Steve Roach: Welcome to the Vortex
by Mike G, All Music Guide
Electronic and ambient pioneer Steve Roach started creating his music during the late 70's golden age of analog synthesizers, a time when the digital variety was only visible on the horizon. So it's refreshing that an album which continues that hands-on tradition, Spiral Revelation (2017), garnered his first-ever Grammy nomination. Chosen in the Best New Age Album category, the album is crafted almost entirely with modular and stand-alone synthesizers, its sound grounded in the dynamic, spiraling interweave of melodic and rhythmic sequencer forms.
With its analog leanings, Spiral Revelation sounds utterly contemporary thanks to Roach's technological sophistication and creative maturity. Yet the bubbling, kinetic melodies point to his origins, making it a natural place to begin the story of how far and wide he has travelled.
Born 1955 in La Mesa, California, Steve Roach self-released his first solo album in 1982. His early music was part of a wider progressive ambient movement that rose concurrently with new age music on America's West Coast during the 1970's and peaked in the late 80's. Although it often intermingled easily with the best of the early new age genre, Roach's music has always been created completely on its own terms, essentially defining his own genre. He drew upon his unique perspective, deeply rooted in a connection to the starkly beautiful landscapes and open spaces of the southwestern desert in which he grew up, to pioneer the inherently expansive breathing quality of his early releases.
"My life at that time was purely focused on drawing out an inner voice that had been building over many years: a feeling born from my immersion in the quiet spaces of the desert environment," Roach reflects. "I could channel this feeling, this expansive atmosphere and blooming inner awareness. I was uncovering and discovering a palpable sense of stillness emanating from a soundcurrent of 'silence.'"
Today, with a passionately prolific drive, Roach stands among the giants of modern ambient and is one of the most respected electronic musicians in the world. His discography is enormous with well over 100 releases. All of it is "ambient" in a way, but it's better understood by singling out three major strands in his sound.
Firstly, there is the deep inspiration Roach draws from the German and European electronic space music tradition. You can certainly hear the legacy running throughout his work from Now (1982), Empetus (1986), Skeleton Keys (2015) and most recently Spiral Revelations (2017). There's a through-line in these releases, where patterned, sequencer-driven music activates the consciousness with an invigorating sense of heightened perception; emotional and mind-expanding spiraling mandalas of sound are made from interwoven tapestries of melody, rhythm, tone and musical space.
A second strand present in Roach's releases is floating ambience inspired by a sense of environmental space, time-expansion and silence. These diaphanous chords and suspended harmonics were first heard on his meditative masterpiece Structures From Silence (1984). Here and elsewhere in Roach's rich oeuvre are outstanding examples of the evolving "breathing chords" central to his ongoing quest to humanize the music and release his machines from their mechanical moorings. This extraordinary sense of natural breath is an organic quality not easily realized with synthesizers. Diverse examples can be heard on the 3-CD Quiet Music (1986), the 4-CD opus Mystic Chords & Sacred Spaces (2003), running right up through the recent Nostalgia for the Future (2017) and Long Thoughts (2017).
Thirdly, there is an intoxicating tribal-ambient strand that runs deep in Roach's music. On his recordings from the 90's he pioneered this subgenre, a dark electro-acoustic hybrid that today commands a devoted underground following. It all started with the epic Australia-inspired double-LP Dreamtime Return (1988) forged with tribal percussion, warm washes of synthesizer and location recordings of indigenous music and instrument samples. Later on came a number of benchmark collaborations with the shamanic Mexican musician Jorge Reyes such as Earth Island (1994), and his work with percussionist Byron Metcalf on eight releases including The Serpent's Lair (2000) and Monuments of Ecstasy (2015). It's dark-edged global exotica enveloped in Roach's widescreen soundscapes.
At a Steve Roach live experience you might be fortunate enough to hear all these strands in a single show. Roach is an artist in his element on stage; from the very beginning of his career he has presented live electronic music in venues around the world, bringing this sound to life in the present moment with all its complexity, emotion and visionary nature. Roach invites the listener's adventurous spirit to surrender to the dynamic journey that unwinds with power and grace. Whether it's large scale shows in cities like San Francisco or Los Angeles, or more intimate performances in his hometown of Tucson, it is a remarkable immersive soundworld performed in real time. There is something deeply elemental about it; a sounding of the earth and the cosmos that's been rendered into tones, visuals, and emotions that can be felt viscerally.
Always reaching towards what's next on the horizon, Roach refuses to be tied down in any one stylistic direction. His worldwide audience continues to grow, and his innovations continue to inspire new and long-time listeners. Listening to a Steve Roach album, you're hearing the momentum of a lifetime dedicated to the soundcurrent, an artist operating at the pinnacle of his artform, with dedication, passion and an unbroken focus on creating a personal vision of electronic music. Roach's hypnotic swirl and kaleidoscopic sounds makes Spiral Revelation unlike anything else nominated for a Grammy this year and quite possibly, any previous year. It's just one facet of a multi-faceted soundworld that stretches back four decades.
Welcome to the vortex.
Mike G is a music journalist, DJ, radio producer and founder of the music reference website AmbientMusicGuide.com.
Archive: Steve Roach Bio, 2015
Archive: Steve Roach Bio, 2003