I’ve been a supporter and fan of Steve Roach for a long time now. Early on in this Weblog’s history, I wrote about him in one of my earliest entries from 2004. Since then, he has released more than five solo or collaborative albums, and recently I added a number of newer Roach works to my collection, which already takes up a whole bookshelf.
These are releases from 2004 through 2006. In chronological order from 2004 on, the first one in my new batch is FEVER DREAMS II (2004), subtitled “Holding the Space,” the second part of a series of percussion and drone-trance pieces Roach created along with percussionist Byron Metcalf and bassist Patrick O’Hearn. This set of seven tracks is in the “shamanic” mode that Roach and his collaborators have done so well over the years. Most of the pieces have the regular rhythm, marked by both acoustic and electronic instruments, which shamans claim induces altered states of consciousness. Roach also makes much use of electric guitar, something he has been doing steadily since his “Earth Island” series in the early ‘90s. He uses dissonant and microtonal chords to set a rather dark “soundworld,” but here he also plays actual tone-rows, including an ascending scale in one intense and focused passage.
Usually, Roach doesn’t use that much vocalizing, but FEVER DREAMS II features singing and wailing by Jennifer Grais, a versatile singer who is also a “horse shaman,” working with equines as a spiritual path. If Native Americans sang the blues without words, they might sound like Jennifer. And the insistent rhythms in the tracks of FEVER DREAMS II at times mimic the galloping of a horse. The last track, a long piece called “Holding the Space,” is an answer and variation of its counterpart on the earlier FEVER DREAMS album, the long track “Tantra Mantra.” Both feature trance percussion, overlaid by uneasy chords from Roach’s well-reverbed guitar.
2004 also brought Roach’s fourth “Lost Pieces” compilation, consisting of work that either appeared as single tracks in group albums or had never appeared before. These “Lost Pieces” now found date from 1999 to 2001, and are mostly in the majestic, vast spacey electronic style which is to me the quintessential Steve Roach sound. There are a couple of electronic-techno-trance pieces, such as track 2, “TranceFusion,” but the best of this lot by far are the two space pieces on tracks 7 and 8. “Slow Rapture,” track 7, cycles slowly round in a gorgeous ellipse focused on two fourth-based chords, while smooth harmonies float above it. Track 8, “Contained & hellip; Sustained,” is another restful astral beauty. Interestingly, it features some of the same big wide-spaced chord progressions you can hear on the undertracks from Roach’s BODY ELECTRIC, which was produced around the same time. This one’s a fine album and evidence of Roach’s consistency over the years.
In 2005, Roach finished and released one of his most unusual albums to date, the eerie POSSIBLE PLANET. Here he switches instrumentation from his usual ultra-smooth synthesizers, percussion, and slow-played electric guitar to a set of neo-retro “analog” synthesizers. These were designed to retrieve that “old-fashioned” pop sound of the ‘70s and ‘80s but in the hands of Roach, they put forth long, weird tranceworlds of drone-ambient. He punctuates these long drone pieces with electronic versions of rattles, shells, and insect noises. These sound truly alien, as if someone had put a tiny microphone in an anthill to listen to them talking to each other. The third drone-piece is full of insectoid buzzing, which has a shimmer of recognizable chords to it, though it is no less spooky than the earlier non-tonal passages. You get the feeling that the “possible planet” that Roach is evoking is not Earth.
This year, 2006, has already seen one new production from Roach. This is a long-form sound-environment called IMMERSION:ONE. Over the years he has done many of this type of album, which is meant to be background music, a kind of soft “sonic incense” which fills the room while you are doing other things. Some of these have been THE DREAM CIRCLE from 1994 and SLOW HEAT (1998). IMMERSION:ONE tends toward a wistful and melancholy mood, the kind of sound that might echo through a temple to the lost glories of the past.
I’ve saved the best of this batch for last: 2005’s NEW LIFE DREAMING. This album arose from Steve’s re-encounter with his older music from the 1988 DREAMTIME RETURN, which he was updating for re-release. In doing so, he came up with new music inspired by the mood and instrumentation of the old.
NEW LIFE DREAMING has no Australian aborigines chanting, no didgeridoo, and no rattles or electronic wind instruments, but it does have sound contributions from Roach’s now-familiar collaborators Byron Metcalf and Jennifer Grais. The chords in track 1, “Perfect Dream,” are unusually major and cheerful for Roach, while track 2, “Where I Live,” is filled with birdsong and desert sunlight, a portrait of his Arizona home. (Thank God he doesn’t live in a big traffic-filled city!) The next two tracks are even better. Track 3, “The Ancients’ Way,” builds on Roach’s heroic wide-spaced “American modern symphony” chords, and about halfway through, includes a softly tapped rhythm sequence by Byron Metcalf. This is just a wonderful, perfect Roach piece. The next piece, “Deep Sky Time,” is all-electronic, in which scintillating sequences sparkle over a deep drone. It’s a cosmological sound, evoking the brilliance and twinkle of the stars on a clear desert night. The last cut is a moving, gentle lullaby sung wordlessly by Jennifer Grais, while a muffled piano (played by Projekt label’s Sam Rosenthal) accompanies Roach’s melody on the floating, sustained guitar. It’s a sweet ending to one of Roach’s best albums of the decade so far.
If you would like to listen to or even acquire some of this music for yourself, samples and CD’s are all available at the Steve Roach website which I mentioned at the beginning of this text.
by Hannah M. G. Shapero for Ambient Visions