Light Fantastic
by Stephanie Sollow, Progressive World

Steve Roach is one of those prolific artists who seems to have a new release of some variety out every month. LIGHT FANTASTIC is his latest, working with Vidna Obmana, Vir Unis, and Stefin Gordon.

This is more essay than review, since Steve Roach is so good at what he does that, like Tangerine Dream and many others who have been creating music for many years, the question becomes less about performance, or rather how well do they program, and more about effectiveness, what do they do with that programming skill. There are some acoustic drums here, but because the approach is so like everything else he's done, the only complaint is that they do sound like previous performances. At least on the surface. I like Steve Roach, if that hasn't been evident from my earlier reviews, and I like this lastest release.

The opening track, "Trip The Light" can be described as highly percussive with synth washes floating underneath - a description that can describe, structurally, anything else he's done. There is a certain quality to his playing which will bring to mind projects past, including the two Suspended Memories discs of a few years back. The urgency in the percussion here and the calming effect of the sonic washes give this album a very contrasted feel. This is a really great sounding album.

As is usual for this type of release, it evokes for me visual imagery. I'm not a technical person, so I have to rely on the visceral experience. And, obviously, my impressions are somewhat influenced by the album cover. I'd say more that it's a starting point, a context, from which to begin this journey.

In scribbling notes down for this review, I was struck by this sudden thought: what exactly is the "light fantastic"? Oh, sure, I've heard the phrase "Tripping the Light Fantastic," but I've never been sure what it really means, given that it's often used euphemistically. Anyway, one possibility for what Roach means here, aside from the the literal as depicted on the cover, is a religious experience. You know, the light at the end of the tunnel, the light we're supposed to be bathed in as we go up to heaven, that kind of light.

So, suppose that's the thesis. Here's the proof, so to speak. First, a glance at the track titles: "Trip The Light," "Breathing The Pulse," The Reflecting Chamber," Touch The Pearl," Realm of Refraction," and "The Luminous Return."

"Trip The Light": Trip has numerous meanings on its own: turn on, a voyage, and, of course, a clumsy act. Of course, the first two are appropo for the thesis. By triggering the light, we begin this journey. This "light" is tripped in a burst of activity - brisk, acoustic drumming, suggesting so many things, all boiling down to an expenditure of energy. Soundscapes slowly emerge from behind the drums, like the sun peeking up over the horizon (Ah, sunrise; another fantastic display of light). The energy builds and builds as the drums are are matched, then slowly pushed back into the mix, while the sonicscapes take center stage.

We are entering a state of relaxation - of unconsiousness, whether by natural or artificial means (i.e., sleep or trauma). Awareness is muddy, sensations and sounds float by, as sensory input is running at frantic pace (more percussion, more varied than in track one, rounder), before a mental calmness slowly descends as synaptic activity regulates itself, and thought becomes more directed, more precise (emphasized by a harsh reedy sound that sounds like brushed drums, but may, in fact, be Gordon's tamboura).

"The Reflecting Chamber" is evocative with it's synth sounds that swirl around, varying in intensity...close your eyes: you're in a vertical, cylindrical chamber (limbo?). See the tall, polished steel walls illuminated by the slow motion light show going on - blues, reds, purples (again, the cover) undulate above your head. Sound swirls about your head like a satellite in orbit, while gentle, warm percussion invites you in, reassuringly - it's like a heartbeat speaking to you in morse code. Maybe this is your innerself - the light is the synaptic charges of your brain. In other words, you're "reflecting" upon yourself - that last moment of self-examination, that moment when your life passes before your eyes.

Soon, you are in total submersion ("Touch The Pearl"), the percussion is gone (your heartbeat stilled), as is the light (brain function ceasing), and you a hovering in mid-air, only to be slowly drawn upwards. Sure does sound like a relgious experience, doesn't it. The swell as the synths grow louder, stronger, more sustained than swirling - the sensations is being drawn up into a bright light.

So, by rights, "Realm of Refraction" would be heaven, or what lies beyond mortal life. Refraction is defined as "the bending of ... a wave of light ... as it passes from one medium into another." Hmm-mmm. The liner notes give a longer, more directed definition.

Ah but, perhaps it isn't quite your time ("The Luminious Return") and thus you come back. But as whom? Or what? And to where? But whom/what/whereever is the case, it is coming back transformed.

Interestingly, if we go back to my thoughts earlier this year about a crisis of faith and how much music was reflecting (no pun) on that we can see how pervasive this idea is. And still wonder if it isn't because we are approaching the end of the millennium (2001 is just around the corner).

A visit to the Steve Roach website reveals this quote from the artist himself, reflecting on having completed the 2 disc retrospective DREAMING... NOW, THEN: A RETROSPECTIVE 1982 - 1997:

"[I] thought a lot about where I was at this point in time, both in my life and my career, as well as the evolution of electronic based music that I love. Also, the big timeclock is getting ready to turn over, which has an undeniable impact, regardless of how cynical we might want to be about it. All these influences helped raise the bar another notch, in terms of what I felt I could accomplish with my next project, and how I could locate a new form of potency in the music. The result was LIGHT FANTASTIC, and I feel this recording is a personal high point in my creative and personal life up to now, one for leaving this century with on a beautiful clear ray of sound."

Light Fantastic

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CD  $15.00 
ON SALE, $12.00 
Light Fantastic
Steve Roach
1999 Hearts of Space 11094 (CD)
Reviewed by Gary Andrews, Brian Parnham, various listener comments, Billboard, L.A. Weekly, Muze, Progressive World, RhythmUS, SCI FI Magazine, Wind and Wire

LIGHT FANTASTIC does much to subvert one's expectations of musical structure, while remaining unabashedly beautiful throughout. Roach's soundworlds have never sounded more rich and full of light. On the other hand, the complexity of the 'fractal grooves' allows the hybrid percussion to assume what would be the melodic content of a given piece. The rhythms are as willful and intricate as an African drumming group or drum 'n' bass track, continually morphing from one pattern into another, describing animated moiré patterns in sound.
1. Trip the LightMP38:34 
2. Breathing the PulseMP35:25 
3. The Reflecting ChamberMP37:05 
4. Touch the PearlMP39:24 
5. Realm of RefractionMP311:20 
6. The Luminous ReturnMP316:48 
-  Light Fantastic (medley)MP3 

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