Afterlight, Destination Beyond, Immersion: Four
by Darren Bergstein, Signal to Noise
The few lucky souls who were astute enough to grab these three autumnal slabs of electronic bounty housed in its limited edition cloth onyx box were able to snag quite the audiovisual feast all in one fell swoop. Alas, those cases are now consigned to the dustbin of history, but no matter: boxed or unboxed, the truth is that these new recordings, across their combined 220 minute lifespan, indulge us in yet more of Steve Roach's singular vision and graceful aural sculpture. DESTINATION BEYOND is by far the more energetic of the three discs enclosed, though each paints similarly etched environments in their urge to engage you in conjoined mindstates; combinations vary, but initiating a marathon listening session with Beyond bookended by either of its ambient brothers seems to yield the ideal admixture. Nevertheless, taken separately or whole, these three works are of a piece with the other, a vast puzzle of sonic colors inextricably linked.
The very idea of "ambient" music prospering as a legitimate musical art form and genre, let alone its sub-phylum "drone" music, seems on face absurd, yet many electronic artists have worked both form's minimal aesthetic in fairly maximal ways. Long-form works encompassing an entire CD's running time are now commonplace -- the seemingly endless evolution of but a few chords, patterns, or noises emulate the classical masterworks of centuries past in their thematic richness, technology-forged architecture, and, in many ways, sheer bravado. It is, in fact, such bravado that contemporary noise artists use to often realize a similar sonic goal, but the music of today's dronemeisters, and of Roach in particular, instead are the earthshaker's polar opposite, an anti-noise that reverberates in an altogether different sort of Cage. Like John C's evisceration of numerous musical tropes and utter disdain for anything that might (heaven forbid) be construed as normal, Roach's striated texture mapping functions full-square as noise's direct antithesis: it is a music that strips the soul bare yet is just as provocative, that has a galvanizing effect on the listener every bit as visceral but certainly more satisfying, more nourishing. Unlike traditional, Eno-mandated ambience, Roach's shifting timbres command attentive rather than passive listening -- both functions work yet both invert and subvert Mr. Eno's hoary maxim about the best ambient being music you can simultaneously focus on or ignore. Roach's sonic body politic is hardly fluid and jelly -- his drones have bones.
Take DESTINATION BEYOND out first; for this outing, Roach rattles them bones up. A 71-minute plus sequencer extravaganza, recalling similar motifs pouring from 2007's ARC OF PASSION, Beyond doesn't waste time establishing its basic pulse once Roach spends the first three minutes setting the controls for the heart of the sun. As the first blinking nebulae of notes corkscrews out of those blossoming atmospheres, it's full speed ahead, Roach laying down a galloping firmament of notes upon which reflective curtains of synth ricochet, oscillate, and fold within one another. It is a joyous yet powerful piece of music, nodding to the passing graduates of the old Berlin School class in spirit only. As with his past explorations of sequencer vocabularies, Roach's own spin on such genre affectations has always mined a devastatingly original seam; his deft programming skills visualize such enormously complex sound fabrics that their very design borders on the alchemical. Cruising along Beyond's epic axis, the kaleidoscopic pulses plot sharpened trajectories as atmospheric skeins collide, burst, and spread out to infinity; if you allow him, Roach finds a way of literally thrusting you through cracks in his/our space-time continuum.
One of the recent volumes in this year's Klaus Schulze reissue series sports a piece nicked "Just An Old-Fashioned Schulze Track", a title that projects an unfortunate irony (never mind a wink and a nod) where none should exist; such folly might be levied, as the first few minutes unfurl, on both AFTERLIGHT and IMMERSION: FOUR by the unlearned few as just another Roach track. Shame on them. Roach's compositional mien is so refined at this point as to virtually transcend criticism -- the hand-crafted poise his work reveals, wrought over decades physically sculpting sound, has now made him sui generis, rendering such kneejerk pronouncements irrelevant and moot. And it is at this juncture, where the loci of AFTERLIGHT and IMMERSION: FOUR converge, that Eno's compositional axiom reveals an inherent flaw. Roach draws the perfect analog in the sunburst finish of AFTERLIGHT's cover. Faint though strong shafts of sunlight yearn to break through the sky's cinematic overcast; the strata of this work seems just as dense yet just as fragile. Roach's linear narratives ripple like teased air currents, budding sound science coaxed along by the hands of gods. The silken textures and luminous chords paradoxically suggest stillness and motion, like a string symphony ionized, deconstructed, then recast into something just glimpsed, barely recognizable, but comforting all the same. Roach manages to tantalize your olfactory sense aurally, so the wafting chords and their curlicuing entrails conjure all manner of sensations, but more importantly, what seems static does change, does in fact alter, however subtly. Only by changing one's own parameters for listening, for listening deeply, allows AFTERLIGHT to unveil its insinuous psychogeography.
Keeping the above in mind, IMMERSION: FOUR, part of a continuing series of discrete regions periodically released from Roach's Timeroom studio, is emphatically inside, a case for introspection by bathyscapes navigating deep oceanic pitch. An intertwined loop of low-impact drones whose trilling make for a narcotizing trip into the realm of the senses, this latest Immersion plays like STRUCTURES FROM SILENCE's stylistic reflection. Roach seems to insist you let this one simply fill up your sound space, and in many ways this recording does indeed act as the ideal soma, epitomizing that old ambient maxim to a 't'. But listen carefully, let the drifting thermals invade cochlea and frontal lobe alike, and dividends are rewarded. The great aquatic tides that Roach expertly manipulates via his trusty synths exert a magnetic pull that's difficult to resist whether consciously or subconsciously submitting to its ethereal tugs; even after the recording's 74-minute running time ceases, the mark that's left is so pervasive you imagine the thing's just going on forever. And thanks to your disc player's infinite repeat button, thy wish is the good Mr. Roach's command.