by Brian Bieniowski, Ambient Review
Steve Roach is certainly no stranger to these "pages" with a constant flow of albums on various labels in different styles, but always with the same attention to quality and diversity that has made him one of America's pre-eminent electronic musicians. After a series of very fine albums, including the staggering four-CD MYSTIC CHORDS & SACRED SPACES, Roach shifts gears slightly with a more immediately accessible, though no less representative, series of trance-jam albums, of which FEVER DREAMS is part one. The instrumentation used ought to be familiar to those who've been following Roach's travels over the past few years, though it is used to a significantly different effect on this particular album.
FEVER DREAMS contains four extremely long tracks, each an extended meditation largely around one theme per track. "Wicked Dream" begins the album with Roach's vast synth-atmospheres backed with languid, down-tempo percussion -- a loping tribal theme, rather than the intense drums of the very fine TRANCE SPIRITS. A snaky bassline, courtesy of Patrick O'Hearn, enters the fray, bringing a Bill Laswell inflection to the track, like a more ambient Ekstasis, minus Nicky Skopelitis's incendiary guitarwork. Though the title conjures up a sticky tribal nightmare, the sound here is more sexual, grooving, and insistent. The underlying synth washes are excellent, managing to keep the track somewhat progressive over its almost nineteen minute length. Later in the track, the atmosphere takes over entirely, as the bass and percussion are abandoned.
"Fever Pulse" utilizes similar elements, though is more dream-like and nebulous when compared with track one. A percussion loop filled in with Roach's signature guitar atmospheres drives the track forward; a gently paced, though intense, journey above humid forests -- both relaxing and entrancing. Will Merkle's basswork provides just the right amount of deep shading -- it is never obtrusive, and manages to swell along with the atmospheres without overpowering them.
The shortest track at ten and a half minutes, "Fever Pulse" gets closer to the idea of psychoactive dream journeys than its predecessor on the album. Next is "Tantra Mantra," the thirty minute centerpiece of the album, and also something of a statement of intent for the overarching series, I gather. The sexual insistency from the first track returns, but is more understated and alluring. Excellent, varied percussion by Byron Metcalf conjoined with guitar and bass atmospheres, and tense synth sonics, make for the best and most quietly intense track on the CD. "Tantra Mantra" is ten minutes longer than "Wicked Dream" and goes by in a sweltering flash; one of Roach's strongest pieces in the tribal vein since ORIGINS and ARTIFACTS. Hopefully this sound will inform the later albums in the series.
Finally, "Moved Beyond" is a stripped-down version of "Tantra Mantra" with ghostly guitar harmonics, bass pulses, and somewhat shrill slices of sound that recall INNERZONE and SPIRIT DOME. This track is effective in conveying the fever dream; a familiar, though foreign, mish-mash of fears, desires, and strange associations, tied up in surprising and unexpected ways.
Personally, I prefer Roach's recent, blisteringly intense, tribal works (THE SERPENT'S LAIR, TRANCE SPIRITS) over FEVER DREAMS's somewhat "slow and low" offering. This album does, however, have a lot going for it, especially for those Roach-listeners who felt his recent material was either "too ambient" or "too loud and tribal." Indeed, FEVER DREAMS would make a great introduction for the listener curious about Roach's sound, but mystified about where to begin in his vast discography.
Special praise should go to the creator of the artwork, who manages to portray the strange, colorful, earthly sound environment of the music with the album graphics: a jumble of ancient ruins, natural detritus, swirled and blurry colors.
While FEVER DREAMS may not be the strongest work I've heard from Roach, it does signal an intriguing new direction in his musical career. This career seems more and more a journey in pursuit of an artistic ideal with every Roach release, a constant reach toward expressing the ineffable, humanistic unconscious, with varying degrees of success. Regardless, FEVER DREAMS continues to prove that following that muse along with Roach is one of electronic music's most intoxicating delights.