by Brian Bieniowski, Wind and Wire
I've been to a number of live ambient shows hosted in Philadelphia called The Gatherings. For those unfamiliar with the event, it's a series of concerts by world-class ambient and electronic artists held in an old, beautiful church near the University of Pennsylvania campus. Back in May of 2002, I had the opportunity to see both Steve Roach and Vidna Obmana -- supporting the release of their collaboration INNERZONE -- in this reverent, resonant, and memorable location. On the eve of this event, Roach and Obmana held their own gathering, recording live their newest release together, SPIRIT DOME.
I wondered if SPIRIT DOME would tread the same territory [of INNERZONE], considering the time period in which it was created. Interestingly, SPIRIT DOME expands upon INNERZONE, including the dissonance, and improves upon it by integrating trademark Roach/Vidna Obmana motifs that make the overall pill easier to swallow. This seventy-three minute composition offers a glimpse into a darker territory, heard recently in Vidna Obmana's Dante-inspired work, but with enough going on underneath the surface to make it an exciting and dynamic trip.
SPIRIT DOME is split into eight index points, but is in reality one long track. With Roach's lovely, resonant guitar loops and rainstick, SPIRIT DOME begins in an organic, if subterranian, place. The effect is one of a gradual approaching -- we haven't reached the dome yet, but are clearly on the way to a darker and deeper zone of consciousness. Fujara punctuates the atmosphere, low and subtle. This is an understated and hushed beginning, but the fragile peace is not to last long. A tribal beat enters the fray at index point two -- punctuated by shells clattering -- bringing the pace up a bit. Remnants of Roach's psychedelic groove discs appear here and there, lancing through a sky that is clearly quite dark. Roach's guitar ambience moves to the foreground, laying down "mystic chords" like a lysergic Daniel Lanois.
Things get stormier as track two bleeds into track three, where Vidna Obmana's moody tones meld with increasingly strange and spidery guitar tones. The beat is deserted in favor of INNERZONE-style dissonance and spacious synth backing. Roach and Obmana combine here in a strange kind of artistic harmony where both styles snake around one another in a textural dance of tonality. Near the end of the track, the tribal beat returns -- this time recalling the martial tone of Vidna Obmana's recent Dante discs. We're traveling deeper, clearly, and it isn't all sweetness and light down there. The synth textures have a chiming and reverent theme, bringing to mind, perhaps, the musical equivalent of an underground gothic cathedral. The harsh, near-industrial sounds of Vidna Obmana's recent work take over for the time being as unabashedly synthetic sound churns, with deep bass underpinning fujara that sounds rather like a rusty gate. We're in horror soundtrack territory, but this isn't George Romero stuff, but some kind of psychedelic horror via Mario Bava, where all is not as it seems. The choir of industrial sonics hushes at index point six in favor of a melange of high-pitched tones and strange manipulated sonics joined with deep atmospherics. If this is the sound of a ritual, surely it's that of a frighteningly exotic people, with inexplicable contexts.
Track seven brings back the tribal beat, propelling the spooky journey forward -- we're no longer mired underground, but somehow gliding over a distinctly dark and shadowy underworld. Finally, track eight brings us out of the dark place -- we return to the hushed ambience of the beginning, but we have retained portions of our journey; a journey that moves effortlessly through dark and light territories (though mostly dark).
SPIRIT DOME is, in my opinion, the strongest collaborative work between Roach and Obmana since CIRCLES & ARTIFACTS. It successfully integrates the sonic elements of INNERZONE, as well as recent solo work by both artists. Those who prefer the lighter soundworlds of both artists are advised to steer clear of this one, as it's spooky and gothic the whole way through, even after a seemingly harmless, atmospheric start. While I find SPIRIT DOME to be hardly essential for casual fans -- I'd recommend Roach's recent MYSTIC CHORDS & SACRED SPACES and Obmana's Spore to those who wish to get acquainted with each artist's recent explorations -- it offers an intriguing and satisfying document of the strengths of both artists in a live and improvisatory setting.