In Search of the Mystic Chord
by Darren Bergstein, Beneath the Icy Floe
The doors of perception. Leaping to mind immediately: Huxley and his strategic metaphors, the last vestiges of aberrant psychological states hovering in a fading '60s twilight zone, awry interpretations of art viewed through rose-colored glasses, arcane primitives sharing space with surrealist renegades. And through all these doors lies in wait Steve Roach, the guide for those looking to be plunged into wells of lost souls, into uncertain regions and across mystic lands.
Roach has erected these many doors and crossed their thresholds in search of new ones for more than 20 years now. From his humble beginnings where the chilly Germanic sheen of Klaus Schulze shared equal influence with the raging desert environs of southern California (and later, Arizona), Roach has consistently eked out a definitive niche in the electronic music community, sidestepping misinformed pigeonholers desperate to brandish his music 'new age,' breaking free of the Teutonic chains of yesteryear and creating a formidable catalogue of sonic art lesser talents can only pray to aspire to.
Germanic proclivities notwithstanding -- the germ of which is found in such early Roach documents as EMPETUS, NOW / TRAVELER, and the live STORMWARNING, records whose towering Escher-like mosaics bring new meaning to the concept of sequencer music -- Roach's body of work is ultimately informed by his deep admiration and obsession with the stark allure of the Sonoran desert landscape where he makes his home. Point of fact, he has always been galvanized by primitive regions and the nomads which trek across their unforgiving and mysterious environs, areas of the earth tarred by an aeons-old brush redolent with rugged, arid beauty and a solipsistic melancholy. His early classic DREAMTIME RETURN, a benchmark in American electronic music as pivotal as Eno's On Land and Jon Hassell's Power Spot, was an aural sieve through which flowed the spiritual hues of the Aborigines' rich ancestry and contemporary digital musicmaking technology, the result a hybridization of human sound design writ puzzlingly organic via the synthesizer matrix.
DREAMTIME RETURN remains an archetypal peak in his back catalogue, but rather than resting on his laurels, Roach has ardently, fervently, passionately continued to cultivate his art. His knack for creating intense, deeply involved soundworlds has arisen both from his mooring to time-blasted lands and the reinterpretations of his earthly muse in a live setting. Throughout the many venues playing host to his magnetic creations -- from volcanic craters in Mexico and hallowed churches in Philadelphia to minimalist art galleries and the pristine airs of concert halls -- Roach works in a dynamic, ever-shifting realm that allows entrance of a vast multitude of shapes and configurations. Those doors of perception he opens for himself, and the doors he beckons his listeners to enter, exist because of ideas and images that erupt not just from the studio but, as powerfully, out of the world's stages, those moments in real-time when the act of performing yields equal parts myth and mistakes. These elements often provide the necessary psychic blueprint that Roach uses to catapult the audience headfirst into dimensions of writhing atmospheres, storming drones and rhythmic turbulence.
In his music, Roach makes a certain abject requirement of the listener, a requirement that is no less important he imparts it on himself, because to him the very politics of perception are fascinating. And that requirement translates into the act of deep listening. From the tribal labyrinths of his recent collaboration with Byron Metcalf, the sinuous THE SERPENT'S LAIR (Projekt), and his mind-meld triumvirate fusing percussionist Jeff Fayman with crimson guitarist king Robert Fripp on TRANCE SPIRITS (Projekt), to the personal and ruminative climes of CORE (released on his own Timeroom Editions label) and STREAMS & CURRENTS (Projekt), the music demands you reorient your thinking, shift your perspective, and not just allow yourself to be wholly focused as wholly immersed. The very nature of Roach's music, especially the more minimal, ambient sojourns to be found on MIDNIGHT MOON (Projekt) and the aforementioned Streams (not to forget his former, utterly required ambient bulwarks STRUCTURES FROM SILENCE and QUIET MUSIC) makes it necessary to suspend your other senses while you connect to his quiescent tones, and as you do so, time itself recedes into the horizon.
Having now worked his muse for a considerable time, plying his craft with intelligence, indomitable spirit and the drive to create that only a true artist possesses, the many styles and substances that imbibe Roach's art remain intertwined, yet have also migrated into a number of distinct areas. Rituals burnished and ancient continue to creep up in his collaborations with Vidna Obmana and Roger King, and he has, perhaps more critically, recently discovered the nuance of the guitar, although that instrument's over-inflected ingredients are broadly reconstructed in the Roach milieu. But the tenor of the times and his omnipresent investigation of all things mythic and primeval have brought him to a specific space at the dawning years of the new millennium. His latest Timeroom Editions epic, DARKEST BEFORE DAWN, is the yin to QUIET MUSIC's yang, the bastard offspring of STRUCTURES FROM SILENCE, a near-sepulchral venture into endless voids and passages bereft of spatiality, infinity rendered corporeal. It is ambient music ripped from the fabric of spacetime to reveal the residual quiet of the vacuum, a place that is universe-endless, foreboding, unrelenting, but yet perversely compelling. It is music that even in its most skeletal state reveals the emotional heart that resides at the core of Roach's oeuvre, music of subtle moves, born out of expansive motions...
...which, in ringing the bell for the commencement of 2003, bangs the gong for the next stage in his evolutionary quarter. No, strike that -- the ongoing evolution built on a momentum more than a few years in the making, a spacious, intense sound that when experienced melts away to reveal the essential, internal habitue Roach revels in. This third year of the aughts will bring us the multiple CD release MYSTIC CHORDS & SACRED SPACES, the title of which speaks volumes as to where Roach has been, where he finds himself today, and where he is proceeding tomorrow. He reveals that Mystic Chords has been harnessed through a battery of live work, live mixing, spontaneous creation and improvisational sound generating; pieces that came into form fairly quickly and not overworked or overobsessed upon. That being said, Roach has emphasized that these new longform works have been carved and shaped over larger timespans as well; in the same painterly fashion he has always worked since Mystic Chords was first conceived. In fact, under the conditions he usually finds himself in - the microfocus of his studio or the intense zone of the live setting - his approaches spring from a biological need to enter and nhabit this pronounced physical space, a space that can often feel claustrophobic; however, the byproduct of such a mental confinement often yields an equalization in his mind and muse, a sudden release that brings forth a supernova of stunning audiovisual colors.
MYSTIC CHORDS & SACRED SPACES may well validate the notion of the contemporary electronic musician as sound painter and sound designer, working with a limitless palette of sonic hues, color swatches and tonal mixtures. As the electronic musician of today is barraged by a virtual onslaught of laptop software and still-emerging digital interfaces, sound synthesis continues to attain new levels of sophistication and inexhaustibility. Naturally, in the right hands even black and white retains its virtues-light and perceptions cast in shifting shades of grey can forever reveal the starkness contained on either side of the color spectrum. Roach, understanding these chromatic gestures, has frequently demonstrated the old maxim that less is more, but the colors he chooses to augment his creations with have the unnerving ability to dig deep into your soul. It is music that is as effecting as it is effective.
The dynamic realms of Roach's pieces never sit in one place too long, but it seems to be a place he returns to time and time again, spaces that seemingly go on forever; the spaces that through a certain combination of notes creates a chord that acts like a key to a door, a door of possibilities, and (yes) perceptions. If Roach's past recordings are any indication at all of the variegated paths he's consistently explored, MYSTIC CHORDS & SACRED SPACES might belie the fact that the doors of perception are still only slightly ajar. Step over the threshold and see what's inside.