Mystic Chords & Sacred Spaces
by Mark Morton, Wind and Wire
Steve Roach's stature in the genre known as "ambient spacemusic", one which he had a large part in founding, is now such that most fans of his music just want to know what rough subcategory any new release falls under and whether it is one of his many inspired landmarks in the field. For those fans there are two answers; this is an extended series of "atmospheric soundworlds", with a fond look back to the days of STRUCTURES FROM SILENCE for all his old fans. The answer to the second question may be more problematic. I think it deserves to be labeled a "landmark" for nothing more than the innovative manner in which Roach expands the possibilities of composition with polyphonic drones, but some fans may be disappointed because the subsequent emotional riches require more digging than usual, even for a Steve Roach record.
The release comes in a two disc digipak with some nice "ambient" artwork on the cover showing a shell that has a spiral shape. Much of the music sounds like an aural spiral, so this image fits the release well. "Part 2" of the title is only available as part of a four disc set containing these two discs and two others from Roach's website.
Disc 1 is subtitled "Mystic Chords & Sacred Spaces" and disc 2 "Labyrinth", but the pieces on disc 2 flow into each other to present what sounds like one long composition, whereas the pieces on disc 1 fade out and are more easily heard as separate compositions.
The journey begins with "Palace of Nectar", an expansive drone piece, which provides a good introduction. Drones are placed in the soundfield to seem like they are being played some distance away and fade in and out to fine effect, but this piece is clearly prepatory to the heart of the journey. "Oracle" is next and is the first striking piece here. Here Roach layers each drone so it can perceptually appear as one polyphonic drone with expanded harmony or as a series of monophonic "strand" drones, each with its own tonal and timbral implications. Thus, Roach is creating music that can stimulate a multitude of perspectives apprehended closely in time by the listener. Out of this background Roach creates small motives that emanate from several of the monophonic drones. These motives then create further harmony, begin to overlap, delay is used on them and the listener begins to have a picture of what eternity looks like. Roach has been moving in this direction for a while, but this is his most clear realization of it. It is all the more impressive when one realizes that the material here is largely tonal-harmonic, with occasional polytonality.
"Within the Mystic" is next and continues down this path, but uses filter resonance and tuning to create even more timbral variation. The individualization of the drone strands is achieved by using a wide pitch palate (low drones, high drones, feedback drones). Each sustained tone seems like it has its own sonic space. Roach uses a cello (played by Kathryn Gunzinger) as a sound source here to good effect. "Presence" uses the familiar descending stepwise motive as a springboard for morphing the repeated sounds and patterns. Roach's "morphing" (a technique of altering the timbre or sound of a repeated musical pattern so that it appears to "morph" or evolve into something quite different) throughout this recording is his most sophisticated yet and often taken to such extremes that one would be hard pressed to remember the source of the sound being morphed, the most extreme example being that "Vortex Ring" appears to base its material on "morphed" sounds from "Presence", although the pitch content has been largely drained and the listener is left with an atmospheric piece that sounds vaguely familiar.
Disc 2 plays continuously but there are individual titles. "Wren and Raven", contains what sounds like field recordings of the two birds, sounding concretely of the world and otherworldly at the same time while expansive drones move beneath the natural sounds. "Dream Body" is the most beautiful music I have heard from Roach since "Structures Form Silence". Many of the pieces on disc 2 slip the tethers of ordinary pitch and are better described as "soundscapes" but are no less interesting. Here, the soundscapes ("The Otherworld", Wonderworld") manage to sound like drones, although not "pretty" ones. On this disc, it sounds as if Roach is exploring deep space or has gone very deep inside (I had visions of both while listening). It sometimes requires very intent and active listening but the rewards can be great. I found myself feeling nourished and challenged at the same time. The recording ends with "Nameless", an interesting work that has a guest guitarist, who goes by the name of Filtered Sun. Although there is nothing on the work that sounds like a guitar to my ears, I guess that he or she is doing the high-pitched shimmering tones that end the recording nicely.
There are many indications that the work was important to Roach. For anyone moved by his past work, this is definitely a watermark that should be explored, with the hope of more to come. My strongest recommendation.