Immersion One / Immersion: Two / Kairos / Proof Positive / Storm Surge / Terraform
by Darren Bergstein, e|i magazine
Was 2006 yet another milestone year for Mr. Roach and his art? You betcha. Wrenched from twelve months of undoubtedly ceaseless activity, the high ambient priest of the Sonoran desert shows not the slightest hint of slowing down. Into his now 25th year of recording, this clutch of discs (and one DVD) demonstrates a body of work that seems to grow in richness and vitality release to release. It's safe to say that this remarkable sextet is some of his best work to date -- and that's taking into account a formidable back catalog of roundly acknowledged classics, music whose striations continue to inform lesser lights who couldn't carry Roach's didjeridoo.
The Immersion series of single-track works is now two volumes in (part three is due this year), and, if history can assume the visage of a kind and benevolent arbiter, many well-versed in Roach's creations will hold these new chapters of blossoming, respiratory ambient right up there with STRUCTURES FROM SILENCE or QUIET MUSIC (the contemporary digital mosaics of their Digipak covers notwithstanding). There are marked differences in presentation, however, lest anyone think these new recordings are just S.f.S. redux. IMMERSION: ONE, unlike its more earthbound predecessors, is quite simply the sound of galaxies expanding, the residue of noble gases stretched apart by extrasolar gravitational forces, sounds that seem to arise out of sources imperceptible to the naked eye. Over seventy-three minutes, ghostly entrails swirl around a central mass of howling mists and looped digital whistles, as the whole sonic enterprise, like incumbent supernovae, glows brightly, is pulled thinner into the vacuum, collapses and slowly renews itself once again, cycles played out in a perpetual celestial dance of birth and rebirth. The sounds on IMMERSION: TWO, more "brittle," starker, less opulent, even symphonic in approach, reflect the settling down of the arching, exploratory realms that signified volume one. Here, on the track coined "Artifact Ghost," fragmented noises, tiny gelatinous explosions of air, pepper the melaniforous drone; more ominous in nature than its' cousin, the trip into this particular void is one accompanied by scuttling nocturnal organisms, their gesticulations the lone movements choreographed deep in the abyss. Like the perenially aging flavor of a fine wine, the best manner with which to absorb the intricacies of these two compelling recordings is total and patient submission. At first pass, both narratives unspooled so subtly that any "resolution" hardly appeared forthcoming, dronescapes that proffered little of value save for their literal existence. After (recommended) repeated listenings, the full impact of each, particularly the exquisite "melody" that lies at the heart of volume one, finally seduces. Which -- they are titled Immersion, after all -- is the very idea Roach is conveying.
At practically a molecular level, the embracing of the newest soundtoys, coupled with an interest in alternative medias and his use of galvanic images in performance, is an integral component of his artistic make-up, so it was only a matter of time before Roach embossed the DVD format with his own unique stamp. Beautifully packaged in a cardboard DVD Digipak, the cover a morphing panoply of oil-slick iridescent ringlets, KAIROS proclaims itself a "visual odyssey" married to the Roach template. Comprising a DVD and CD (which corresponds to the visual cues), the participant can embark on a multi-sensory experience that has its cake and eats it too. The montage of video photography and computer-generated imagery, courtesy of visual artists Lynn Augstein, Steve Lazur, Steven Rooke, John Vega, and John Wadsworth, flows from the thunderclap that ushers us in through to a simmering desert expanse of parched earth, sprawling flora, wind-etched rock aggregate and burnished mountain before collapsing into the kaleidoscopic DNA strands of the cover art. Those lucky folk owning a home-theater system equipped with Dolby/THX, a surround-sound speaker array and widescreen plasma television would be well-advised to take advantage of the KAIROS DVD's aural and retina-melting photophobs (hallucinogenic mushrooms not included, but imbibe at your own peril). The majority of us will just drink deep of one of Roach's most electrifying CD's in dog years. Making full use of a studio stocked better than NASA, Roach's arsenal of recently acquired modular synths, software and well-massaged keyboard electrics is a resolutely dazzling display for the eardrums. Though individually titled and tracked, the eight pieces of Kairos segue into one grand morphogenetic field: "Core Regeneration" a sequencer maelstrom whipped up in a convulsion of electrical current; "Resonation Portal" revealing the dim beams of quasars ekeing out the void; "Etheric Planet" a morass of latticed strings under which bubble curlicues of synthetic goo; "Biogenesis" recapturing the flaming energies first sent spinning on Roach's unbridled sequencer classic EMPETUS. Let the tweeter assault commence.
