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Steve Roach — Mystic Chords & Sacred Spaces
(Projekt 144, 2003, 4CD / DL)

Mystic Chords & Sacred Spaces Cover art

With this epic length 4CD set (also available as two 2CD sets), Roach has reached a new pinnacle of his floating ambient craft — that drifty, dreamy soft wall of sound that engulfs the listener like a morning fog rolling into the conscious mind, carrying the vestiges of perception to the next state, like a slowly descending spiral into the subconscious void. On a purely technical level, it is impossible to detect what the source of the sounds are — could be synths, guitars, flutes, or just about anything, because it’s all heavily processed to a level where all such things are essentially indistinguishable, where all sounds merge together and form an elastic landscape of pure sonic texture. A common complaint one hears about ambient music of this type — especially from those weaned on somewhat complex progressive rock and jazz — is that it’s “not interesting”; this may be true if the music is approached in a conventional sense where the listener is an external participant in a recorded performance. The key to getting the most out of this type of music is to not separate oneself from it, as in the traditional listening experience, but instead to yield to, and become one with it, allowing it to merge with your being, where the sound becomes the guide force, and the listener relinquishes all control. It requires letting all the baggage and preconceptions go and allowing a degree of vulnerability, as the sound gets inside, mixes with the spirit, and carries the participant (formerly a listener) to somewhere new. On that level, Roach succeeds immeasurably. The four discs (most have many “tracks,” but you wouldn’t know by listening) flow together smoothly and seamlessly, offering a five-hour continuum that begins with the vaguely melodic sonic fragments “Palace of Nectar” and “Oracle” on disc 1, ending with the increasingly silent “Piece of Infinity,” which occupies all of disc 4. It all makes sense when perceived from within the experience.

by Peter Thelen, Published 2003-08-01

Of the wide body of Steve Roach’s work, my favorites probably largely come from his explorations in amorphous, drifting soundscapes, so the release of a 4 CD set focusing on this surreal style is a most welcome event. However, to describe the music that floats, shimmers, and awes through four long CDs is a Herculean task, as the reigning giant of keyboard,/,ambient electronic music has finally, successfully added guitar to his repertoire. It seems to dominate a large part of the sonics, making it really difficult to tell which instrument is creating which sound. The first set (the CDs are sold as a box set or one can buy each two-CD digipak separately) opens up with gigantic, cavernous atmospherics that seem a step forward from the humid, ageless ambiances of Atmospheric Conditions and Early Man. The heady sounds, as booming resonance gives way to cosmic mantras and then to enhanced harmonics, are overwhelming with richness and power, establishing just why Roach is heads and tails above just about anyone else in creating ambient music without pulse. The clincher is the use of guitar which creates a number of chord variations new to the development of his style and that give it a melodic resonance that has done nothing but strengthen the sound. This disc, also bearing the same name as the entire set, may be among Roach’s finest achievements to date, demonstrating that ambient, floating drone music can be an eminently emotional and ineffably spiritual music.

Each succeeding disc in the set seems to move closer to the type of preternatural silence reminiscent of the meditative state as if one floats like a feather slowly into a vast abyss. Never does the sense of mystery and magic let up, and Labyrinth’s opening track “Wren and Raven” reintroduces the type of psychoactive, Southwestern vibrations so successfully captured on Roach’s collaboration with Jorge Reyes, Vine ~ Bark & Spore. Where the first disc was almost like the beginnings of a ritualistic, astral exodus, the second disc unravels the listener’s consciousness as part of an initiation, combining the floating atmospherics with hallucinogenic sound effects that are like small electrical shocks. Overall, it’s a bit darker than the previous disc, reminding us once again of the spiral downwards into a living silence. The final tracks, “Wordless” and “Nameless,” well express this yearning for the indescribable.

The guitar seems more prominent than ever on the set’s third disc (or the first disc of part two if you will) or at least it’s more obvious, and where the first two CDs were filled with a sense of the imponderable and the vastness of the universe, Recent Future seems more personal, more individual, and it sings with bittersweet tones. Again, reminders of Early Man are apparent with the combination of deep rumblings, harmonics and heavy reverb, a sound that always brings back images of primordial rainforests and millenia-old strata. One is reminded that we’re alone when facing the big questions.

It’s extremely difficult to say anything meaningful about the last CD in the set, a 73-plus-minute drifter called “Piece of Infinity.” Even after several listens, it’s hard to actually say I’ve heard this, as so much of it operates below audible levels, making it seem that the importance of the piece is how it breathes. Wisps of sound and gentle atmospherics float from the speakers, at times indistinguishable from the background environment. It leaves one with the impression of unfathomable depths, as if all the instrumental sounds were shut off leaving just reverb, effects and envelopes. It’s quite lovely really, although if you expect to hear any of it after disc 3, you’ll need to turn the volume up a bit.

Overall, this is a vastly important milestone for Roach, a work that feels imbued with attention and intense with inner searching. Even for its size, I’d recommend this to anyone wondering where to get their feet wet in such a large catalog. 20 years and up, Roach is still climbing that hill.

by Mike McLatchey, Published 2003-08-01

Filed under: New releases, Issue 27, 2003 releases

Related artist(s): Steve Roach

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