Rethinking New Age

December 8, 2011
By Joshua Becker

As the market for electronic ambient music continues to grow—thanks to artists like Daniel Lopatin and the Emeralds trio—a reevaluation of the genre’s forebears seems increasingly helpful as well as vital.  This column will take a look at some of the greatest “new age” artists of the recent past and the palpable influence they’ve had on the work of our favorite contemporary synth wizards.

To say that Steve Roach is prolific is an understatement, to put it lightly.  Indeed, the sheer size of the man’s body of work makes it is all but impossible to offer a complete summary of his career.  As is the case with most artist’s discographies, however, certain releases stand out and point the way towards a better understanding of his style and importance.  Still, it’s a bit like walking into a never-ending Walmart; you’ll almost certainly find what you’re looking for, but there will also be things you’ll inevitable overlook.  Caveat auditor: the Tree of Roach has bore more fruit than any one listener could hope to digest.

At the risk of overgeneralizing his output, there are three main Roachian modes: the telematic, the atmospheric, and the tribal.  His “telematic” music is that which we might today call “retro-futurist,” though that term connotes a sense of irony that’s thankfully absent in Roach’s work.  In this artistic mode, his synths aren’t meant to signify a crystallized nostalgia, nor do they augment more organic acoustic instrumentation.  No, by “telematic” I mean, to put it clumsily, “science-fictiony.”  Such releases are electronic but hardly “ambient,” constantly in flux but never jarring or overwhelming.  Among the earliest and strongest of these releases is Empetus, from 1986.  This is pure analog joy spread out over nine songs that deftly balances spacey abstraction with more rhythmic concerns.  Arpeggios unwind as synth lines unfurl like strands of DNA viewed through a glowing microscopic lens; it’s one of those albums that sounds exactly like its album cover looks.  It marries the hypnotic repetition of trance music with the memorable catchiness of synth pop, and thanks in no small part to the contemporary lingering obsession with ’80s electronica, it holds up surprisingly well.  Last year’s excellent Primitive Neural Pathways LP from Steve Moore is a perfect parallel, as are releases like Steve Hauschildt’s Tragedy & Geometry and Mist’s House, both released earlier this year.  Each of these works owes quite a bit to Roach’s giddily adventurous synth abstraction on albums like Empetus.

I begin with Roach’s telematic work not because it’s his most common but because it bookends his career: his first two albums, Now and Traveler, operate in a similar vein, as do more recent releases like 2003′s Life Sequence.  These are also among his most accessible albums, and anyone interested in exploring the man’s discography would be better served by starting here than they would with more sprawling works like Structures from Silence (which we’ll get to in just a moment).  The other night, driving home from a date, I got lost with less than a quarter tank of gas on I-78; a darkened, unfamiliar highway landscape dotted by LCD billboards and lit floors of distant office towers might have been unnerving had it not been for the music I was listening to—in this case, Life Sequence.  The synthiest strands of Roach’s body of work make for excellent driving muic, especially if you’re gonna be doing 65 on an all-but-empty freeway.  Much like my drive, Life Sequence is at once comfortingly familiar (being something of a throwback) and resolutely exploratory (as evidenced by the album’s final track, “Destination Horizon,” which is 27 minutes long and absolutely never boring).  Both rhythmic and free-flowing, gentle hi-hats and soft pulses guide all sorts of synth leads and pads towards a denouement that could accompany any number of Carl Sagan lectures or NASA presentations.  I eventually found my way home (all roads in Jersey lead back to the Turnpike, after all) and I was never in any actual danger, but Life Sequence made me feel like a frazzled guy squinting to read road signs through the windshield of his mom’s SUV and more like a cybernetic speed racer giving Tron a run for its money.  Like Klaus Schulze and other Berlin Schoolchildren before him, Steve Roach tends to have that imaginative effect on my psyche.

As I mentioned, however, the telematic tunes aren’t Roach’s calling card.  No, if I had to pick one mode to designate with such a distinction, it would be his atmospheric work.  Whether you enjoy minimal synth drone a la Daniel Lopatin or more quietly unhinged noodling like the music of Stellar OM Source, you have Mr. Roach to thank.  And if you want to thank him by listening to his music, you have several masterpieces to choose from, including but certainly not limited to: Structures from Silence, The Magnificent Void, Slow Heat, The Dream Circle, and his epic three-hour Quiet Music compilation.  Running the gamut from Michael Stearns-esque space music (e.g. Magnificent) to field-recording-enhanced massive envelopes of sound like Slow Heat and Dream Circle, Roach’s atmospheric work is not just at the head of the class—it’s the goddamn professor.  Seemingly taking equal inspiration from the forestal mysticism of Ash Ra Tempel’s Le Berceau de Cristal as well as the meditative emptiness of his desert surroundings, Roach’s atmospheric works most cloesly approach Brian Eno’s vision of ambient “sonic landscapes” meant for either engaged or background listening.

