Dreamtime Return / New Life Dreaming / Possible Planet
by Bill Davis, e|i magazine
Fall 2005 (#5)
To fully appreciate the impact that DREAMTIME RETURN had (and continues to have) on electronic music, it helps to have an understanding of the state of the genre circa 1988.
Outside of academia and the classical world, electronic music in the 70's was largely the domain of European artists like Klaus Schulze, Tangerine Dream, Kraftwerk, Vangelis and Jean-Michel Jarre. There were exceptions, of course: Japan's Isao Tomita made waves with a Grammy for electronic treatments of Debussy's work on Snowflakes are Dancing, (and later, Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition), while American composer Walter/Wendy Carlos drew similar attention for Switched on Bach. But for original music using synths as primary instrumentation, the Berlin school of electronics ruled, while acts like Mother Mallard toiled in obscurity here in the US.
That began to change as the 80's rolled in. While the European acts began to stagnate, a large crop of US artists were pushing electronic music in new directions. Kevin Braheny, Richard Burmer, Michael Stearns, Patrick O'Hearn, Robert Rich and Steve Roach, while not exactly household names, had largely abandoned the repetitive sequencer-driven space music pioneered in the previous decade in favor of a more atmospheric / impressionist approach. This music dovetailed nicely with the burgeoning New Age movement which was infiltrating the public consciousness via books, CDs nee records, TV, movies, and sundry gurus / channelers.
This was not an entirely bad thing. There was a naive hope that the search for enlightenment in life would lead to a greater appreciation for meaningful art, and certainly e-music at the time beat the hell out of top 40. Windham Hill and Private Music, two labels that specialized in contemporary instrumental music -- much of it excellent -- briefly flourished. As a result, a number of artists who might otherwise have metaphorically died in poverty were able to tour and, to a lesser extent prosper, due to the exposure.
It was a good time to be Kitaro, it was a good time to be Andreas Vollenweider. Unfortunately, it was also a pretty good time to be a third rate New Age hack, with God-awful faerie song titles and severely limited talent. Alas, the bandwagon became too crowded. There were still discerning folks around the world who could separate the wheat from the chaff in electronic music, but for the public at large, electronic music equaled New Age music, and New Age music, by 1988, was the punchline to a joke.
Then Steve Roach, seemingly oblivious to all this and following his own muse, lobbed a sonic hand grenade into the mix.
DREAMTIME RETURN didn't so much revive the fortunes of electronic music as kill it and give it a new birth. If the train was heading off into the sunset, Roach threw a switch that took his railcar towards a bright new dawn.
The music itself is an aural manifestation of Roach's desert experiences in California and Australia in the years leading up to Dreamtime's release. Dreamtime, for the uninitiated, was the idyllic heyday of Australia's Aborigines, a time of Eden in the prehistoric past when the continent's natives lived in harmony with the universe. Already clearly smitten with Aboriginal culture and mythology, one of several synchronicities during DREAMTIME RETURN's recording led Roach to David Stahl, who was working to develop a documentary on Aboriginal rock paintings. A few months later, Roach found himself in the midst of Dreamtime's ground zero, sealing the bet and filling in any soul and psyche-level missing parts needed for completion of the work.
And what a work it is.
Trying to pin down all of the nuances that make DREAMTIME RETURN such an amazing tour de force isn't easy, but a few things stand out. First of all, never has a work of electronic music sounded less like it came from a composer than from a conduit; as if Roach was a willing tool of, or middle man for, the unseen Forces that drove his desert walkabouts and ignited his kinship with the Australian continent. This is to take nothing away from his abilities as a composer: STRUCTURES FROM SILENCE had already provided proof of a unique and visionary style that made him an artist worth watching. But man, oh man, with DREAMTIME RETURN you got the feeling that there were Larger Forces at work.
Second, if there's any music out there that sounds as much like and as natural as breathing, good luck finding it. The birth and decay of chords on tracks such as "A Circular Ceremony", "Magnificent Gallery", "Truth in Passing" and "The Return", like the expansion and contraction of a breathing world, burrow into the listener's autonomic system and reset respiration to the music's tempo.
