Essential albums: Steve Roach

With his distinctive melange of analogue and digital synthesisers, acoustic instrumentation and highly imaginative soundscaping, Steve Roach is a giant in modern ambient and one of the most respected electronic musicians in the world.

Steve Roach

country of origin:

Ambient, ethno ambient, techno-tribal, environmental, dark ambient

decades active:
80's - 10's

essential releases:

  • Structures From Silence (1984, Fortuna/Projekt)
  • Quiet Music (1986, Fortuna/Projekt)
  • Western Spaces [with K. Braheny & R. Burmer] (1987, Fortuna)
  • Dreamtime Return (1988, Fortuna)
  • Desert Solitaire [with K. Braheny & M. Stearns] (1989, Fortuna)
  • Australia: Sound Of The Earth [with D. Hudson & S. Hopkins] (1991, Fortuna)
  • Midnight Moon (2000, Projekt)
  • Life Sequence (2003, Timeroom Editions)
  • Mantram [with Metcalf & Seelig] (2004, Projekt)
  • Proof Positive (2006, Timeroom Editions)
  • Nada Terma [with Metcalf & Seelig] (2008, Projekt)
  • Destination Beyond (2009, Projekt)
  • Sigh Of Ages (2010, Projekt)
  • The Road Eternal [with Erik Wollo] (2011, Projekt)
  • Live Transmission from the Drone Zone at Soma FM (2013, Projekt)
  • Skeleton Keys (2015, Projekt)

Reviewed by Mike G

With his distinctive melange of analogue and digital synthesisers, acoustic instrumentation and highly imaginative soundscaping, Steve Roach is a giant in modern ambient and one of the most respected electronic musicians in the world.  He draws deep inspiration from the European electronic tradition, and you can certainly hear the legacy of German psychedelic electronica and spacemusic throughout his work; sometimes not in melody, but certainly in its atmosphere and large, reverberant spaces. But another major source of inspiration for Roach is America's desert wilderness, including the starkly beautiful landscape and wide open spaces of his Arizona home, which continue to colour his music to this day.

Early years

The ambient electropop of his early albums Now/Traveler (1983) and Empetus (1986) - music in the vein of 80's Tangerine Dream - is interesting for fans but neither distinctive or especially good. But as a composer he quickly escaped his influences, as his his first extensive foray into subdued electronic ambience shows. The classic Structures From Silence (1984) is mysterious, graceful and beautifully understated. It's one of the very finest meditative records of the 1980's, appearing at a time when much American synthesiser music - at least on the West Coast - was selling out to the spiritless, saccharine strains of the worst examples of new age. The three tracks on the album are all extraordinary delicate, and the melodic strains of the 30-minute title track shift and sway with exquisite gentleness. Decades on, Structures From Silence remains a benchmark for tonal, harmonic, minimalist ambient music.

Quiet Music (1986), although never quite reaching the sublime heights of Structures For Silence, is also a must-have. The abbreviated CD release from Fortuna Records compiles tracks from the three original cassette releases, while the 2011 re-issue on CD from Projekt Records includes every track from the original three volumes. This is music which Roach describes on the sleeve notes as "created in respect for silence". Although it was specifically commissioned by outside sources for relaxation, healing and clinical use, the quality of the music remains mostly uncompromised by this potentially limiting new age premise.

Classic environmental ambient

On the next few albums Roach turns his attention to landscapes. The classic Western Spaces (1987)  is a collaboration with two other well-regarded synthesists from the 80's West Coast scene - Kevin Braheny and Richard Burmer. Inspired by the desert wilderness of America’s south-west, these superb electro-acoustic nature paintings are as compelling and genuinely beautiful examples of environmental music as you’ll hear anywhere. Desert Solitaire (1989), this time with the brilliant synthesist Michael Stearns replacing Richard Burmer as co-collaborator, is a bit less tonal and accessible though still a very fine work. Tracks like “Cloud Of Promise” exude a graceful, subtle grandeur equal to anything on Western Spaces, while the doomy “Shiprock” is considerably darker than anything on its predecessor, a pointer towards things to come on Roach's solo outings.

Dreamtime Return (1988) is magnificent; an epic work based on Roach’s travels around Australia and his experience with its wilderness and Aboriginal culture, something that has profoundly influenced his music ever since. This is the album kicked off the tech-tribal genre with its combination of tribal percussion samples, warm washes of synthesiser and location recordings of native music and instrument samples. It's ambitious yet restrained, subtle yet stimulating. U.S. music magazine Heartbeats captured it's greatness perfectly at the time: “This monumental magnum opus by Roach demonstrates that electronic music’s greatest potential may lie in bringing our most elusive dreams and ancient memories into focus through potent, highly imaginative soundscapes.”

Likewise Australia: Sound Of The Earth (1991) - a collaboration with Australians David Hudson and Sarah Hopkins - finds Roach travelling further into the musical territory of Dreamtime Return. Hudson’s marvelous didgeridoo playing is prominent, blending beautifully with Hopkin’s sublime whirly wind instruments and Roach’s now-trademark electronic sound sculptures.

Into the void...

During the 1980's Steve Roach's ambient albums were modest in number but consistently high in quality. The 1990's and beyond have proved to be a different story - the composer's work rate has increased enormously, producing a huge number of solo and collaborative works. Their appeal varies greatly and that's not a criticism per se; it's simply inevitable for any artist whose output is so prolific.

