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Steve Roach: Old & New

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For decades, Steve Roach has been delivering electronic music of all varieties. This batch of releases exemplifies that diversity.

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STEVE ROACH Stormwarning (Live in Concert) (CD on Projekt)

Originally released in 1989, this 2012 reissue features an additional 21 minutes of material, bringing the CD to a grand total of 73 minutes of live electronic music, recorded on May 10, 1985 at California Poly in Ramona, California, January 17, 1987 at Saddleback College in California, and October 2, 1991 in Paderborn, Germany (the latter being the bonus set).

Set 1 (May 10, 1985 at California Poly in Ramona, California) begins with softly sashaying tonalities that eventually undergo evolutions of a haunting nature. The emergence of a surging keyboard riff lends the music substance and puissance. The keys are subjected to nimble fingers that generate a lively melody which is soon joined by demonstrative percussion. (Note: all the sounds hereÑand the other setsÑare performed live with no prerecorded backing tapes or subsequent overdubs.) As the rhythms become progressively more intricate, the interplay with the sneakily mutating keyboard sequence achieves a state of infectious euphoria. A point is reached whereat additional riffs enter the flow: squealing chords that skitter like gems across a field of ice, twinkling melodies that ring like xylophonic icicles, and even a stretch in which the spry keys bear influences of Philip Glass in their urgent repetition. But the overall effect is purely Roach, exhibiting his crafty style of multilayered patterns merging to present undulant tuneage.

Set 2 (January 17, 1987 at Saddleback College in California) offers a gutsier opening, wherein deep bass pulsations pepper the airy texturals. A frenzy of hyperactive keys emerges and expands until these fleet sequences have fused into a blaze of sonic propulsion. Additional, sweeter keys swing into play atop this locomotion, soon joined by regally toned chords. The music becomes a seething gestalt of almost breakneck riffs, yet the result is an appealing one that entrances the listener with its gushing charisma. As the piece continues, diverse riffs surface to join the racing flow, embellishing the tune with their melodies before being replaced by yet another progressive escalation. Eventually, the music reaches a stage of subdued frenzy, and the riffs (accompanied now by periodic drums) express themselves in more dignified manner as things gradually wind down.

Set 3 (October 2, 1991 in Paderborn, Germany) displays a more stately mode of RoachÕs active music. Here, the chords resonate with a regal grandeur. The rhythms creep into the mix to pursue a distinctly Berlin mood. The interplay of elements grows complex, serpentine, bewitching. Additional electronics and rhythms alter the musicÕs texture while retaining its seductive flow. The ongoing sonic spectacle enters a more passive phase before fading away.

This release is an excellent example of RoachÕs more active electronic music.

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STEVE ROACH Soul Tones (CD on Timeroom Editions)

This CD from 2013 features 74 minutes of atmospheric electronic ambience.

Here we have a dose of extreme ambience, offered in a pair of mega-long tracks.

A gentle temperament is set and maintained throughout these tracks, with vaporous texturals establishing an atmospheric milieu of tenuous substantiality. These airy tones waft, ebb and flow with relaxed definition; indeed, the changes undergone by the harmonic stream are quite elusive, occurring at a subdued rate and often going unnoticed. But the music does evolve, gradually pursuing subtle variations . The various tonalities sigh and float, interacting with each other to generate an illusion of depthÑillusionary only because what the listener perceives as outward perception is actually mirroring their focus inwards, isolating them from the world and relegating them to a realm of undefined thought, a region where the faintest notion can formulate into an epic cerebral construction. RoachÕs ethereal ambience is a perfect soundtrack for this type of introspection. The harmonic flowÕs slippery progression creates a suitable aura of stasis, transforming the textural structure with artful finesse.

This dedication to near-vacuum is continued in the second track with elongated sustains comprised of softly whispering electronic drones. These tenuous sounds unfurl into infinite structures whose evolutionary nature is masked by duration. Again, the musicÕs ambition is to coax the listener to tune in to an astral resonance conducive to deep contemplation.

OrÑthis music provides a suitably unintrusive soundtrack for whatever routine the listener chooses, reading, dozing, doing housework. Whatever the choice, the tuneage furnishes an excellent tool for filling an auditory void.

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STEVE ROACH Future Flow (CD on Projekt)

This CD from 2013 features 71 minutes of soothing electronic ambience.

While designated as a series of shorter pieces, the music here flows into one grandiose flow.

Harmonic streams dominate this tuneage. Vaporous airs are established, softly roiling through the sky, and they continue, seemingly forever. In truth, the texturals gradually undergo changes, altering their resonance with extra-patient velocity. The tones ooze into each other, sneakily manifesting differences that are often too subtle to overtly notice. Secondary flows tend to help obfuscate this evolution, blurring the edges of each harmonic drone and fusing everything together into a shimmering sonic environment.

Once immersed in this zone, the listener becomes more attuned to the subtle fluctuations going on in the music. A sonic sensitivity is fostered in which one merges with the auralscape, finally becoming acutely aware of each successive change undergone by the flow. One notices how a steady drone blossoms into a twinkling of soft diodes, while auxiliary tones slide into position to embellish the pacific structure. Each changes, previously occurring beyond your concentration, is revealed in all their gentle glories.

No percussion is present. Indeed, rhythms of any kind are totally absent from this music...unless you count the elongated ebb of sighing electronic textures as some kind of drastically slowed-down beat.

While the obvious goal of this music is sedation of the audience, inducing a state of extreme relaxation, one suspects that Roach has more in mind here. Could these soundscapes be designed to also coax the listener in particular directions within their heads? With such subliminal guidance, oneÕs focus might drift ahead in time and find itself contemplating potential futures instead of withdrawing into an eternal now. Or maybe this music has simply induced an overactive imagination in the reviewer; how will it affect you?

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STEVE ROACH & BYRON METCALF Tales from the Ultra Tribe (CD on Projekt)

This CD from 2012 features 74 minutes of tribal electronic music.

Here, Roach plays: analog and digital synthesizers, sequencers, drum machines, didgeridoo, Eurorack analog modular, hybrid grooves, ocarina, and mega-waterphone. Metcalf plays: frame drums, buffalo drum, bass and ceremonial drums, hybrid toms, udu and clay pots, rattles, and shakers.

Percussives and electronics conspire to deliver tuneage of a tribal nature.

Confined to organic instruments, the percussives produce rhythms of an earthy nature. These gentle tempos endure for long periods. Patterns are regularly embellished by additional beats, creating pastiches of remarkably attractive complexity. These rhythms owe their appeal not just to the structure of the beats, but also to the inventive use of basic instrumentsÑan assortment of different drums and pots and anything that rattles or produces a sound when struck. This versatility results in a wide range of unique impacts, from deeply rumbling beats to whispery scrapes.

The electronics are soft and often manifest as growling background drones. While other electronics slither amid the mix, craftily hidden as they flavor other sounds with an eerie tinge. In many instances, the electronics generate melodic threads which undulate behind the rhythms. Seductively noble electronic riffs pulsate with enticing intentions, luring in the listener to drift on tonal zephyrs.

These compositions are designed to trigger the listenerÕs ancestral memories, stirring moods of primitive origins. A sense of tribal unity and celebration is achieved through these sinuous percussive patterns, while an air of astral reverence is introduced by the rippling electronic textures. The result is a superb dose of hypnotic tuneage, ambience with a beat.

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