by Tobias Fischer, Tokafi
As they grow more experienced, many artists have the tendency to grow sour. LANDMASS, however, approximately Steve Roach's 80th album in a recording career approaching its third decade, is the result of a still highly optimistic philosophy. Much against the grain of critical voices proclaiming the creative end of traditional techniques, it presents Roach as an artist who hasn't lost his faith in the tonal system's ability of producing genuinely new music. It is also a quintessential compendium of his recent activities, spanning a bridge from his "infinite and minimal" zones to his semi-composed, semi-improvised grand-scale projects in between rhythmic trance and immersive Ambient drift.
In fact, Roach may well be one of the few without an inborn disgust of the big "A"-word, part of which may be explained by his musical development during a time when it was still rather a competently concise point of the compass than a confusing collective term denominating loosely related genres of gently floating electronic music. Even more importantly, however, it seems to mean something entirely different in his vocabulary, describing a method of building pieces without conscious dogmas, of letting sounds flow on their own accord and of acting as a catalyst instead of an omnipotent demiurge.
And then, the term implies a certain physical reality behind the sonic waves, delineating a concrete territory whence they are emitted from, describing a detail-smitten topography of previously unimagined morphology. The two worlds of objects and emotions have always been closely connected in Steve Roach's oeuvre and their relation has grown even stronger in recent years, an observation fortified by the general consensus that last year's ARC OF PASSION constituted a temporary peak of sorts.
Possibly, that album indeed defined his intuitive intentions more precisely than any work before it: On the one hand, it contained the sequencer driven pulse of works like PROOF POSITIVE, on the other the warm washes of his textural pieces as well as the sensual sexuality of the FEVER DREAMS series - all molten into a single, shining diamond polished in Roach's Timeroom foundry.
If ARC OF PASSION was a culmination, LANDMASS could logically be called a consolidation. In many ways, it appears to be a continuation of a confident new style, making use of a diverse palette of timbres, tools and techniques. Again, the bleeps and digital dots of analog synthesizers push the pieces on, while broodingly dense layers of drones are constantly in flux. Thanks to its more concise length, however, the different elements appear more balanced in comparison to "Arc", which gravitated around a 60-minute rhythmic meditation. Percussive particles keep turning up even in the outstretched beatless passages, lending a constant additional tension and propulsion to the already viral visions. Tracks could explode at any minute.
On many occasions, LANDMASS also seems more refined despite its steely minimalism, nerved by an erotic film noire ambiance. The third part especially is marked by an almost painful longing, its harmonies reaching for resolution while spinning away in tonal turbulence. It is a composition with a classical touch, an orchestral piece performed by an invisible string section.
In the eery and cold coda, meanwhile, Roach acts as a ghostly conductor, toning his frosty symphonics down to the point of particle standstill and all but complete silence while allowing the music to glide to a halt in a medium of quietude and unspoken allusions for several breathless minutes in succession.
All throughout the album, traditional musical elements are changing. More and more it is becoming apparent that Roach is not avoiding melody because of minimalist principles or academic formulas, but because, in the wondrously interwoven worlds he is sculpting, it would be considered a self-indulgent act of the ego and an intrusion. While the prismic breaking of harmonies into multitonal textures and rich harmonic coronas already provides for ample musical meat, a layer usually deridden as "sound effects" is furthermore starting to sing and emancipate at its perimeters.
This is why the shrieks of a crow or unidentifiable growling hums can act as full-fledged themes here. Roach is no longer building landscapes from sound, he is recording "sounding" landscapes built on the most essential building blocks: rhythm and harmony. The twelve tones of the western musical system are still his clay, but he is no longer attached to the meaning implied by tradition and general use, just as he is not bound by a destructive urge to contradict them.
LANDMASS continues the only tradition an honest artist can and should really be true to: his own. Despite the occasionally gloomy imagery this record is conveying, I don't see Steve Roach turning sour any time soon.