 and 5 drift further into ominous and whispering drones, with hints of industrial grinds and clanks. This is some of Steve Roach's darkest ambient yet released - it is certainly not the music to put on if you wish to set a happy and serene mood. It is not the quiet mystery of The Dream Circle nor the nocturnal warmth of Slow Heat. If you do not listen to this at the right time, it can turn your darkened urban apartment into a cavern of dread. But if you pick just the proper moment, it can take you into a place of somber mystery and wonder. HMGS rating: 7 EER-MUSIC.com 12/28/1999
Light Fantastic by Steve Roach Hearts of Space/Fathom, 1999 http://www.fathomusic.com
The Magnificent Void jumps to light-speed with this electrifying new release by Steve Roach. He is using the same resources as his recent Body Electric including the technical and musical expertise of Vir Unis, but as a solo production, Light Fantastic is quite different from the collaboration of Body Electric. At very first hearing, it is possible to hear the similarities between the two recordings, but very soon it becomes evident that Light Fantastic is not Body Electric II. While Body Electric was bumptious, raucous, and sometimes humorous, Light Fantastic is (if I can say so) much more serious. Light Fantastic uses the most up-to-date developments in synthesized rhythm. These fractal rhythms -- based on the same computer-driven mathematics which give us the now-familiar spiraling, branching psychedelic designs, speed by faster than any ordinary human percussionists could play them, and are picked up by our ears almost in a subconscious way. But the fractal rhythms are only one characteristic of this futuristic album. More than any Roach album since Magnificent Void, Light Fantastic is explicitly space music. This is rigorous electronica, calling forth not cacti, sand, and mountains, but the blazing suns and quantum energies of space -- as if the black hole of the Void had opened out into a white hole of streaming rays. This Roach album is so consistent with itself that it forms itself into almost a symphonic structure, as if it were one piece with six movements, rather than an album with six separate tracks. The dominant harmonies, for the most part, are Roach's highly abstract tone clusters, laid down in various forms of synthesizer work. The only time where conventional harmonies show up are in track 3, Reflecting Chamber, where Roach uses the Indian stringed instrument, the tamboura (played by Stefin Gordon). The abstract tonality of Light Fantastic (i.e. not much melodic material) needs many hearings before its reason and structure can register on a listener's mind. This is not the rock musician or the quiet friend of some of Roach's other, more accessible albums. This is the philosophical Roach who, paradoxically, adds intellectual content to ambient music. As such it is one of Roach's most ambitious and powerful albums to date. ~ Hannah M. G. Shapero HMGS rating: 10 EER-MUSIC.com
Steve Roach: Dreaming . . . Now, Then, A Retrospective 1982-1997 (2-CD, 145:07); Celestial Harmonies 14163-2, 1998 Celestial Harmonies P.O. Box 30122 Tuscon, AZ 85751 E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org Ph: (520) 326-4400 Fax: (520) 326-3333 Cyberhome: www.harmonies.com
If you have always been curious as to why Steve Roach is a legend in the electronic music world or the prince of ambience, this 2-CD collection will provide ample evidence. Roach has assembled this journey into two parts. Disc 1: The Ritual Continues, provides a near chronologically linear flow of rhythmic, tribal yet pulsatingly electronic pieces. Twelve pieces sample Roach, circa 1982-1994, with one previously unreleased track from 1997. Landmark releases like Empetus, Desert Solitaire, Dreamtime Return, and World's Edge are a few of those sampled here. On Disc 2: Looking for Safety, a nonlinear, natural soundflow, covering 15 years of releases, unveils the ambient soundrealms and cosmic breathings of voids only Roach can form so well. You will melt away in the ebony dark oceans from Dreamtime Return, Western Spaces, Quiet Music, Structures from Silence, World's Edge, and more. Included as the finale is a superb 12:13 unreleased piece, The Passing Time from 1997. This one needs to be played loud. Anyone for that pleasant NDE in sound? Here's the tunnel. My first exposure to Steve Roach was Structures from Silence, an otherworldly soothing and gentle wash of sound textures very similar to Quiet Music. It made me a solid follower of this composer's vision. I share a wonderfully fitting anecdote from personal experience with the magic of Roach's work. One evening while playing Structures from Silence, I left my wife and two children laughing and playing in the living room, all immersed in Roach-sound. I went to take a brief bath. Upon returning to visit with my ladies, I found them each fast aslumber, sprawled on couch, chair, and floor with electronic ambience massaging them into deepest sleep. Uncanny. You can't go wrong with this release if you want find truly inspired sonic excursions into the twilight abodes of Hypnos and the Lethean waters of cleansed mind. Highly recommended. (Be forewarned, as you may be soon seeking out all of the releases represented herein.) ~ EER Editor, EER-MUSIC.com
BODY ELECTRIC By Steve Roach and Vir Unis Projekt, 1999
Roach fans, this is your wake-up call! After the calm ambient depths of SLOW HEAT and the Western driftwood of DUST TO DUST, BODY ELECTRIC bursts into the soundscape with a driving exultant rush. Not since 1997s ON THIS PLANET has Roach, along with his excellent collaborator Vir Unis and other fine sidemen, produced such compelling, percussion-driven work. This one's got it all: electronic growls, clangs, drums and rattles, industrial noise, mystical hoots, Robert Rich-like glurp, sounding stones and grinding rocks. And all of it makes me want to get up out of my computer chair and free-dance to the rhythm. The mix of different sounds -- and different players -- is better than ever here. Roach and Vir Unis work perfectly together. For instance, in track 3, Mind Link, the familiar cool contemplative Roach chords are layered under an explosive, steam-puffing mix of electronic rhythms, rattles, and grinding-stone zings. And in the middle of this noisy train ride, you hear the night-song of the little tree frog and the crickets