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Arc of Passion
Empetus (2-CD Collector's Edition)
A Deeper Silence
LANDMASS pushing beyond the comfort zone....
Star’s End stands as an iconic radio show broadcasting from WXPN in Philadelphia, PA, into the deep hours Saturday night through Sunday morning. Created more than three decades ago by John Diliberto and Steve Pross, Star's End has been presented by Chuck van Zyl for over 27 years, the last 15 as the sole host. Along with the radio show, Chuck supports the live electronic music scene with the ongoing Gatherings Series of concerts, America's premier live showcase for electronic artists from around the world.
Steve writes: This recording was composed live on the Star’s End radio program at the WXPN studio complex. Drawing from material and themes created exclusively for this performance, the main body of LANDMASS is presented as it occurred with a few artfully placed edits due to the longer duration of the set. Earlier that evening I presented a 90-minute Gatherings concert at St. Mary’s Church. The concert completed, the gear was set up for the second time in a few hours at the WXPN studios a few miles away. With the last cables plugged in as I went on air at 2 AM, the surreal terrain of LANDMASS was about to be discovered. Together we left the base camp of the studio for higher ground and a more rarified air. As I prepared the sounds and sub-structures in the weeks before the event, a strong visual aspect to the music developed. The title LANDMASS and piece titles suggest this clearly. At times it felt almost like a film playing in my mind’s eye as the set unfolded; this was part of the empetus of this experience.
Let me start with a disclaimer: This will be a thumb-on-the-scale review for me. Landmass is an excerpt from Steve Roach's post-Gatherings set in the WXPN studios during Chuck van Zyl's Star's End radio show in April 2007. I was lucky enough to have been invited to sit in on this set. It was two in the morning when Roach took off on this journey, having earlier transported an appreciative crowd during his 90-minute Gatherings concert. I had driven from Massachusetts to Philadelphia that morning and hadn't rested so needless to say, by two in the morning I wasn't entirely perky. Plunked down on a comfortable couch in the studio, and prepped for travel by a tasty local beer, I drifted in and out of sleep for the next hour and a half or so, slipping away to a calm passage and then waking surrounded by the constantly evolving sound and seeing Roach, still standing in the dim studio light, performing sonic alchemy behind his keyboards and laptops. This disk lets me recapture that, and also to hear more fully the genesis and movement of this live set.
With any luck, you'll remain awake while listening to Landmass because it's a great disk that's well worth the listen. Pulling from the sound-set and sensibilities of recent works such as Arc of Passion and Stream of Thought, Roach blends the tweak-and-rhythm groove of analog synth and sequencer lines with the horizon-spanning reach of sweeping drifts. "Transmigration" opens the disk with a metallic beat rebounding off a whirl of electronic twiddle and a steady drone and pads that spread and evaporate. Roach blends this into the darker feel of "Cerulean Blue Sky Over a Seared Desert Wasteland" (there's an evocative title for you!), perhaps my favorite section of the journey. There's a stronger sense of urgency here, courtesy of an intricately tangled thread of electro-burble and a tribal rhythm conjured from the circuits. Glassy chords rise up and fade like heat shimmer. Roach cross-fades these elements back and forth, lending each a few moments of prominence at a time. The beats melt away as Roach slides into “Monuments of Memory” and “Alluvial Plain,” the sounds spreading and softening to windswept washes. This is a gentle 20-minute stretch. Sonic callback is behind "Trancemigration" as the computer-perfect cadence of the sequencer drifts back in and picks up the energy level. Landmass departs quietly as Roach winds the proceedings down with the calming "Stars Begin." I'm not sure if this was the actual end of the set but if it was, it was four in the morning, I was just getting back to my hotel, Roach was on the radio, and I drifted off, quite pleased with the day's events, unaware that I'd have this superb chance to experience it all again. Get this disk for yourself; it's another great, highly listenable example of Roach's live mastery.
This release from 2008 offers 68 minutes of electronic music recorded live in the studios of WXPN for simultaneous broadcast on the Star's End program on May 20, 2007.
Here, Roach's signature ambience is presented with more substance. The tonalities expand to a healthy scale, moving beyond a mimicry of windblown air currents. Additional electronics coax the harmonics into a melodic definition, while more strident tones approximate a relaxed sense of rhythms throughout the performance with their twinkling pulsations.
