All is Now, Darkest Before Dawn, Day Out of Time
by Hannah M.G. Shapero
March 12, 2003
Steve Roach, after almost thirty years, is a pillar and foundation of the genre of electronic-ambient music in America. But his reputation and long record of achievement has not slowed down his restless creativity and search for new ways of expression in this difficult medium. In 2002 he released TRANCE SPIRITS, a shamanic percussion album with Jeffrey Fayman, and the eerie INNERZONE with longtime collaborator Vidna Obmana. Roach also published three solo ventures in 2002, each one quite different in theme, sound, and mood -- but all of them very characteristic of Roach's personal vision.
The first of the three is DARKEST BEFORE DAWN. Every so often, Roach creates a long-form sound environment, which is meant to be listened to at low volume in the background. These are his more "minimalist" works, meant to affect consciousness but not intrude on it. STRUCTURES FROM SILENCE, QUIET MUSIC, THE DREAM CIRCLE, and SLOW HEAT are some of these "environmental" pieces. In 2002 he adds DARKEST BEFORE DAWN to that collection. Though it's in the same form -- 74 uninterrupted minutes -- it's quite different from the others. DARKEST BEFORE DAWN features muted, long-echoing, cloudy notes, fading from tonelessness into tone-clusters, and then periodically into a cathedral-like major chord. Two long loops are set against each other, subtly phasing in and out of agreement, blended and blurred, with no edges and no rhythm. All of this material is created on a modified electric guitar, though it doesn't have much resemblance to any ordinary guitar sounds. It sounds like the booming sound of wind breathing in and out of some deep cave, or perhaps the song of two ponderously orbiting stars out on the far reaches of our galaxy. SLOW HEAT, with its desert environmental cricket sounds and kindly synthesizer harmonies, was serene and comforting; DARKEST BEFORE DAWN is literally a darker environment, with its black-on-black, almost wordless CD (non)graphics package. This is a soundscape for contemplating exotic astrophysical phenomena: molecular clouds, cosmic background radiation, and the musical event horizons of spinning black holes.
DAY OUT OF TIME is the soundtrack to a film by Steve Lazur, TIME OF THE EARTH, released on DVD in 2001. TIME OF THE EARTH is a 77-minute journey through some of the wildest environments in the American West. Steve Roach has lived for more than a decade in Arizona; its vast desert landscape is an environment which he knows intimately. Roach's music perfectly accompanies visions of vast desert vistas, roiling clouds, jagged peaks, and grotesque stone pinnacles carved by wind, sand, and water into fantastic alien sculptures. Only toward the end does the landscape change into Western forests and finally a gentler vista of the Pacific Ocean shore at sunset. There is no evidence of human presence, except perhaps for a trail or two. Lazur's film provides a pristine, uninhabited vision of the Earth without the intrusion of humans, as if you, the viewer, were the first person ever to see this planet. The TIME OF THE EARTH soundtrack is a compilation of pieces, or excerpts from pieces, which Roach and Lazur chose for their "atmospheric" quality. Though there are some rhythmic sequences, most of the sounds are sustained and floating, matching the clouds and shadows that flow over the desert and its formations. The selected pieces tend towards abstraction and are often dissonant, for instance the enigmatic sequences from EARLY MAN, "Begins Looking Skyward" and "Walking Upright." This compilation features a number of Roach pieces from other compilation or collaboration albums, some of which were hard to find. Most notable are the spooky but masterful eleven-minute "The Dreamer Descends," and the mystical "Eternal Expanse," which accompanies restful scenes of woods, rocks, and waterfalls. This collection works quite well as a pure sound album, even if you don't see the images from the Lazur film. Once you have seen the film, though, these images of stone and scrub and sand and sky and sea give a visual dimension to Roach's music. These are alien landscapes that you can listen to as well as visit through the magical screen.
