Steve Roach: welcome to the vortex

*Sam from Projekt Records asked me to write this promotional piece on Steve Roach to mark the occasion of his Grammy Award nomination for Best New Age Album with Spiral Revelation (2017).

Electronic and ambient pioneer Steve Roach started creating his music during the late ‘70s golden age of analog synthesizers, a time when the digital variety was only visible on the horizon. So it’s refreshing that an album which continues that hands-on tradition, Spiral Revelation (2017), garnered his first-ever Grammy nomination.

Chosen in the Best New Age Album category, the album is crafted almost entirely with modular and stand-alone synthesizers, its sound grounded in the dynamic, spiraling interweave of melodic and rhythmic sequencer forms.

With its analog leanings, Spiral Revelation sounds utterly contemporary thanks to Roach’s technological sophistication and creative maturity. Yet the bubbling, kinetic melodies point to his origins, making it a natural place to begin the story of how far and wide he has travelled.

Born 1955 in La Mesa, California, Steve Roach self-released his first solo album in 1982. His early music was part of a wider progressive ambient movement that rose concurrently with new age music on America’s West Coast during the 1970s and peaked in the late ‘80s. Although it often intermingled easily with the best of the early new age genre, Roach’s music has always been created completely on its own terms, essentially defining his own genre. He drew upon his unique perspective, deeply rooted in a connection to the starkly beautiful landscapes and open spaces of the southwestern desert in which he grew up, to pioneer the inherently expansive breathing quality of his early releases.

Today, Roach stands among the giants of modern ambient and is one of the most respected electronic musicians in the world. His discography is enormous with well over 100 releases. All of it is “ambient” in a way, but it’s better understood by singling out three major strands in his sound.

Firstly, there is the deep inspiration Roach draws from the German and European electronic space music tradition. You can certainly hear the legacy running throughout his work from Now (1982), Empetus (1986), Skeleton Keys (2015) and most recent Spiral Revelations (2017). There’s a through-line in these releases, where patterned, sequencer-driven music activates the consciousness with an invigorating sense of heightened perception; emotional and mind-expanding spiraling mandalas of sound are made from interwoven tapestries of melody, rhythm, tone and musical space.

A second strand present in Roach’s releases is floating ambience inspired by a sense of environmental space, time-expansion and silence. These diaphanous chords and suspended harmonics were first heard on his meditative masterpiece Structures From Silence (1984). Here and elsewhere in Roach’s rich oeuvre are outstanding examples of the evolving “breathing chords” central to his ongoing quest to humanize the music and release his machines from their mechanical moorings. This extraordinary sense of natural breath is an organic quality not easily realized with synthesizers. Diverse examples can be heard on the 3-CD Quiet Music (1986), the 4-cd opus Mystic Chords and Sacred Spaces (2003), running right up through the recent Nostalgia for the Future (2017) and Long Thoughts (2017).

Thirdly, there is an intoxicating tribal-ambient strand that runs deep in Roach’s music. On his recordings from the ‘90s he pioneered this subgenre, a dark electro-acoustic hybrid that today commands a devoted underground following. It all started with the epic Australia-inspired double-LP Dreamtime Return (1988) forged with tribal percussion, warm washes of synthesizer and location recordings of indigenous music and instrument samples. Later on came a number of benchmark collaborations with the shamanic Mexican musician Jorge Reyes such as Earth Island (1994), and his work with percussionist Byron Metcalf on eight releases including The Serpent’s Lair (2000) and Monuments of Ecstasy (2015). It’s dark-edged global exotica enveloped in Roach’s widescreen soundscapes.

In a Steve Roach live performance you might be fortunate enough to hear all these strands in a single show. You'll also witness the artist in his element, in complete command of his art and still very much inspired. At a Steve Roach concert the music - with all its complexity, emotion and undeniable psychedelic power -  is not just gifted to you. It demands some patience and a certain surrender to the fact that you're going on a long, gently twisting journey. Whether it's one of his large scale shows in a city like San Francisco or Los Angeles, or a more intimate performance in his hometown of Tucson, it is a remarkable experience to find yourself in the middle of this music in real time. There is something deeply elemental about it, a sounding of the earth and the cosmos that's been rendered into tones and visuals and emotions that you can understand but not necessarily describe. If you are one of those people who still think live electronica is some kind of contradiction in terms, keep an eye out for a Steve Roach concert date near you.

Always reaching towards what’s next on the horizon, Roach refuses to be tied down in any one stylistic direction. His worldwide audience continues to grow, and his innovations continue to inspire new and long-time listeners.

Ever-productive, always thoughtful and refusing to be tied down to any one direction, Roach's following remains large and his innovations continue to inspire a new generation of electro-acoustic ambient composers and sound designers. If Spiral Revelation is the first Steve Roach album you hear, know that you've heard a very fine introduction. It's hypnotic swirl and kaleidoscopic sounds make it unlike anything else nominated for a Grammy this year, and quite possibly, any previous year. It's just one facet of a multi-faceted sound world that stretches back four decades.

Welcome to the vortex.

Mike G is a music journalist, DJ, radio producer and founder of the music reference website AmbientMusicGuide.com
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