Electronic and ambient pioneer Steve Roach started creating his music during the late 70’s golden age of analog synthesizers, a time when the digital variety was only visible as a thought on the horizon and the birth of portable somewhat affordable analog instruments were just starting to emerge. So it’s refreshing that an album which continues that hands-on tradition, Spiral Revelation (2017), garnered his first-ever Grammy nomination. Chosen in the Best New Age Album category, the album is crafted almost entirely with modular and stand-alone synthesizers. It’s sound is grounded in the dynamic, spiraling interweave of melodic, rhythmic and emotion infused sequencer.
The following year, lightning struck again with Molecules of Motion also nominated for a Grammy. With their analog leanings, Spiral Revelation and Molecules sound utterly contemporary thanks to Roach’s technological sophistication and creative maturity. Yet the bubbling, kinetic melodies point to his origins, making it a natural place to begin the story of how far and wide he has travelled.
All of this came as a complete surprise to Roach, who for the last 42 years has maintained his complete focus on developing an expansive body of work that holds many landmarks in various sub genres of ambient music. Here in 2022, we find a trio of works that are among his finest to date. What Remains, Zones, Drones and Atmospheres, and As It Is present a direction that again sets its own course into the deep heart of Steve Roach’s soundworld vision, moving listeners worldwide.
Born 1955 in La Mesa, California, Steve Roach self-released his first solo album NOW in 1982. His early music was part of a wider progressive ambient movement that rose concurrently with new age music on America’s West Coast during the 1970’s and peaked in the late 80’s. Although it often intermingled easily with the best of the early new age genre, Roach’s music has always been created completely on its own terms, essentially defining his own genre. He drew upon his unique perspective, deeply rooted in a connection to the starkly beautiful landscapes and open spaces of the southwestern desert in which he grew up, to pioneer the inherently expansive breathing quality of his early releases.
“My life at that time was purely focused on drawing out an inner voice that had been building over many years: a feeling born from my immersion in the quiet spaces of the desert environment of my roots” Roach reflects. “Early on I could access this feeling deeply, this expansive atmosphere and blooming inner awareness. I was uncovering and discovering a palpable sense of stillness emanating from a Soundcurrent of silence that my relationship to sound itself was revealing.”
Today, with a passionately prolific drive, Roach stands among the giants of modern ambient and is one of the most respected electronic musicians in the world. His discography is enormous with well over 200 releases. All of it is “ambient” in a way, but is better understood by singling out three major strands in his sound.
First, there is the deep inspiration Roach draws from the German and European electronic space music tradition. You can certainly hear the legacy running throughout his work from Now (1982), Empetus (1986), Skeleton Keys (2015) and more recently Into the Majestic( 2021). There’s a through-line in these releases, where patterned, analog sequencer-driven music activates the consciousness with an invigorating sense of heightened perception; emotional and mind-expanding spiraling mandalas of sound are made from interwoven tapestries of melody, rhythm, tone and musical space.
A second strand present in Roach’s releases is floating ambience inspired by a sense of environmental space, time-expansion and silence. These diaphanous chords and suspended harmonics were first heard on his meditative masterpiece Structures From Silence (1984). Here and elsewhere in Roach’s rich oeuvre are outstanding examples of the evolving “breathing chords” central to his ongoing quest to humanize the music and release his machines from their mechanical moorings.
This extraordinary sense of natural breath is an organic quality not easily realized with synthesizers. His obsession in creating ultra immersive rapturous soundworlds defines the this sub genre of true ambient music. Diverse examples can be heard on the 3-CD Quiet Music (1986), long form classic The Dream Circle (1994) the 4-CD opus Mystic Chords & Sacred Spaces (2003), Atmosphere for Dreaming (2018) The on going Immersion Series and A Soul Ascends (2020)
Third, there is an intoxicating ethno-tribal ambient strand that runs deep in Roach’s music. On these recordings starting in the 90’s he pioneered this sub-genre, a dark electro-acoustic hybrid that today commands a devoted underground following. It all started with the epic Australia-inspired double-LP Dreamtime Return (1988) forged with tribal percussion, warm washes of synthesizer and location recordings of indigenous music and instrument samples. This release is considered an essential benchmark for the genre.
Later on came a number of benchmark collaborations with the shamanic Mexican musician Jorge Reyes, such as Earth Island (1994), and his work with percussionist Byron Metcalf on eight releases including The Serpent’s Lair (2000) and Monuments of Ecstasy (2015), it’s dark-edged global exotica enveloped in Roach’s widescreen soundscapes. This sound continued to evolve to a high point of hybrid blending on mesmerizing Trance Archeology (2019)
At a Steve Roach live experience, you might be fortunate enough to hear all these strands in a single show. Roach is an artist in his element on stage. From the very beginning of his career, he has presented live electronic music in venues around the world, bringing this sound to life in the present moment with all its complexity, emotion and visionary nature. Roach invites the listener’s adventurous spirit to surrender to the dynamic journey that unwinds with power and grace. Whether it’s large scale cathedral events in cities like NYC, San Francisco or Los Angeles, or more intimate performances in his hometown of Tucson and beyond, Roach’s creates a remarkable immersive soundworld performed in real time.
There is something deeply elemental about it; a sounding of the earth and the cosmos that’s been rendered into tones, visuals, and emotions that can be felt viscerally. Live Streaming concerts recently began and continue to be experienced on Youtube presenting moments that Steve describes as, “being a part of a collective dream for participants around the world who might never be able to attend these select events live”
Always reaching toward what’s next on the horizon, Roach refuses to be tied down in any one stylistic direction. His worldwide audience continues to grow, and his innovations continue to inspire new and long-time listeners, artists and musicians alike. Listening to Steve Roach’s music, you’re hearing the momentum of a lifetime dedicated to the soundcurrent, an artist operating at the pinnacle of his artform, with dedication, passion and an unbroken focus on creating a personal sonic vision born from the center of stillness and ascending to the summits that life itself provides as his infinite source of inspiration.
Welcome to the vortex.
Mike G is an Australian music journalist, DJ, radio producer and founder of the music reference website AmbientMusicGuide.com.
Steve Roach is a leading American pioneer in the evolution of ambient/electronic music, helping shape it into what it is today. His career spans four decades, with a massive catalog of landmark recordings including Structures from Silence, Dreamtime Return and Mystic Chords and Sacred Spaces. Drawing from a vast, unique and deeply personal authenticity, his albums are fueled by the momentum of a lifetime dedicated to the soundcurrent. Roach is an artist operating at the pinnacle of his artform, driven by a passion and unbroken focus enhancing the emotive, soul-stirring depth of his music.