Friday, September 26, 2008

Installment 17

A Deeper Silence (Timeroom Editions)
Landmass (Timeroom Editions)
Empetus (Projekt)

Listening to A Deeper Silence, cochlea bathing in its luxuriant fathoms, begs contemplation regarding the inexorable march of time, particularly as this year’s already slipped into the eve of its final quarter; in fact, speaking in senses both chronological and philosophical, notions of time, of fleeting moments and indelible memories, thread the conduit binding Steve Roach’s first handful of 2008 releases. There’s a simultaneous longing and exuberance across the span of these three recordings—embracing things past and things current yet remaining anticipatory towards the future, Roach nevertheless recognizes the unerring arc of the circle. Dots are connected, lines are re-drawn and recalibrated, the ghosts of muses past beg for exorcism; amidst Roach’s work, time is truly the fire in which he burns. Sounds might rest temporarily, occupying relatively safe havens until their oasis is shattered by the next cyclonic statement, yet in Roach’s slipstream, psychotropic fulfillment comes from bridging the id of then with the momentum of now. It’s beginning to and back again.

Out of the barest sliver of eclipsed sunlight illuminating the top of the front cover, an infinity symbol subtly emblazoned over the tray card’s near-blackest ever black, years bloom, flare, fade, and are reborn within the tableau of A Deeper Silence. Ostensibly a continuation of the themes augured by 1987’s Structures from Silence but allowed to naturally expand across a far longer bandwidth, when the soft machine tufts of A Deeper Silence first emerge it’s as if they always existed, ready to unveil themselves to whomever chooses access. Like ancient solar winds, gravity thinning their entrails across limitless parsecs, the disc’s beauteous tones achieve a perfect symbiosis between reflection, sensation, and environment. “Immersive” these elastic, whispering filigree are, yes, but it’s a far different tenor (though the aesthetics are certainly shared) than that displayed on Roach’s earlier Immersion series. On those 2007 recordings, Roach’s dronic maps availed themselves of braided, gelatinous, and indeed minimal, textures, eerie fugs of sound that engulfed you in startling ultraviolets. Play A Deeper Silence in varying situations—as a preternatural listen, precursor to sleep, or perchance to dream—and each time its sparse opiate narcotizes different corners of the soul. A more profoundly introspective skein of sound, yielded via the “cold” ions of electronics, one would be challenged to find—embodying ambient music, in fact codifying Eno’s own behavioral maxim for such musics, the subtly insinuitive tow of A Deeper Silence not only suspends memories, but left to its own devices, displaces the very flow of time itself.

Reacting to the moment, indeed fabricating its template as the post-midnight hours drew out all sorts of internal phantasms, Roach’s fomentation of Landmass out of a radio station’s sound booth speaks volumes about his regenerative gift for invention and application. While A Deeper Silence opened up vast, unhurried spaces for disembodied traveling, Landmass is a far more extroverted construct, six lengthy pieces of stormsurge and metamorphic resonance. Recorded live at WXPN studios in Philadelphia on the venerable Stars End radio show, Landmass condenses a millennia’s energy of continental drift into one epoch-spanning force of nature. The breathtaking vistas that ribbon-wrap the digipak provide some total recall of their own—Roach’s collaboration with Kevin Braheny on Western Spaces, imagery coveted from Dreamtime Return—but rather than a historically assembled composite, Landmass instead feels more like a statement of intent. And what a statement. Though the protean chord sweeps and abyssal ambiences incontrovertibly image-stamp this as a Roach album, there’s little in the way of repetitive motifs or overused passages; everything about this recording, from point of conception to execution of ideas, feels fresh, vibrant, cinematically rich. Roach’s choice of sound design, carved in situ, is all the more dazzling for it: the chromium synths ratcheting-up tensions along a boiling sequencer front acts as the propellant enabling “Transmigration” amid a flurry of levitating pulses central to the record’s tingling spine. Track titles vividly depict what becomes electronic analog: indeed, soaring through “Cerulean Blue Sky Over a Seared Desert Wasteland” is no doubt abetted by its oxygenated rush of synthetic cloudbursts and interlocked, serpentine rhythms. “Monuments of Memory” and “Alluvial Plain” bear witness to the movements of geologic time, jettisoning the acrobatic thrall of sequencer so Roach can brush great swathes of plangent color across his desolate canvas. When he finally leaves Landmass’s (and his host’s) excoriated territory behind with the appositely-titled “Stars Begin,” hushed drones, cast amongst the galaxies like grains of sand, seem to portend some kind of big bang; instead, they ebb discretely back into the void, forever primed for reawakening when next Roach decides to smite the power.