"Biogenesis," in fact, is but prelude for the ticking rhythmic sensurrealities erupting out of PROOF POSITIVE, and actually is part of the disc's opening twenty-one minute-plus workout "Westwind." Gawk first at the CD's interlocking cyberdelic arteries splashed across the trifold digipak exterior (one of the best covers to ever feature on a Roach recording), and you'll find not just a "sequel" in nature to the aforementioned EMPETUS, but the kind of synth/sequencer distillations the average Tangerine Dream clonemeister lusts after. The twin dramas of "Westwind" and the near half-hour long title track are ripe perambulations of man and machine, man (Roach) the conduit, the programming wizard deftly navigating a forest of dials, faders and ribbed knobs to make the machines wriggle, flutter, swagger and rock. But as mesmerizing as those sequencer superhighways are, it's actually the shorter tracks positioned between their respective bookends that provide the disc with its molten core. "Living the Pulse" is a four-minute throbbing heartbeat of silvery beauty, easily besting anything Froese and Co. have concocted the last fifteen years, seguing uneasily into the probing depths of the faster "Essential Occurrence," which rides aloft on crests of heavy-water as rippling tidal pools of notes arc menacingly through the undertow. This "middle passage" culminates in "Adreno Stream," all cardiogram stress blips and seizing neurons that curdle the air around them to pulp. Gasp, shudder, tremble -- repeat.
Of course, as good as Roach is on anodized disc, live the guy fires on all cylinders, and few in the audience ever leave with anything less than sensory deprivation. Roach has documented shows on CD before, but STORM SURGE, wrestled out in front of attendees of the 2006 Nearfest progressive rock gathering held in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, no doubt left permanent scars on sensibilities too long dulled by overexposure to Rush and Marillion wanna-bes. With his trusty didg in tow, accompanied by just a few keyboards (and a laptop controller), Roach breaks out some older chestnuts and reinterprets them into crackling new forms. The sound quality is uniformly superb, the enthusiasm of his perfomance palpable -- winding his way amongst ambient labyrinths and tribal motifs he sets up an otherworldly seance of crusty ancestral tapestries, riffing on both the fossilized remnants of shamans past and the eschetological worlds that remain unglimpsed and unknown. The very idea of Roach performing in front of crowds more attuned to J.R.R. Tolkein fantasias or bent-metal tritones seems incongruous at best, but the results are, nevertheless, stunning. Whether erecting a seemingly limitless scaffold of rhythmic textures ("Wings of Icarus") or taking refuge in a fug of Lynchian proportions ("Void Passage--Portal"), Roach keeps both the active members of his audience (those present) and the remainder (those experiencing the event via its CD documentation) equally transfixed.
On TERRAFORM, in cahoots with fellow sonic archaeologist Loren Nerell, Roach jettisons bitmapped machine music for a wondrously alchemical foray into topographical incognita. Both artists not only demonstrate muses in alignment, they seem to intuitively expound upon, and allow to proliferate, vivid ecosystems of sound. Nerell, though not the most prolific of musicians (releasing just a handful of discs in two decades), is adept at capturing life in aural snapshot, noted most tellingly on his LILIN DEWA album and the life-in-montage found on INDONESIAN SOUNDSCAPES, artfully spliced together out of indigenous field recordings. It's a sure bet Norell's responsible for the more "corporeal" elements on TERRAFORM, notably the cricketchurp underbelly buffering the opener "Cavity of Liquids"; however, the delineation of responsibility in such an expertly constructed album as this one is all but moot. Teeming Roachian soundworlds are steadfastedly in place, and both artists' contributions make for a mysterious yet seamless whole, but of the many collaborations Roach has undertaken through the years this one seems the most considered -- not a single sound or concept is ill-placed or haphazardly selected. The end result makes for heady listening: the trilling phrases, rubbed echoes and pre-dawn activities informing "Ecopoiesis" could well soundtrack an Aztec hoedown, while the twenty-eight minute morass of corrugated drones that is "Texture Wall" makes for nervous rappelling indeed. Curiously, there's been some negative appraisals of TERRAFORM in various ambient circles; amongst the flotsam of copyist redundancies and abject mimickry, it's bewildering that such critical myopia bobs to the surface. Naysayers be damned -- sitting comfortably on the drone throne, this one's the real deal.