by Hannah M.G. Shapero
Steve Roach's music, composed over the more than twenty years of his career, draws you into his own personal journey as a fellow-traveler. From his German-influenced electronic sequencer pieces of the late 70s through mid-80s, to the emergence of his much-imitated "desert" style of floating chords and aboriginal-inspired rhythms, into his percussion-heavy "shamanic" style of the mid-90's, and then into his newest work with sophisticated computer-generated fractal electronica, Roach has constantly evolved and changed and added richness to his compositions. Along the way, he has experimented with side trips to guitar-led Western-genre pieces, long-form atmospherics, and "dark ambient." And he has collaborated with a constellation of talents, from Robert Rich to Vidna Obmana, Jorge Reyes and Roger King, and currently with Vir Unis.
CORE, Roach's latest solo album, reflects every one of these experiences, and more. There is definitely a "Roach Retrospective" aspect to this album, an attempt to look back over those twenty-plus years. The result is one of Roach's most complex albums yet. (There is so much on this album that this will be a long review.) CORE's seventy-four minutes are divided up into a panorama of 12 pieces. Though they are smoothly linked into each other, they are not, like some of his recent albums, integrated into one "symphonic" order. Rather, they are like 12 orbiting planetary soundworlds which one enters and leaves along with the flow of the album.
Each piece contains elements that echo earlier Roach works, not as exact imitations, but as musical or textural allusions. This answers a question I have always wanted to ask Roach – whether he could, if he wanted, return to the sounds and themes he created in previous works, like a composer or performer playing a "repertoire." In other words, could he play it again, without resorting to simply re-playing the recording? Now I know. He weaves all sorts of refrains into CORE; one could spend hours analyzing just what album or sound he is alluding to in the various pieces. For instance, in track 2, "Wings of Icarus," he mixes the elegant and highly characteristic wide-spaced "desert chords" of 1992's WORLD'S EDGE with the swift and always-morphing "fractal rhythms" of his 1999 LIGHT FANTASTIC. And in the central track, number 6/7, "Core Meditation," he returns to the shamanic power of his monumental albums from the mid-90's, ORIGINS (1993) and ARTIFACTS (1994), mixing it with some of the dark metallic drones from THE MAGNIFICENT VOID (1996) as well as the thunderous looped percussion of ON THIS PLANET (1997). He doesn't forget his collaborators, either; there are echoes of Obmana, Reyes, and Vir Unis, who adds in material on one track.
But self-reference isn't the purpose of CORE. This is Roach's testament to a new century, now forever broken off from the old. Here he is saying, "This is where I've been, and this is where I'm going." Of all the artistic efforts I've heard since the cataclysm of September 11, this is the first that gives me hope. Yes, it was all done before the events, but somehow it is able to reach through and beyond terror and despair to show the road ahead, both dark and light.
And this is a road paved with rhythm. CORE is almost entirely built on driving electronic trance-rhythms, whether acoustic, shamanic, "fractal," looped or delicately randomized. Though there are exquisite floating moments of rest and suspension here and there, the rhythms are central. The listener is flung headlong through the album; Roach's fine sense of pacing never lags. The first few tracks are light and even delicate at times. Track three, "Train of Thought," is a wry hint towards Roach's fondness for railroad trains and their own ticking rhythms, while "Resonation Revelation" takes the sound of the Australian didgeridoo (as inspiration, not actually used) once a central instrument on many of his mid-90's albums, and turns it into a digital-didgeridoo.
It is at track 6, "Core Meditation," that Roach reaches the "heart" of the album (it is an interesting pun that in Latin, the word "cor" means "heart") and unleashes the cosmic powers. Volcanic rhythms build to a huge intensity, while metallic drones underscore it. It gets good and loud here! And if you are listening to this in your car, beware – if you are going 60 miles an hour while listening to this, you will feel as if you are going 600 miles an hour. After this triumphant roar, he then retreats into the echoing caves for a few tracks, letting up on the weight if not the pace.
Track 10, "Endorphin Dreamtime," again alludes to his classic album DREAMTIME RETURN (1988). It also harks back to his sequencer pieces from the early and mid-80's. It's full of clear, optimistic harmonies, shiny textures, and a simpler structure, perhaps from a simpler time. But then comes a transition into what I think of as the best piece on the album, track 11, "Hyperportal." Of all the planetary soundworlds on CORE, this is the one that is the most forward-looking – this is the Roach of the 00's and beyond. And it is also the darkest piece on the album. The fractal rhythms not only speed up, but take on a frantic, almost obsessive tone. The harmonies dissolve into microtones and strangeness. For the first half, Roach borrows some of Vir Unis' spooky weirdness. Then, in the second half of this 12-minute epic, Roach shoots into an apocalyptic electron-driven night journey, full of unnerving industrial and engine sounds, finally fading into... the void.
And yet in true Roach fashion, he will not leave us there. The last track, "Indigo Yearning," brings back the slow guitar notes of the first piece, a bit of the sunlit space of his Western soundtrack DUST TO DUST (1998). The gentler harmonies return, though set against grim underlying grumbles. CORE ends serenely though not sweetly, with a vision like dawnlight rising over dark clouds and ancient or modern ruins.
HMGS rating: 10 out of 10
My vote for the best ambient / electronic album of 2001