The most challenging of these albums - at least those from his 1990's period - tend to be ones centred around themes of paleontology, tribal shamanism and the primordial mind. This new tribal-tech sound was drawing in a lot of ambient artists and listeners during this time and many Roach albums from the period like Origins (1993) and Early Man (2001) embrace dark worlds of dissonance and strangeness where tonality is rare, somewhat narrowing their appeal. The sound is one or a combination of rhythmic tribal patterns, widescreen atonal soundscapes and massive reverberating spaces. While some dark ambient fans swear by these works - God knows, I get enough emails from them - I wouldn't rate any of these as essential Steve Roach recordings. They're interesting, intelligent albums, but if you're a newcomer to his music there are better places to start. About the only exception is a number of excellent tribal works he recorded during this period with Mexican musician Jorge Reyes.

...and back again

While discernible chords and melodic lines often absent from Roach's 90's output, post-2000 his discography becomes more varied once again. Alongside the ongoing explorations of dissonance, discordant structures and almost freeform avant-garde experiments in atmosphere, he has also re-embraced warmer and more tonal sounds and in doing so has recorded some of his finest albums.

The subtle melodic strength of the beautifully creepy Midnight Moon (2000) comes from electric guitar lines which are processed extensively and spread across gently reverberating soundscapes. It's one of several albums on which Roach experimented with guitar in this manner and it's an excellent deep, beatless ambient excursion, perfect late-night chillout music.

For the first time in many years Life Sequence (2003) finds the composer revisiting the propulsive analogue sequencer melodies of some of his early, Berlin-school inspired work. It's a triumph, largely because instead of pure nostalgia Roach has reinvented this sound using the technological prowess he's gained over the decades since, adding both harmonic depth and atmospheric richness to the mix. Proof Positive (2006) is cut from the same cloth as Life Sequence and is as equally engaging. Also similar in flavour but very different in structure is the epic Destination Beyond (2009). Over a single 73 minute track the album sighs and surges beautifully with spinning melodies, rich sweeping chords and his trademark airy atmospheres. Recorded live in the studio, the album gives you a taste of Roach's live concerts in which he blends improvisation and programmed elements with tremendous skill.

Meanwhile, two collaborative albums from the 2000's - Mantram (2004) and Nada Terma (2008) - offer some of the most sweetly intoxicating music he's ever put his name to. The trio of Roach, American Byron Metcalf and Germany's Mark Seelig fashion rich Eastern-flavoured drone ambience with Indian tamboura, Tibetan throat singing, deep synth chords and the slow pulse of a flame drum, embellished with some flute and traditional stringed instruments. Roach's superb sound design sets the music above and beyond many similarly themed recordings in the genre. It's quietly exhilarating stuff that compares favourably to the Eastern-tinged ambient masterpieces of David Parsons and Robert Rich.

Four decades on

Heralding Roach's forth decade as a recording artist, the deeply ravishing Sigh Of Ages (2010) is performed largely with analogue synths and finds Roach looking back - as the title suggests - without simply recycling ideas. With its haunting harmonic progression "Quelling Place" enfolds you in a warm embrace that's as satisfying as anything on Structures For Silence or Dreamtime Return. "The View From Here" is Berlin-school ambient trance with the lightest possible touch and is exquisitely beautiful. Much of the rest is lush, tonal landscaping that's warm while still occasionally ambiguous, and imbued with a deep sense of space and wonder.

The following year's The Road Eternal (2011) with seasoned Norwegian composer Erik Wollo is quite different and marks another highpoint in Roach's catalogue. It's something of a showcase for the subtle rhythmic complexity possible in sequencer-based music, its percussion patterns being more intricate and intriguing then typical old-school Berlin ambient trance, despite the clear lineage. The widescreen harmonies are deep, warm and rich; Wollo's synthesised guitar phrasing on tracks like "The Next Place" and "Travel By Moonlight" is especially tender and haunting.

in 2013 Roach returned to live performance for the first time in some years. The double-length album Live Transmission (2013) captures a live webcast he did for San Francisco net radio station Soma FM that year and it's truly glorious: a slowly developing tapestry of improvisation and prepared themes performed on a mix analogue and digital gear. All the elements of his sound are there: vast slow moving clouds, breathing synthetic chords, shakers, didgeridoo, dark tribal beats, pretty Berlin-school arpeggios and loads of samples from natural environments. The music's complexity and emotion, and its undeniable psychedelic power, is not simply gifted to you. It demands patience and a certain surrender to the fact that you're going on a long, gently twisting journey. The album is not a "best-of"; Roach's discography is so vast that no one album could even approach being a rough summary of his work. What Live Transmission does show is tremendous poise - a live performer in complete command of his art and still inspired after more than 30 years of music making.

Finally, the most recent must-have Roach album is Skeleton Keys (2015), on which he embraces a warm retro-futurism with music composed and performed entirely on a modular analog synthesiser and sequencer system. Quite far removed from the breathing, beatless landscapes some know him for, the music is heavily patterned, a kind of sonic mandala. It’s the analog sequencers that generate those bubbling, purring loops and riffs, a style that was everywhere in e-music in the 70’s and 80’s including Roach’s own early work. In modified forms this quintessentially European sound has never left us, appearing in electronic music everywhere from West Coast ambient to the dance styles of club trance, house and techno and their many downtempo spinoffs. Skeleton Keys is a stimulating release and a gentle history lesson to boot. It manages to sound both retro and modern and still has that delicious psychedelic vein that’s present in much of Roach’s work.

In closing...

Beyond the albums that are listed here, Steve Roach as an enormous catalogue of other releases for fans to explore. His total number of solo albums, collaborations and live recordings now numbers well over 100. Ever-productive, always thoughtful and refusing to be tied down to any one style, his music commands a large, devoted following and his innovations continue to inspire inspire the current generation of electro-acoustic ambient composers and sound designers.

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