Versatile sound sourcing bestows the music with novel edges. Are those bells hiding in the wandering effects? Do the ends of several sounds rise with a truncated vitality, lending the notes a hint of buoyancy?
In one passage, the presence of tastefully plodding beats injects a soothing animation to the slowly churning vaporous music. This lively disposition becomes mirrored by the electronics as textures swell and fade with pronounced enthusiasm and those twinkling pulsations exhibit a stately jubilation.
At another point, sprightly tempos occur, driving the melodies into a pacific fervor that is tempered by the airborne harmonics.
While the gist of the compositions is luxurious and peaceful, a sense of escalating tension is generated as the flow carries the audience on a journey across landscapes of ancient majesty, ultimately lifting everyone on an ascension to stratospheric altitudes where the grandeur is obvious despite its subtlety.
While mainly ambient, this music is seasoned with enough instances of electronic enervation to make it satisfying to those who prefer their soundscapes to deliver something more than ethereal essence.
In fact, Roach may well be one of the few without an inborn disgust of the big “A”-word, part of which may be explained by his musical development during a time when it was still rather a competently concise point of the compass than a confusing collective term denominating loosely related genres of gently floating electronic music. Even more importantly, however, it seems to mean something entirely different in his vocabulary, describing a method of building pieces without conscious dogmas, of letting sounds flow on their own accord and of acting as a catalyst instead of an omnipotent demiurge.
And then, the term implies a certain physical reality behind the sonic waves, delineating a concrete territory whence they are emitted from, describing a detail-smitten topography of previously unimagined morphology. The two worlds of objects and emotions have always been closely connected in Steve Roach’s oeuvre and their relation has grown even stronger in recent years, an observation fortified by the general consensus that last year’s “Arc of Passion” constituted a temporary peak of sorts.
Possibly, that album indeed defined his intuitive intentions more precisely than any work before it: On the one hand, it contained the sequencer driven pulse of works like “Proof Positive”, on the other the warm washes of his textural pieces as well as the sensual sexuality of the “Fever Dreams” series – all molten into a single, shining diamond polished in Roach’s timeroom foundry.
If “Arc of Passion” was a culmination, “Landmass” could logically be called a consolidation. In many ways, it appears to be a continuation of a confident new style, making use of a diverse palette of timbres, tools and techniques. Again, the bleeps and digital dots of analog Synthesizers push the pieces on, while broodingly dense layers of drones are constantly in flux. Thanks to its more concise length, however, the different elements appear more balanced in comparison to “Arc”, which gravitated around a 60-minute rhythmic meditation. Percussive particles keep turning up even in the outstretched beatless passages, lending a constant additional tension and propulsion to the already viral visions – tracks could explode at any minute.
On many occasions, “Landmass” also seems more refined despite its steely minimalism, nerved by an erotic film noire ambiance. The third part especially is marked by an almost painful longing, its harmonies reaching for resolution while spinning away in tonal turbulence. It is a composition with a classical touch, an orchestral piece performed by an invisible string section.
In the eery and cold coda, meanwhile, Roach acts as a ghostly conductor, toning his frosty symphonics down to the point of particle standstill and all but complete silence while allowing the music to glide to a halt in a medium of quietude and unspoken allusions for several breathless minutes in succession.
All throughout the album, traditional musical elements are changing. More and more it is becoming apparent that Roach is not avoiding melody because of minimalist principles or academic formulas, but because, in the wondrously interwoven worlds he is sculpting, it would be considered a self-indulgent act of the ego and an intrusion. While the prismic breaking of harmonies into multitonal textures and rich harmonic coronas already provides for ample musical meat, a layer usually deridden as “sound effects” is furthermore starting to sing and emancipate at its perimeters..
This is why the shreaks of a crow or unidentifiable, growling hums can act as full-fledged themes here. Roach is no longer building landscapes from sound, he is recording “sounding” landscapes built on the most essential building blocks: Rhythm and harmony. The twelve tones of the western musical system are still his clay, but he is no longer attached to the meaning implied by tradition and general use, just as he is not bound by a destructive urge to contradict them.
“Landmass” continues the only tradition an honest artist can and should really be true to: His own. Despite the occasionally gloomy imagery this record is conveying: I don’t see Steve Roach turning sour any time soon. -Tobias Fischer