But calling this stuff “background music” doesn’t do it justice; from the lost-in-space FX that dot The Magnificent Void‘s astral landscapes to the gorgeous melodic turns of Structures from Silence, Roach’s atmospheric music is deceptively simple.  Cricket symphonies, washes of noise like giant aural tumbleweeds, and the constant reverb that lends this music a cathedral majesty: elements like these give each of his atmospheres a distinctive voice and mood, allowing for a tonal variety that encompasses the unsettling and the soothing.  It’s all too easy to just press a few keys on your synthesier and loop the results to bang out a dronescape or three, but you never get the impression that Roach has fallen back on such laziness.  Though perhaps not as sonically intricate as some of his other stuf, these atmospheric albums display a care and precision all their own.  They’re like scented baths for your ears, truly among the few ambient works that could qualify as “healing.”  And Roach’s equal deftness at producing space music and more grounded environmental studies serves as further proof of his genius.

Speaking of genius, I’ve saved his most revered music for last: the tribal.  Now, I recognize that “tribal” is a loaded term, suggesting a rather imperialist impression of what indigenous music “ought” to sound like.  But Roach’s tribalism doesn’t just rely on bongos and chanting to get its point across; no, his is a sutbler and deeper understanding of the ritualistic potential of ambient music, imbued with a spiritual as opposed to merely geographic approximation of native sounds.  For example, Dreamtime Return, from 1988, bridges the gap between his slower atmospheric work and more percussive sensibilities, utilizing digitally sampled vocal work and instrumentation to compose a grand tribute to Australian Aboriginal culture.

But his two early-Nineties collaborations with fellow synth shaman Robert Rich represent the zenith of his tribal output.  Strata and Soma (from 1990 and 1992, respectively) occupy two sides of the same stone coin.  At turns magical, beautiful, and vaguely sinister, considered together they represent an exploration not into the unknown but rather into that which lurks just beneath the surface.  Listening to Strata is like wandering into a cavernous mine of diamond stalagmites, dancing shadows fleeing the prying tendrils of your flame-lit torch; it is what I imagine you might experience if you drank some shroom tea and then went on an archaelogical dig.  It is my favorite Steve Roach album, largely thanks to the curious caution Rich brings to the proceedings—it’s as if Roach is goading Rich along, daring him to dive deeper underground.  If Strata represents your entering the cave, then Soma is the sound of getting hopelessly yet thrillingly lost in its bedrock passageways.  A more rhytmically oriented affair than its predecessor, Soma will lull you off to sleep with the promise of beautiful nightmares, tiny demons of ambience winding their way through your subconscious.  Neither optimistic or pessimistic, didactic or explicitly spiritual, these discs are tribal because they are intimate, insular, old-world affairs that sound as freshly mystifying today as they must have two decades ago.  And whereas Roach’s atmospheric works are among the best of their genre, his tribal work seems to exist outside the electronic music paradigm altogether.  For entirely synthetic works, albums like Strata and Soma sound remarkably organic, as though bequeathed to the listener by the Earth itself.  It’s difficult to discuss these tribal albums without delving into at least a few new-age-isms about “the mind/body/spirit connection” or “the communal experience with natural and cosmic forces” or what have you.  But I don’t mean to imply that this music is cheesy; rather, it transcends verbal language, instead speaking in more visceral, primordial tones.  The Skaters explored similar territory, sort of, though in their case the medium—warped and dirty and overwhelming—was as much the message as was the music itself.  Roach and Rich, by contrast, utilize cleaner tones, channeling not the distorted ghosts of the past but rather the enigmatic beauty of the earth itself.  Maybe Spencer Clark’s Monopoly Child Star Searchers would be a more appropriate analogue here, but Roach is hardly as tropical.

I fear I have only scratched the surface of Steve Roach’s long and winding career.  I could easily double this piece’s length with further examination of his legacy, but part of the joy of his discography is in sifting through it for yourself, discovering new favorites and receiving sacred hymns seemingly made just for you.  I am all but stultified by the enormity of his catalog; needless to say, there’s enough variety here to satisfy ambient electronic fans of all persuasions.  So get exploring, and I’ll see you on the other side.

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