STEVE ROACH & VIDNA OBMANA -- Shank Hall, Milwaukee
July 30, 1997
by Serge Devadder

Ah, Milwaukee! Home of the Fonz, Sprecher Beer, Harley Davidson and The Brewers! Bedrock America! Not exactly the place where you'd expect to find the crème-de-la-crème in terms of dark avant-garde music. And yet, this summer Steve Roach and Vidna Obmana performed a surprise concert in Milwaukee's Shank Hall, a small but sympathetic club that brings the better rock-acts to quiet Wisconsin.

Few artists have succeeded in blending each others' styles and influences in such an original and successful way as Steve Roach and Vidna Obmana. And yet, their respective musical pathways originated in very distant wells. 15 years ago, Steve Roach developed his own original approach to synth floating music, either through ambient textures or powerful sequencing, thus formulating the first real American alternative to the European electronic avant-garde of Tangerine Dream, Klaus Schulze or Brian Eno. Initially associated with the so-called Pacific School, he would however soon drastically innovate the genre by thoroughly exploring the field of tribal percussion and ethnic instrumentation, combined with powerful technology. On the other side of the Atlantic in the late 80's, Vidna Obmana's background in industrial tape-experiments pushed him towards his very distinctive loop-based atmospheric sound-paintings. Even in recent years, with tribal influences and ethnic percussions invading his austere Serenity Studio, it's hard to ignore the bleak melancholic moods in his compositions.

Thus, when both men blend their minds and soul in a common musical project, one can hear the thunderous splash of crackled Arizonian desert soil tossed in the icy, grey waters of a Belgian frozen lake, and mysterious bugs riding a tropical dust-laden desert wind that dances between sad old willows on a winter morning. Opposites attract, much like a dry and hot downtown Milwaukee cooled by the cold waters of Lake Michigan. A perfect union, with ultimate synergy.

So, this is exactly what the lucky few attending the extraordinary Milwaukee concert got this summer. Steve Roach and Vidna Obmana have perfected their collaboration in such a way that spontaneous co-improvisations seem to be meticulously rehearsed for weeks. Rarely have I seen musicians so perfectly in sync, and judging by their frequent smiles, they must have been enjoying it too. The show was very intense as both musicians seem to be almost physically involved in their music. This is most evident when acoustic instruments are used such as the mighty droning dreampipe (here taken for a walk into the audience by Steve Roach), ocarinas, flutes and weird percussive stuff. One of the cleverest ways the group uses technology involves their looping of pre-sampled percussion cues live on stage. But it's arguably the oldest instruments of all times, the human voice, albeit heavily processed, that sent shivers down my spine. Vidna's tortured wails were echoed by Steve's harmonised chants, like an entranced shaman conversing with some nightly demon.

This way of composing/improvising creates a brooding organic texture of thunderous tribal rhythms, blood-chilling dark atmospheric synth drones and eerie crawling acoustics. As part of a three city mini-tour (Verucchio in Italy, Milwaukee and at the Projekt festival in Chicago), this concert allowed both musicians to freely experiment with their latest structures in the relaxed environment of the Shank Hall venue, as was clearly appreciated by the small but enthusiastic crowd.

Alas, none of the splendid albums (Well of Souls, Cavern of Sirens, or solo work) can convey the hypnotic power of experiencing this duo in a live situation. As in all ceremonies, part of the magic floats in the air of the moment, and vaporizes when captured. So check these guys out if they play in your neighborhood. Hell, catch a plane if you must! You won't regret it.

– Serge Devadder
Brussels, August 97

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