With embers from 2007’s Arc of Passion still unextinguished, vintage Klaus Schulze poised to hit the racks in early 2009 and far more circumspect artists errorizing the sequencer mainframe, there’s no better time than to revisit Empetus, Roach’s 1986 sequencer-intensive follow-up to his earlier Now and Traveller sessions. Reissued as a two-disc set, its cover a bisection of fibre-optic kaleidoscopia catapulted as if through a particle accelerator, twenty-two years of retro-stylings and digital brinkmanship hasn’t rusted one bolt on Empetus’s die-hard chassis: if anything, its utter lack of irony or nostalgia serves to shore up the record’s totally distinctive, and bracing, architecture. Roach’s first true sequential masterwork remains seminal precisely because it handily acknowledges its source code without breaking bread with it. Sure, Schulzian parallels could be drawn by dearth of the comparable instrumentation involved, but Empetus is truly that rare breed: a synth/sequencer album that doesn’t sound like any other, despite the malapropism so designating Roach one of the few then-emerging “West Coast” synth artists. Empetus effectively crystallized a genre—these works aren’t mere Klaus encounters of a third kind. What’s held the album in such high esteem over the tide of years is it’s magnificently diverse patterning and impeccable arrangements. Sequences are turned inside out, twisted, corkscrewed; the elephantine synths of “Arrival” airburst overhead as they climax, as do the dizzying motifs that drive “Seeking” and “Merge.” “Twilight Heat” contains the kind of sprightly sequence that most bit-programmers would kill for, while the hypnotic acid-trance headrush of “Distance is Near” maxes out a near-perfect distillation of Berlin/California sensibilities. And “The Memory” could very well be one of Roach’s best ambient nuggets committed to disc, a languid decompression infused with diaphanous stillness and Quiet Music melancholy.

However, the ride doesn’t end there. As a way of clearly affirming that even in the early 80s, at the dawn of his career, he often transcended his influences, Roach produced a longform sequencer piece with fellow electronic artist Thomas Ronkin. Considered lost for years, Roach obtained the original tapes and appended them to the revived Empetus package as a second disc labeled The Early Years. Consisting of two mammoth tracks, “Harmonia Mundi” (clocking in at 46-plus minutes), and “Release” (just under a half-hour in length), these enormously powerful, orgiastic blowouts, though definitely of their time (1982-83), still pummel the speaker fabric with earth-shaking ferocity. Totally analog, “Harmonia Mundi” is the sound of two gents locked in mortal electronic combat, wielding their synths like swords, hacking lesser soundbytes into mulch. Notes interlocked so closely their tightly-wound springs threaten implosion, synths galloping triumphantly over parched terrain, Roach and Ronkin tagteam on an extraordinary symphony of sequencercore. “Release” harkens back to Roach’s formulative upbringings splayed over the Now and Traveler releases, as he pirouettes his modular’s pliable contours across an atavistic dappling of spongeiform noises and varispeed rhythms. As a landmark album, Empetus is beyond reproach—the inclusion of the Roach/Ronkin twin behemoths, rescued, ripped, out of time, cements its legacy as one of the finest sequencer albums ever. These recordings quite rightly square the circle, bridging gaps separating decades and genre, the artist himself forging ahead, time’s great ennabler, built for the future. DARREN