All is Now, Darkest Before Dawn, Day Out of Time, Trance Spirits
by Darren Bergstein, e|i magazine
The doors of perception. Leaping to mind immediately: Huxley and his strategic metaphors, the last vestiges of aberrant psychological states hovering in a broadcast twilight zone. And through these doors awaits Steve Roach, the guide for those looking to be plunged into wells of lost souls, into uncertain regions.
From the early '80s, Roach has consistently eked out a definitive niche in the electronic music community, sidestepping misinformed pigeonholers desperate to brandish his music 'new age,' breaking free of the Teutonic chains of yesteryear and creating a formidable catalogue of sonic art lesser talents can only pray to aspire to. For decades he has consistently been captivated by primitive regions and the nomads trekking across terra incognita redolent with rugged beauty and solipsistic melancholy. His early classic DREAMTIME RETURN, a benchmark in American electronic music as pivotal as Eno's On Land and Jon Hassell's Power Spot, was an aural sieve through which flowed the spiritual hues of the aborigines' rich ancestry and contemporary digital musicmaking technology, the result a hybridization of human sound design writ puzzlingly organic via the synthesizer matrix.
Roach's knack for creating intense, deeply involved soundworlds has arisen both from his mooring to time-blasted lands and the reinterpretations of his earthly muse in a live setting. The doors of perception he opens for himself, and the doors he beckons his listeners to enter, exist because of ideas and images that erupt not just from the studio but, as powerfully, out of the world's stages. Witness the exuberant ALL IS NOW, a double-disc set capturing performances that fairly ignited the atmosphere of their origins, be they northern California or Portland, Oregon. Each disc edited into a seamless plunge into the maelstrom renders this collection as representative of a live Roach event as has yet to be issued (even one-upping ON THIS PLANET). Here Roach is in his ragged glory, ripping into his machines with gusto, devising vast weather systems of sonic events that writhe unabashedly between campfire and computer. Consider the possibilities that would have existed had a composer been present at the formation of the earth's crust, as nature distributed it's sentience across the red rock canyons and preening boulders millennia ago: disc two's sixty-eighty minute extravaganza "Sedona: Formations Creation" might very well have held the aural birthright to that event. Noises ripple, fade, shimmer in the heathaze; aberrant percussives leach into the striations of granite bass; there is the coming of night, signaled by tribesmen beating a drumskin stretched tight across the loam of time. This isn't just atmosphere -- this is audio anthropomorphics.
Restoking the embers of his imagination, the styles that imbibe Roach's art remain intertwined, yet have migrated into a number of distinct modes. But the tenor of the times, and his omnipresent investigation of all things mythic and primeval, have brought him to a specific space. His latest Timeroom Editions epic, DARKEST BEFORE DAWN, is the yin to QUIET MUSIC's yang, the bastard offspring of STRUCTURES FROM SILENCE, a near-sepulchral venture into endless voids, sonicism bereft of spatiality, infinity rendered corporeal. It is 'ambient' ripped from the fabric of spacetime to reveal the residual quiet of vacuum, a place that is universe-endless, foreboding, yet perversely compelling. It is music that even in its most skeletal state reveals the emotional heart that resides at the core of Roach's oeuvre, music of subtle moves, born out of expansive motions, a weaving miasma of ebony drones, of gradually unfurling bonecold synths faintly modulating. Shattering the bland, faceless categorization of a 'dark' ambient music, this unexpected work might well be one of the most unique in his vast catalog, a startling tone poem limned with visceral, confrontational beauty.
Issued as a separate disc that offers the complete soundtrack to the DVD film TIME OF THE EARTH, DAY OUT OF TIME thrusts the intrepid shaman out of the void and headlong back into igneous regions. Those familiar with his past collaborations with Kevin Braheny and Michael Stearns, not to mention WORLD'S EDGE and ORIGINS, will immediately identify that Roach has returned to familiar stomping grounds here -- but perceive that his carrier current has always remained wired to the grid of cinematic imagery and the distance between is far smaller than you think. Familiarity might be the demon of artifice, but Roach has enough tricks (sounds) up his sleeve that nothing here suggests he's gone to the sampler one time too many. On the contrary, he's more attuned to his environment than ever: "Begins Looking Skyward" speaks in huge pregnant electronic pauses, the whispers of shadowed banshees, pin-prick synths irising open to the sheltering sky that perfectly replicate the vast yearning and galvanizing forces at play on the blanched terrain.
Just the idea of Roach mixing it up with the likes of Robert Fripp should be enough to send the cognoscente off salivating, but TRANCE SPIRITS isn't exactly the penultimate meeting between big chief electric and crimson king. Point of fact, this collaboration is billed as a conjoint of Roach and percussionist Jeffrey Fayman; Fripp's 'guitar soundscapes,' provided to the duo carte blanche, only grace three of the seven pieces, and even then are fully integrated, or more accurately subjugated, into the mix. Fripp's caustic whorls are more evident on the lengthier "Year of the Horse" and "In the Same Deep Water," where the guitarist must thrust and parry against Roach's stormy groove constructs. Don't leave the room with the impression that TRANCE SPIRITS is anything like a remote disappointment, however -- this is still bracing stuff, Fayman and Momodou Kah's rhythmic motifs providing the ideal foils for Roach as he solders them onto his tensile synths and own galloping beatstorms. It is music that is as effecting as it is effective -- no doubt the doors of perception are still only slightly ajar. Step over the threshold and see what's inside.