Enter a 'Magnificent Void'
by Daniel Buckley, Tucson Citizen
June 6, 1996
It is music one can imagine a shaman heard from within as he spat paint under a flickering torch light to leave a hand print on the wall of a cave. Amorphous, probing, restless, mysterious and relentlessly evolving, it resembles after tones of the big bang, as matter is sent chaotically writhing through the expanses of space.
At times it seems the listener is caught in a giant, blinding gale of dust and gas, only to dissolve to luminous regions resembling some bright nebula, then back into the cosmic cloud of surging, churning matter again.
In the opening to the title track of Steve Roach's THE MAGNIFICENT VOID (Fathom 1062), we seem to rush past gigantic and too-close knife blades, tumbling into successive waves of interplanetary surf and black-hole fodder.
It is a paradoxical work to say the least – at once ominous and surrealistically calming.
Steve Roach sips iced tea on the patio behind his North Side home, dressed in shorts and a shirt peppered in steer skulls. The Catalinas loom huge and craggy, seemingly so close you could touch them. In the background birds chirp and chatter just a few feet from the home studio in which Roach's dark electronic pastiche was born.
"There was a place that I wanted to get into," Roach explains of THE MAGNIFICENT VOID. "It has a lot to do with dreaming and sleeping, and the places between being asleep and being awake. Those inbetween places I think are connected with the place after (life) - returning to the Void.
"It's something like the way fragrances blend and key you into a particular place or series of events," he says. "Sound works in the same ways - as a scent to this other dimension. I feel it's related to the need to be connected to the most primordial concepts." The first track - "Between the Grey and the Purple" - was recorded four years ago, and the concept for the series gees back nearly 10 years. In between touring and various projects with other musicians, Roach kept the fires burning on the project, returning frequently to the original piece to assume the right head space.
Still, it was developments in digital editing over the past few years that made the project a reality. Working at Westwood Studios with Roger King, Roach was able to digitize various segments of the work and sonically melt them together, lending the CD its free-flowing yet churning stern-to-stern sense of organic evolution.
"What happens in those areas where they (the various thematic segments) start melting together was just incredible alchemy," Roach says of the assembly process. "We could slightly skew the piece this way or that and the interference patterns would shift.
"What has always shaped my music is that kind of sculpting, mixing and changing levels, changing the colors the way they might normally be created by an ensemble of players and a conductor"
There is certainly a massive, orchestral dimension to this extended work. Still, this was a very different project.
In order to reach the place he wanted to be, Roach had to strip away conventional melody and rhythm and work strictly with pure sound - devoid of traditional reference markers. But this is no wigged-out orgy of noise.
"It was just this feeling that I was going for harmonically and spatially that continued to evolve and brew," he says. "The biggest challenge was to keep it all breathing and moving and churning without overt rhythm and melody.
"Obviously there will be people who will listen to it and find nothing to hold on to. That's part of the idea. But people who have come back to it tell me that they find it isn't nearly as dark and confrontational as they initially found it."
It's also a way for Roach to get back into the infinite sonic possibilities that drew him to electronics 20 years ago.
And in a world grown mundane and predictable, Roach's dark ambient explorations come as a curious and vibrant wind.
Back in his studio, surrounded by keyboards, sound modules and effects, Roach is working out the details of bringing that studio sound to the live stage for shows in Chicago, Philadelphia and Baltimore this summer. He's rigged a pair of portable CD players to the top of his mixing board. Using a CD recorder, Roach has created his own 10- to 12- minute drum loops on the CDs to work into the live mix without having to resort to using digital samplers of enormous memory.
"There's now this whole food chain going on that allows me to produce live music of the sophistication that I've arrived at as of now in the studio," he says. "It really lets you go spontaneously further into this incredible range of energy, sonic power and subtlety."