from SLOW HEAT! There is a continuity from one track to the next, so that a listener can hear the rhythm metamorphose as the album goes on. While there is always something new coming down the sound-road, there is a progression from the high energy of the earlier tracks to a slower, heavier pace in the later pieces. Because of this attention to pacing, BODY ELECTRIC feels like one large continuum, rather than a collection of separate musical pieces. Among these slower (but still percussion-driven) pieces in the middle of the album there is the weirdly humorous track 6, Homunculus Within, which features transformed, sighing or yelping human voices, like the sounds of lovers in the Underworld, along with tropical bird calls. This moves into industrial clanking that sounds like a construction site in the jungle. As the album moves on, it flows into more ambient spaces, such as track 8, Solar Tribe, where the percussion is muted against nocturnal drones and Roach's own eerie vocal soundings. The pace picks up again for one more power ride, in track 9, The New Dream. This almost-techno construction carries the listener along on a steely rail of sound, until it melts into the last piece, no. 10, Cave of the Heart. Here, BODY ELECTRIC finally winds down, in a slow, dragging rhythm that has an almost physical effect, fading into smooth ambient soundwashes, like the cool-down after a workout. Indeed, after listening to BODY ELECTRIC, you will want to catch your breath! This is powerful work from a professional in his prime. ~ Hannah M.G.Shapero, EER-MUSIC.com
Steve Roach: World's Edge (2CD, 127:04); Celestial Harmonies/Fortuna Records 18057-2, 1992 Celestial Harmonies P.O. Box 30122 Tucson, AZ 85751 USA Ph: 520-326-4400 Fax: 520-326-3333 Email:email@example.com Cyberhome: http://www.harmonies.com
I first came across Steve Roach when joyously discovering his Structures From Silence release. I went on from there to buying Dreamtime Return and now own many Roach releases and collaborations. This is my first chance officially to review a work of his. First off, I can quickly summarize World's Edge in saying this a wonderfully executed blending of all those things that worked so well in Structures . . . and Dreamtime . . . Disc One incorporates a healthy dose of the Aboriginal percussives into Roach's trademark swelling drone- breathing synths. A perfect balance of tension-release, anticiptation-relaxation, and trancezone/ world-stopping is woven in a fine tapestry of ethereal soundworlds. Ten tracks ranging from 3:05 to 10:25 offer some of Roach's best works for the blank-stare, alpha-waved, drool-inducing moments. I'm there dude in the "Roach-cocoon" buried 5 miles beneath the surface of Titan, millennia after the death of the Sun. Are you with me? Disc Two offers essentially another hour of one nonstop Roachscape, transporting you even further through massive gong calls, synthvoice wordless chants -- Tibetan ruins among Cydonian foothills, crumbling on the dust storm-eroded face of Mars, now welcome your naked soul. I hear Roach's The Magnificent Void here too. This is Roach as best as I can describe for you. As I do for only a select handful of artists -- I highly recommend you ambient-heads and electronic tunes-devotees make sure this is in your collection. Thanks for all the trips, Steve. Now passing the outer regions of the unknown . . . this has been . . . ~ EER Editor, EER-MUSIC.com
THE AMBIENT EXPANSE by Steve Roach, Patrick O'Hearn, vidna Obmana, Stephen Bacchus, Vir Unis Mirage Records, 1999 Ambient music is above all a music of mood, an abstract sound rather than the conventional musical indicators of rhythm, harmonic progressions, and structure in time or tone. What makes ambient music good or great is where it takes you in your imagination, and how effectively it triggers inner states of mind. There is also a subtle musicality to ambient, when it's done by masters of the art. And Steve Roach, with his collaborators, shows once again that he and his team are indeed ambient masters. THE AMBIENT EXPANSE is intended to be a "five- movement collaborative work" rather than just a compilation of five different pieces by different artists. Therefore there is an underlying unity to the set, as well as a similar slow, stately pace. EXPANSE is well-named: it is an expansive, floating soundscape buoyed on vast swells of synthesizer chords. It evokes, as does so much work by Roach, the grand open spaces of deserts, oceans, or outer space. Here, because most of the chords are within the tonal system and either major key or modal, it is an almost always an ambient of light, rather than a fearsome darkness. Steve Roach and bassist Patrick O'Hearn collaborate on the first piece, in which O'Hearn's unmistakable bass work underlies Roach's familiar floating chords. If this is a preview of what Roach and O'Hearn have been working on for their collaborative album, I will be eagerly awaiting it. Vidna Obmana's "The Space In-Between," the fourth movement, is one of the best in the set. In my opinion, Vidna Obmana's music continues to improve year by year, and this is some of the best Obmana I've heard. He has learned to hitch his Euro-Wagnerian harmonic choices to a smoothly flowing, technical American sound, rather than aimlessly grinding about the way he used to do. Of all the pieces on the album, Obmana's is the most ambiguous, with hints of greyness and desolation among the pale clouds. The fifth and last movement, "The Eternal Expanse," belongs to Steve Roach, and is the longest in the set. It opens with an echo of Roach's recent "Dust to Dust," but it also looks back to other Roach ambient works such as "The Dream Circle." Unlike the other pieces, "Eternal" has some dynamic range, moving from soft to loud in big organ-like and almost romantic swells of sound. THE AMBIENT EXPANSE is not for everyone. Its lack of rhythm and trance-like quality are not good background music for working or driving. This is music for listeners who cherish space and silence; it is essentially a contemplative experience, designed not to incite emotion or passion but to lead into an inner world of serenity, to a state of what mystics might call "full emptiness." This review was first published in WIND AND WIRE magazine. HMGS rating: 8 Hannah M.G.Shapero, EER-MUSIC.com 10/03/98
Observe how the word
wheel reverses direction
if you try and read words.