Through the Looking Glass, Darkly
by Darren Bergstein, i/e
Saying that 1995 was a busy year for Steve Roach is like saying the pyramids are merely prefab Egyptian condos. In an era of aliases, hybridization and musicians using prolificness as a pseudonym for quality, Roach has become the consummate artist, working with integrity in the midst of widespread genre confusion. As collaborator or working solo, one thing the listener can always expect from a Roach record are a plethora of sounds and ideas unhinged from categorical vacuums and meaningless critical dialogue. He's mined the shaft of and successfully enriched 'ambient' music long before it became fashionable (in spite of marketing genuises and journalistic sneerists who've corralled him in with new age cronies), was a harbinger of much of today's polyethnic audio soup and, if he isn't referenced by numerous denizens of the new electronica colony, either subtly or overtly, it's damn high time he was.
And it simply hasn't been necessary for Roach to reveal altered states behind altered identities, not when he finds the doors to such places all on his own. Those familiar with his recent oeuvre will no doubt recognize his particular voice on all of these current recordings, however each fairly bristles with newly shifting perceptions and yet more revealing worlds within worlds. Perhaps the most familiar of the three might be KIVA, done with space music maven Michael Stearns and native American musician Ron Sunsinger. As ominous electronic spirals unwind and writhe behind eerie acoustic patinas of chants and naturally realized sounds, the album derives its latent power from and champions its ceremonial underpinning. All three musicians have beaten down this path before, but, as on "Mother Ayahuasca," the addition of pulsating 'analog' blips and mutated electronic whistles lend a degree of strangeness that seems utterly contradictory to the ritual at hand and yet simultaneously integral. It might be difficult to say who performed and created the album's multi-colored montages, as all three participants have taken great care and wisdom to see the seams don't show, but ultimately, that's what makes KIVA such a fulfilling experience.
In the company of Vidna Obmana, Roach enters more forbidding, darker territory. Spread out over two discs, WELL OF SOULS is chamber music for those of us wrestling with the late 20th century concept of 'ancient modern.' After some time at Roach's southwestern abode, Vidna Obmana's recent recordings have clearly reflected the pupil's fascination with his teacher's texts, but in cahoots and working together from the same vantage point finds the pair wrestling ever more potent atmospheres from one another. Individual elements might be diffuse but figure into the grand scheme, as illustrated by Roach's command of sensuous, snake-charmer rhythms and monstrous, evolving chords, and Vidna Obmana's penchant for getting interstellar mileage out of even the most minimal electronic drones. One hastens to label WELL OF SOULS 'masterpiece,' as it's clear that both musicians have yet to reach the peak of their abilities, but from the gorgeous, shadowy hieroglyphics of the digipak to the crepuscular environments created on "Deep Hours" and "The Gathering," it's difficult to think of this richly imaginative work as anything but.
All of which is prologue to the latest Roach solo. Even the long-converted will be surprised with the intent and intricacies to be found on THE MAGNIFICENT VOID. Those quick to exact demarcation points might label his latest foray 'dark ambient' (a term faintly describing the supposed interstice between industrial, post-industrial and contemporary ambient music), but this is the stuff of microgalactic myth and psychic sinkholes. Roach's acoustic and synthetic rhythms are in deliberate absence here, but as dark, electronic buds blossom and begin to seed the lifeless surroundings, the drones that erupt out of them vibrate with a tangible, malevolent pulse. Void might almost be the flip side of QUIET MUSIC; where the latter situates you into introspection, the former challenges you with its spooky resonance, discreet manipulation of silence and deft suspension of time. Void's confrontational surface seems to affirm where Roach stands on electronic music's contemporary axis, a position where 'ambience' isn't just a casually assembled style. In effect, he has transcended mere genre music by both lighting a candle and embracing the darkness.