Streams & Currents
by Darren Bergstein, EMR Electronic Music Reviews
February 9, 2002
Hollywood was once touted as the place "dreams were made of", though whether or not that remains true is certainly a subject far too large to be debated here. The promises made by the space music arising out of the ’70s – propagated by the likes of the rising Germanic contingent and any number of '60s psychedelic holdouts—offered many of the same hopes and fantasies, most of which were borne out and continue to carry on within electronica's multi-textured boundaries. Ambient music, that bastard child of Brian Eno and (shudder) corporate suits' marketing niche 'new age', took much of the sinew from intergalactic denizens Tangerine Dream and Klaus Schulze and became a genre wholly its own, though it wasn't so overly self-absorbed that it didn't eventually welcome the throb of various beat structures into its varied mix.
Ambient, in some ways, has gone "underground", the bastard child held at bay, kept down, left to fend for itself. Many view the electronic subgenre with outright derision, perhaps justifiably so – after all, choose a few lower-register octaves, swamp it in reverb, loop it to infinity, and you've got 'ambient', right? It's a hasty generalization made by non-followers of the music who are quick to dismiss anyone of merit operating within the field, a generalization formed of misunderstanding, lack of aural subtlety, impatience, and a usual dearth of knowledge about the music in and of itself.
Take Steve Roach, for instance. This critic has been a longtime and ardent follower of a musician one might call (to paraphrase the same appellation spoken regarding James Brown) the hardest-working man in electronica, and has seen his numerous recordings bear the brunt of both wholesale approbation and self-righteous indignation. Roach has weathered many a storm in his long and illustrious career (one which continues to grow album by album, regardless of stylistic flows and eddies), diligently forging his own path in a marketplace frought with malaise, overflow and critical apathy. He has proven time and time again with recordings of remarkable longevity and versatility – see WORLD'S EDGE, QUIET MUSIC, and EARLY MAN, to name just three from a back catalogue of gigantic proportions – that he transcends stylistic margins and the ceaselessly horrid pigeonholing of his music into new age bins, simultaneously broadening the scope of his chosen sound methods while looking for new worlds to conquer. Whether working in conjunction with musicians of like-minded sensibilities, many of whom are irrevocably affected by his unique contributions (check Vidna Obmana, Elmar Schulte, and Amir Baghiri as examples), or simply by virtue of his own abilities, Roach bucks the odds and damns the torpedoes, steadfastedly carving out his sounds, caring not a farthing about terms such as 'electronica' and 'ambient', doing what any notable artist does – producing his art, and making it real.
STREAMS & CURRENTS is going to be called another Roach ambient album. It's going to be brandished as another in a long line of drone clones, in what seems to be an endless (and intentionally identical) variation on a (non)-theme, more quiet music for the masses. Face it, boys and girls – STREAMS & CURRENTS is another ambient album. And it's yet another wholly satisfying, contemplative, beautiful and beguiling addition to the vast Roach canon.
In fact, this recording is the second volume in a series which finds Roach exploring an instrument generally considered anathema to the environs of electronica: the guitar. As with 2000's MIDNIGHT MOON, we're in the land of nocturnal fractals here, a little nachtmusic, devoid of overdubs, realized via limited processing and virtually rhythm-free (excepting the engaging tribal throb that opens the lustrous and 28-minute+ "Spirit Moves"). Roach has stated around the time of MIDNIGHT MOON that his experiments with the textures of the guitar was mostly a 'one-off' project he would more than likely not return to. Obviously, his captivation with the string-driven thing stroked his muse enough to warrant further investigation. The water analog conjured by the album title is well-mirrored in the recording's plangent tones and subtly shifting vapors – one can detect the metallic sheen so keen to the plucking of guitar strings, but sent through Roach's mixing board, the myriad notes become tone clusters that reverb through the night much like the ripples that cascade away from an implosion in a lake.
Are there similarities to the gorgeous refrains found on QUIET MUSIC? Absolutely. Roach isn't afraid to reference his past work—his past ideations naturally re-occur from time to time in his recordings (as well they should), and the bulk of STREAMS & CURRENTS indulges in the same fragile rhapsodies as on the classic Quiet. "Almost Touching" benefits from gently-stretched notes that shimmer along sonic hues bathed in various shades of light and darkness; the five minutes of "Ebb" use the most subtle of resonations to convey its shifting contours. And throughout the closing "Flow", it's not simply to let yourself get entangled in the track's pearlescent drones—rather, the sounds beckon, coax and ultimately capture you in their soft embrace. This is the particular method to the Roach madness, where he engenders the listener into his new age, into his own singular space, to a region of his own unabashed—and, yes—ambience.
Such is the stuff dreams are made of.