by Bill Binkelman, Wind and Wire
With BLOOD MACHINE and now CORE, Steve Roach appears to have awakened a sleeping giant. To my ears, these CDs represent some very exciting and challenging (in the best sense) music. On CORE, Steve uses many different elements (analog and digital keyboards, electric guitars, percussion, flutes, and of course his studio wizardry) in a staggeringly well-balanced way – the integration of everything is seamless. Plus, the music (at times) has an almost giddy sense of adventure (and that's such a relief from some sedate and sorrowful ambient music I listen to and review). Mixing his fractal groove rhythms with neo-Berlin sequencer beats and also his sensual tribal textures, all wrapped up in a variety of soundworlds that flow from song to song in an unbroken musical spell, Roach has once again made a believer out of this one-time critic. CORE is a stunner in the sheer variety of what the artist puts forth – sometimes within just one song.
Take "Wings of Icarus" which morphs into frenetic fractal grooves from the opening tribal / ambient textures. The energy starts building slowly, as several layers of pulsing pseudo-organic beats pound away like rapid-fire impulses travelling along synaptic connections. But, buried under this is, believe it or not, a flavoring of funk! Whoa! Talk about a surprise! And then he folds in some lush washes of minor key ambience – well, hell, it's like he threw out the damn "ambient user's guide" and followed the adage "go for it." And boy, did he go for it!
"Train of Thought" is one of my favorite selections. It's another cut that uses beats, but once again Steve (through the use of analog textures that flirt at the song's borders) refuses to be ordinary. CORE may be the most "evolutionary" yet "ambient" recording to come along in quite a while. I expect this kind of pulsing yet morphing style from a Germanic artist like Paul Ellis or Thomas Ronkin. But it's something else entirely to hear traces of Berlin melded with more tribal ambient and spacemusic soundscapes. This layering of patented Roach washes and drones into the uptempo rhythms breathes so much life into CORE that no matter how many times you listen to it, you probably won't tire of it (I haven't and I'm on my sixth or seventh playing).
I could go through every cut and try to describe all the ways that this CD amazed me – from the brilliant engineering of all those rhythmic elements to the skillful way that Steve seems to instinctively know when a riff has played itself out and it's time to inject something new or morph into a whole new melodic sensibility. Another element that I never tired of was the integration of cyber-futurism with neo-tribal organic sensuality.
Even though the adroit listener will hear echoes of BLOOD MACHINE on some songs, CORE is truly a new beast altogether. "Resonation Revelation" is a midtempo dance-rhythm number – like techno but slowed down and covered in mystery and shadow. "So it Goes..." (which, like two other songs, is comprised of two distinct movements) offers up spacy synth effects against a steady backdrop of fractal grooves and an undercurrent of flutes and Roach's patented tribal percussive elements. "Endorphin Dreamtime" veers out into the darkness of Germanic outer space with pulsing sequencers leading you on a hyper-speed cruise in the stars, riding a solar wind of gently fluid washes and chords. "Hyperportal" is just that – hyper! It's a veritable continuous explosion of rhythms and electronic beats that isn't so much like riding a bullet train – it's like *being* the damn bullet train yourself!
CORE is easily one of the top releases of 2001. It showcases an artist at literally the top of his game. I'll be the first to admit that I thought Steve had started to repeat himself several years ago. But he has completely re-invented himself as an artist and, in doing so, has also reinvigorated beat-driven ambient music, injecting it with creativity and brilliance. So it only goes to show, old dogs still have some tricks left to teach us after all. Highly recommended!