Essential albums: Robert Rich

A longtime native of the fertile ambient and new age music pastures of the San Francisco Bay area, Robert Rich has been releasing and performing since the early 1980's and has helped pioneer multiple strands in experimental electronica and old-school ambient - including spacemusic, ethno-ambient, dark ambient and psychedelic drones.

Robert Rich

country of origin:

Ethno ambient, tribal, environmental, dark ambient

decades active:
80's - 10's

essential releases:

  • Numena/Geometry (1987/1991, Hearts Of Space)
  • Rainforest (1989, Hearts Of Space)
  • Strata [with Steve Roach] (1990, Hearts Of Space)
  • Soma [with Steve Roach] (1992, Hearts Of Space)
  • Fissures [with Alio Die] (1997, Hearts Of Space)
  • Seven Veils (1998, Hearts Of Space)
  • Temple Of The Invisible (2003, Soundscape)
  • Calling Down The Sky (2004, Soundscape)
  • Nest (2012, Soundscape)
  • Filaments (2015, Soundscape)

Reviewed by Mike G

A longtime native of the fertile ambient pastures of the San Francisco Bay area, Robert Rich has been releasing and performing since the early 1980's and has helped pioneer multiple strands in experimental electronica and old-school ambient - including spacemusic, ethno-ambient, dark ambient and psychedelic drones. He is one of the original West Coast e-music pioneers, a gifted musician and thinker who is now well into his fourth the decade of music-making.

Early years

Rich began his recording career releasing a series of self-published and small-label albums in Europe and California during the 1980's, slowly picking up a following with his trippy drone-based sound. During this period he also became renown for his ‘sleep concerts’ in the Bay area - immersive all-night live shows performed to snoozing audiences, a period recently documented in fascinating detail in a 2014 interview feature for the UK-based Fact Magazine.

Then in the late 1980's, West Coast label Hearts of Space Records signed him and released the classic Rainforest (1989), bringing Rich's music to a wider audience for the first time. Often far more kinetic than much of his early drone music, it remains one of the most striking albums of electro-acoustic environmental music ever released and completely avoids the nature music cliches that its title might suggest. Rainforest is a seductive brew of electronic drones, sound effects and exotic instrumentation including Balinese gamelan gongs, Persian dombec and a range of flutes, all beautifully played. The sonic detail of the sound effects - cooing birds, flapping wings, rolling thunder - is extraordinary but always in the service of the beguiling music. Alternately rhythmic and floating, the music evokes ancient, primeval atmospheres with unforgettable clarity.

What helps make Rainforest so distinctive is Rich’s use of just intonation, a tuning system based on the natural harmonic series which differs from the approximated seven note scale of Western music. Just intonation is the most natural way for the ear to hear harmonies, though your hearing may require some “re-tuning” before the music becomes accessible. Which, in time, it does.

90's classics

With the Rainforest album having raised his profile, Rich released a further series of albums for Hearts of Space during the 1990's and at least four of them are must-haves.

Strata (1990) and Soma (1992) exist in the realm of dark ambient, both collaborations with fellow American synthesist Steve Roach. The former album is described as “a journey into the primordial mind”, the latter as “rhythms from the earth’s memory”. Roach’s growing interest at the time in shamanism and earth-centred spirituality is a persuasive influence throughout - this is deep, abstract and intoxicating music. Be warned that some of it borders on atonal and it's decidedly surreal, unlikely to appeal to those looking for something simple to chill out too.

More tonal but along the same primordial themes is Fissures (1997). Collaborator Alio Die evolves long textures and liquid drones while Rich's flutes, synths and steel guitar weave in and out of the mix, evoking an intriguing, lovely, vaguely disturbing landscape where one track melts into another. Rich's works in this style have been quite influential, but what distinguishes an album like Fissures from the imitations is that he limits track times to no more than 10 minutes, making his point and then moving on - albeit subtly - to the next stage. Similarly warm but this time based on Mid-Eastern and Arabic themes is Seven Veils (1998), again with Rich's liquid guitars and flutes leading the way among the drones and atmospheres. Fissures and Seven Veils both evoke a sensual, gently trippy soundworld that is a perfect distillation of the composer's search at the time for the "ecstatic" in his music.

Beyond 2000

Post-2000 Rich established his own label Soundscape Productions and this period boasts some outstanding albums.  On Temple Of The Invisible (2003) has a truly organic sound. Rich and several guests use improvisation to create imaginary "lost ritual music" using only acoustic instruments and sounds spanning North Africa, Asia and Europe. Although the pace is subdued, there's lots of bright, shimming textures from horns, percussion, flute and sundry other instruments and an unmistakable air of religiosity, particularly Egyptian. It's a brave, striking exercise in ethno-ambient experimentation.

The live concert recording Calling Down The Sky (2004) returns to beatless, drifting electro-acoustic territory. The extended delay effects on the spacey lead guitar of "Erasing Traces" are a dead ringer for Pink Floyd's David Gilmour circa the late 60's. On the eerily beautiful "Borealis" Rich literally makes the guitar sing like angels in an extraordinary six minutes during which time seems to be suspended. As with previous highpoints like Fissures, Rich's flute and guitar playing bind the music together and provide its tonal/melodic centre; one suspects that without it we'd be adrift in the cold nothingness of grim dark ambient. As a naturally gifted musician, his instincts always keep even the darkest music here from falling into an atonal void.

Since the mid 2000's the flow of new studio albums has slowed somewhat but Rich's well of inspiration rfemain strong. The picks from this period are Nest (2012) and Filaments (2015). Nest is possibly the quietest, most contemplative album he's ever made. The textures are varied - piano, lap steel guitar, field recordings, gongs and various drones - but the arrangements are minimal and the music's stillness becomes utterly bewitching with repeated listens. By contrast, Filaments has a denser sound and more kinetic melodies. Here he revisits the bubbling arpeggios of the 70's Berlin school ambient in his own distinctive way. Many of his electro-acoustic signatures are still there - morphing liquid harmonies, crying siren-like vocals from his lap steel guitar, spare piano, blurry colours and lots of space.

Digging deeper

Robert Rich's complete discography is considerably bigger than the albums reviewed above. If you're ready to dig deeper his late 2000's albums with UK artist Ian Boddy are worth checking out, as are the seven volume Live Archive series he released in 2009 which spans various performances from the previous 20 years.

You may also want to explore Rich's pre-Rainforest work from the 1980's, initially hard to find but now all re-issued on CD and digital download. One of these early essentials for fans is the Numena/Geometry (1987/1991) double set on Hearts Of Space. The highly rhythmic Geometry features engaging experiments with the just intonation tuning system he used so masterfully on Rainforest, while Numena is distinguished by an utterly enchanting piece of environmental spacemusic called "The Other Side Of Twilight". It starts with gentle, rapidly spiraling tones which spin beautifully over sustained minor synth chords, segueing into a second movement where an eerie siren-like melody emerges from a simple progression of bass notes. It clocks in at a hefty 25 minutes and proves to be one of the most affecting pieces in the entire Rich canon.

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