by Brian Bieniowski, Wind and Wire
Dec. 12, 2003
We last heard from Steve Roach with his mammoth four CD box MYSTIC CHORDS & SACRED SPACES, a memorable collection of ambient soundscaping. I reviewed the first disc of this massive work, and I plan to continue to review the entire set in coming months. In the meantime, to whet the appetite, we have the latest installment in Roach's Timeroom Editions series, LIFE SEQUENCE. This is an interesting release, first because it is something of a departure from recent Roach material (usually deep and long droneworks or intense tribal-ritual albums), and second because it marks a return to the style of music Roach debuted with in the early eighties: sequencing. As I've stated before, I'm no great fan of modern Berlin School music, and, understandably, approached LIFE SEQUENCE with skepticism. After all, Roach's last album of sequencing was STORMWARNING from 1989. A lot has happened in electronic music since then, and I wondered if Roach would approach sequencing much in the same regard as if the nineties and its corresponding techno "renaissance" had never happened. The answer with LIFE SEQUENCE is yes and no.
The disc begins with "Lightness of Being," an extremely apt title for this, the shortest track on the album. Light and bubbly e-perc bounces around the speakers, sounding similar to recent collaborations with Vir Unis, though with a playfulness largely absent in those releases. This is rather frenetic work, impossibly reminding me of Kraftwerk in its simultaneously classic and futuristic sound. It's a brief and unusual beginning for this album, but also the only track on LIFE SEQUENCE in this vein. "Living the Dream" changes the mood considerably (partly because it dates back to 1991), as we shift from rapid bubbling to the down-tempo sequencing Roach was known for in the late-eighties. Fans of DREAMTIME RETURN's insistent, though not punishingly fast, sequenced work will find "Living the Dream" absolutely appealing. The track slowly builds, and while not reaching the intense heights of "Towards the Dream," it certainly maintains the breathtaking flavor of one who has reached the mountain's summit and proudly views the land below, shockingly small. Perhaps much of Roach's work is unfairly compared to his seminal DREAMTIME RETURN, but this track stands on its own as a worthy successor.
"Sundial," a track in collaboration with former Dweller at the Threshold member Paul Ellis, is absolutely the highlight of LIFE SEQUENCE. Here is where past sequencing styles explored by Roach are cast off for a more modern and progressive sound. The sequencing is suitably propulsive, but also allows the other elements to phase in and out over the underlying mandala of synth tones. These synths are rich and warm, artificial yet human. This is the most "ambient" track so far on LIFE SEQUENCE, with a break in the tempo to allow a soft atmospheric interlude where one can palpably feel the melding of classic sequencing with the driftwork on ATMOSPHERIC CONDITIONS. The spacecraft continues along the surface of the planet, skimming speedily, but slowing down to gaze at the milieu of exotic alien life mired below. After all, space travel is without value lacking the context of eventual planetfall. This track alone is worth the price of the album. The second track with Paul Ellis, "Sands of Time," is similarly evocative. Phased, warm tones streak across a dark sky, not unlike the digital imagery of the album cover. These sounds represent the most appealing aspects of Roach's work; while outwardly not complex, they are arranged to evoke maximum emotional response in the listener. It's hard not to be swept away when the downtempo sequence begins. Sequencers are the tools used here with Ellis, not the defining attributes of the music. I find this aspect to be appealing: while creating works that are clearly inspired by the Berlin School, they are not constrained by an overbearing style. "Sands of Time" gurgles along as its synth sequencing melds with unusual zither tones, ambient-techno flourishes, and a curious kind of counterpoint. Also of note is the fantastic "laser beam" sound that enters at the ten-minute mark. In total, this piece stands as the transcendence of many different kinds of electronic sound with a fresh feel that belies its individual elements. Finally, the monstrous "Destination Horizon" (from 1988 and clocking in at just over twenty-seven minutes) ends LIFE SEQUENCE with a return to past Roach sequencing styles. I find this particular track to be more interesting than the earlier "Living the Dream" -- while both tracks are composed of similar elements, this has a "classic Roach" flavor that reminds me of the music listeners fell in love with in the first place. It is sequenced, sweeping, and ambient all at once -- a reminder of why Roach is so highly regarded by ambient and new age circles. Roach has a talent of expressing the ineffable in his music and "Destination Horizon" propels the listener forward into an unknowable future, both mysterious and welcoming.
LIFE SEQUENCE surprised me from the start. While lacking the album flow of many of Roach's works (understandable given the varying dates of composition), each track manages to stand on its own merits, making the total a fine collection of pieces that probably wouldn’t fit anywhere else. Listeners who find Roach's classic sequencing style a past relic may be turned away by certain tracks' similarities to older works (and ambient fans who eschew Berlin School altogether will likely avoid this entirely). I, myself, who enjoy Roach's work past and present, found this to be a fine addition to Roach's daunting discography. The work with Paul Ellis is especially excellent; there is clearly a synergy between the two musicians here where both artists' styles meld into a truly memorable result. These two tracks alone are worth the price of admission. Those who feel electronica has moved past Berlin School-inspired music will likely feel Roach is treading well-worn ground. Nothing on LIFE SEQUENCE is likely to change their minds. Those who appreciate a classic style done with modern aplomb (not to mention the presence of unreleased tracks from Roach's seminal period) will find LIFE SEQUENCE absolutely essential.
On Roach's own Timeroom Editions label.