ALL IS NOW, Roach's third solo offering for 2002, is a 2-CD set featuring music from his live performances during that year. The first CD, self-titled "All is Now" contains excerpts from shows in Oakland, Portland, and San Francisco. The second CD, titled "Formations Creation," (an allusion to those weird stone desert formations) comes from a single show, recorded in Sedona, Arizona on May 3, 2002.
Steve Roach has been doing live performances of his music for more than 20 years. Ambient-electronic music doesn't have the same kind of live performance tradition as rock, jazz, or classical music; the action and visual focus is different. There's no theatrical band with costumes and special effects, nor is there a formally-clad orchestra with a gesticulating conductor out in front. A Roach concert is a primal ritual lit by candles and perfumed with incense, a mind-expanding light show, and a meditative experience, all wrapped in that trademark sound whose reverb, whether in the studio or in the performance space, seems to go on forever. Roach himself is the opposite of the gyrating rock showman or pompous classical virtuoso; dressed in dark clothing and almost hidden behind the array of electronics, he is the wizard behind the curtain who delivers real magic. And yet, as with prog-rock or jazz, every performance of this music is an improvisation, dependent on dozens of different elements both electronic and acoustic which must all work together to re-create the Roach sound. The setup alone is wildly complex -- synthesizers and mixers and modifiers, a line-up of CD players and hard drives ready to add in sounds from his repertoire, acoustic items like guitar, didgeridoo, flutes, stone percussion, rattles, and drums, and laptop computers to control the whole thing. As anyone who has done live shows knows, something will always go wrong -- a simple power surge, switching mistake, or computer failure can wipe out a whole night's preparation. So producing this kind of music live is a feat in itself, requiring the nerve of a test pilot, all before the audience hears a single sound. It's not a chamber ensemble equipped with old familiar instruments, it's one guy with a roomful of temperamental electronics. Therefore when ambient-electronica goes live, you never know what you are going to get.
Roach's first CD compiles the "best of" moments from a number of concerts, all of which are worthy listening. But the second CD is the winner for 2002. Again, as anyone who has done (or attended) live shows knows, every so often there's a show where everything comes together, and something happens which transcends all the work and the waiting and the electronic poking and tinkering. This Sedona show is that kind of performance. As Roach explains rather tersely in his notes, he had a musical "script" for this show, which opens with cool and meditative guitar chords, accompanied by night insect noises (recorded, since this show was indoors). But after about twenty minutes (or perhaps earlier) he decided to discard his program and just improvise according to his own vision for the moment. It was a good decision. His slow guitar fades into a deep dark electronic roar, which builds into an initial rhythmic sequence reminiscent of the early sections of his 2001 album CORE. And then he is off like a racecar, and he doesn't stop. Characteristic, heroic "Roach chords" fly over the rushing electronic rhythms. This rolls into undulating, metallic waves of synthesizer sound, which then back up another insistent rhythm sequence. As always, Roach's pacing is superb -- he never lets anything go on too long, and he constantly brings in different sounds and textures so that there's always something new to be heard. Even listening to this performance on a recording, I'm on the edge of my seat, wondering what will come next. The later sections of the performance feature thunderous drum loops mixed with electronics, which then melt into a slow, light-filled synthesizer meditation, more like the cloudy atmospherics of the TIME OF THE EARTH soundtrack. He ends the show with a familiar motif; the tamboura and drone sequence from LIGHT FANTASTIC, blended together with high flute notes shining in the reverberating darkness, leaving his listeners filled with serenity and wonder.
There are no audience sounds on this album (there was no audience microphone), so not only is there no coughing or murmuring, there is no applause, either. This live performance is technically indistinguishable from a studio recording! But the drama and the intensity, as well as the coherence, of this brilliant set could come only from the out-on-a-limb risk factors of a live performance. The performer does not have the option, as he does in the studio, of going back over and over again to correct and improve things. According to the notes, the only modification that was done to the Sedona recording was an edit to reduce the time duration, so that it would fit onto a CD. There it is, real-time Roach: a couple of hours' playing resulting in an album that is comparable to the best of his studio work, and definitely his best for 2002.