A third point is that, as an evocation of one culture by an artist born and raised in another, it's entirely convincing. Certainly there had been notable attempts before by artists like Jon Hassell and David Parsons, but most pan-cultural world music efforts were academic at best and, at worst, an embarrassment. Not so DREAMTIME RETURN. The effort received glowing reviews both in the US and in Australia, introduced David Hudson and the didgeridoo to a new audience, and set the standard for tribal/shamanic music -- a field that continues to grow and blossom into the present day.
Finally, clocking in at over 130 minutes over two CDs, the quality never lets up, and all of the pieces fit together seamlessly. Not an easy feat. Each track is excellent individually and as part of the cohesive whole, but "Looking for Safety" stands out for it's ability to compress time -- you'll never believe 31 minutes have passed from beginning to end.
Also notable are the contributions of other artists who continue to matter. Two tracks ("Songline" and "Airtribe Meets the Dream Ghost") were co-written with Robert Rich, who also adds gourd drums and dumbek to the recording. Kevin Braheny co-wrote "The Other Side" and solos on the Steiner EWI (electronic wind instrument.)
Most fans refer to DREAMTIME RETURN as Roach's Magnum Opus. However, STRUCTURES FROM SILENCE and THE MAGNIFICENT VOID are arguably works of equal genius. Certainly, though, Dreamtime has had the greatest historical impact, and as an introduction to the artist, there is no better place to start. The 24 bit re-mastering is just delicious icing on the cake. But trust me: you will want to own the best sounding copy available, and this is it by far. 17 years on, the music is as fresh, valid and astonishing as ever, and like all works of timeless art, is likely to remain that way.
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The act of revisiting DREAMTIME RETURN during the remastering period led to the creation of several pieces of new music as well, collected here as NEW LIFE DREAMING. In the same way that poring over an old photo album might open the door to long-forgotten memories, working so closely with Dreamtime's source material allowed Roach to tap into the Dreamtime well for new inspiration.
Admirably, he has not tried to create "Dreamtime Return II," instead allowing the pieces to complement rather than append. Overall, the mood is quieter, and more reflective of an uneasy peace than the sense of overwhelming awe present on Dreamtime. Still, the connection is clear. "Perfect Dream" closely resembles the breathing chords atmosphere present on many of DREAMTIME RETURN's tracks, while other pieces like "The Ancient's Way," complete with hand-struck drums, could have easily made it's way onto that recording, or the even earlier release, WESTERN SPACES. Elsewhere, the inspiration manifests differently: "In the Eye of Noche," with its steel guitar and drifting atmospherics wouldn't seem out of place on Brian Eno and Danel Lanois' Apollo, while "Where I Live" with its steady backdrop of birds singing under a bed of slow ethereal chord changes, is pure floating bliss.
As a stand-alone release, NEW LIFE DREAMING certainly fares well and is highly recommended to fans of Roach's work in both the 80's and 90's. However, as a part of the overall Dreamtime experience, NEW LIFE DREAMING is absolutely essential listening, and works best when consumed that way.
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If DREAMTIME RETURN saw Steve Roach carving out new territory, the change in direction could not have been any more startling than the curve thrown by the same artist on POSSIBLE PLANET. In short: no MIDI, no keyboards, no computers for editing or composing. The entire work, consisting of three movements, was created on a modular analog system and produced by good old-fashioned knob turning.
The title refers to development of life on a "possible planet"; in particular the time when an unspecified life form is first crawling out of the primitive muck and asserting a sense of self-awareness. Appropriately, the use of "primitive" means for producing the electronic sounds heard herein works effectively for conveying that vision. The limited sonic palette works to Roach's advantage in creating the alien landscape: things scurry, organisms divide and multiply, and life at its most fundamental level begins. No time for heavenly choirs when you're dodging lava on a regular basis.
Roach himself sees a connection between "Looking for Safety" from DREAMTIME RETURN and POSSIBLE PLANET, conveying the universal need for shelter and self-preservation that underlie both pieces, and for that reason has made POSSIBLE PLANET available as part of the Dreamtime Box. From an abstract view, the connection makes sense. But musically, the sounds are so dissimilar as to be from different worlds. Which, of course, is precisely his intent. The shaping of electricity as raw material into three discrete yet interconnected movements over 73 minutes is a remarkable achievement, and it helps when those raw materials are in the hands of a master craftsman. Whether this truly represents a new direction for Roach, or whether it's a fascinating diversion on the way to parts unknown, only time will tell. But for now, this is shock therapy for the electronic music fan who has been lulled into complacency by sampling and digital synths.