Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Steve Roach - Landmass

Steve Roach has been producing deeply inspired and masterfully crafted ambient music for the last 30 years, at a pace only his most dedicated fans can keep up with. The twentieth release in Roach's Timeroom Editions series, 2008's Landmass
"is a surreal shape shifting grand adventure in sound, morphing through a constantly altering perspective giving witness to the creation of iconic landscape formations, stone monuments and massive alluvial desert plains, and the occasional pyroclastic flow."*
Although the music on Landmass constitutes a single seamless journey, it is broken up into six tracks which make the structure of the journey clearer. "Transmigration" opens the album with echoing shimmers steeped in a soft drone, soon joined by light percussive taps and bass thumps. Within a few minutes, steadily measured bass strumming joins this beautiful texture to create a strong feeling of movement, as the title suggests. And after fifteen captivating minutes, the beat dissolves and we arrive at "Cerulean Sky Over A Seared Desert Wasteland". It will be difficult for me to resist using superlatives in describing this one. Rapid, knotted keyboard melodies dance over a thick low drone, like flashes of light in a fog. A strong tribal rhythm comes to the foreground, grounding us, and we coast for several minutes; but periodically and unpredictably, enormous shining swathes of strange harmonies interrupt the rhythm, and the effect is like being launched into the clouds by a great gust of wind. As the piece begins to wind down, we hear the raspy cries of what might be a turkey vulture, and it is clear Steve Roach means it when he says he has been influenced by "regular soul-searching trips to the Southern California deserts and mountains".

The next two movements, "Monuments of Memory" and "Alluvial Plain", are beatless, and fine examples of Steve Roach's quieter side, providing us some time for rest after the longer and more kinetic opening tracks. Despite the overall relaxing qualities of this music, it is not "easy listening" in the pejorative sense, and the album takes on a somewhat darker shade at this point. Murky mists of sound surround us, and a sense of timelessness hangs over everything. One feels we could be lost in this realm forever.

But finally, we take up the journey once more with "Trancemigration", a tight groove constructed from punctuated keyboard and bass notes. The emphasis on discrete scatterings of notes rather than a droning continuum makes this track a standout in terms of energy and velocity. In the last third of the piece, though, the groove begins to relent and change shape, and we transition smoothly into "Stars Begin" - a ghostly conclusion with the barest overall texture present on the album.

Although Roach has released more than 50 albums and honed an unmistakable "sound", he rarely repeats himself, and Landmass testifies that he remains a major boundary-pusher in the world of meditative ambient music.

* Order from Steve Roach's website

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