Cavern of Sirens
by Hannah M.G. Shapero, Wind and Wire
Since I enjoyed WELL OF SOULS, the first release by this duo, I eagerly looked forward to their CAVERN OF SIRENS. And I was not disappointed - in fact, CAVERN OF SIRENS is even better than WELL OF SOULS.
The first cut, "Ascension for Protection," opens with a chanting male voice in a simple three-note "row," never quite repeating the sequence but using only those three notes. This is a somber, restrained Tibetan lama chanting, nicely integrated into the piece, accompanied by electronic noises and some soft percussion. Some minutes into the piece, the chant begins to fade, and in a beautiful initial opening, lush Roach/Obmana chords on synthesizers blossom forth, along with a light, but sharp, clinking rhythm.
What is rewarding throughout this album are chords and harmonies that are sometimes clearly tonal, and sometimes just short of that which might be found in "classical" music. Roach and Obmana know just what harmonies to use, where to change them, and how to keep the notes fresh. "Ascension for Protection" ends with some sounds which are reminiscent of Roach's THE MAGNIFICENT VOID, as if this first piece on CAVERN OF SIRENS were a vocal and rhythmic relative of the much more abstract Void.
The second cut, "Hidden Earth and the Shadows Dance," is in a galloping three-time rhythm throughout the first part, a rhythm that Roach also used successfully in his recent HALCYON DAYS collaboration. Non-metallic percussion is featured here, such as shakers and rattles, along with a gravelly male voice (the Tibetan lama again?) used almost as a type of percussion. He almost sounds like a didgeridoo, though there is no use of didgeridoo anywhere on this album. The rhythm is accompanied by ascending and descending harmonic arpeggios similar to the first cut on Roach and Obmana's WELL OF SOULS. About halfway through this piece, the rhythm fades into a sparkling atmosphere of twittering synthesizer sounds, with a sprightly bell-like electronic accompaniment. Then it fades into part 2 of the piece (presumably the "Shadow Dance") which is indeed danceable, accompanied by the noises of rainstick, clackers, and brushes on drumheads.
Cut number 3, "Middle World Passage," is definitely in the realm of "dark ambient." This very long piece, also in two parts, features a fast, unceasing, mechanical rhythm that reminded me of a railroad train in motion. This "railroad train" image would hardly be the intention of Roach, whose inspirations come from the most ancient prehistory, but it seemed to fit so well with this piece that I imagined it as "the mid-world express," running along the tracks in the dark of the night towards some mysterious destination. Adding to the "industrial" quality of this piece is the use of metallic percussion, including synthesized tones, gears grinding, and a piercing, characteristic metallic sound which could be a cymbal sounded with a string bow. Underneath this sound-picture are long, sustained synthesizer chords, which slowly grow in volume.
The rhythm fades out into the long, Wagnerian notes favored by Obmana, and then the piece ends, or seems to. For there is another part to it, following after a few seconds of silence. This is all percussion; non-tonal instruments of all sorts, such as rattles, shakers, a bit of synthesizer, a gong, all in a vast, "cavernous" reverberation.
From this non-tonal piece, a beautiful smooth transition takes us into cut 4, "The Current Below." This is simply a gorgeous piece. I think it is one of the most beautiful "ambient" works I've ever heard. It is certainly the high point of this album. Glorious, floating chords, reminiscent of Debussy, are set against a syncopated rhythm punctuated with lots of high percussion. Added to this, at times, is a wailing male voice, half blues-man and half Islamic muezzin. I am sure that the players here had Debussy's nocturne "Sirens" in mind here, though a listen to the Debussy piece reveals no actual borrowing. It is the mood that counts. What puzzled me at first was that the "siren's" voice in this piece was male. Sirens are female creatures whose voices entice male sailors. But the liner notes, by Steve Roach's wife Linda Kohanov, explain the gender of the voice. This is the answer to the alluring sirens, by the brave men who defied them and "offered music to the darkness/ trusted their own sound when they could not see, they would serenade the sirens..."
CAVERN OF SIRENS ends with "The Graceful Sky," a soft, elegiac farewell piece similar to other album-ending pieces that Roach has done. It has no rhythm, just floating chords from both Obmana and Roach, smooth, sustained notes on the synthesizers. There is neither percussion nor voice; it gently washes the listener away from the action of the rest of the album.
Rarely has "ambient" music been so appealingly musical. To me that is the key to why CAVERN OF SIRENS is so good. Rather than assault your ears with trendy noise, or try to induce "altered states of consciousness" with pseudo-psychedelic themes and walls of sound, CAVERN OF SIRENS conveys its mood and message with carefully worked-out rhythms and tonal choices, within a "minimalist" structure. Thus it can serve both as abstract music and as an aid to imaginative journeys within the listener's mind; the true "middle world passage."