Who was it who said electronic and music don’t always share a bunk? It doesn’t really matter. Ambient music can be a rather sticky topic to debate, so let’s not bother. One man’s music is another man’s molasses, as they say. Now, Steve Roach’s story is quite something, the meticulous sculpting of an American legend in ambient electronic music. Once upon a time, Steve also dabbled in the kind of high voltage, pulsating sequencer studies that Tangerine Dream and Klaus Schulze nurtured from infancy back in the 1970s. Sometime, around 1988, Steve’s juggling act dropped that ball in favor of balancing his “ambient space” side with a sound inspired by indigenous tribal & aboriginal music—a shift set into motion by a visit to the Australian Outback and the subsequent release of the double-length Dreamtime Return. To make a long story short, Steve’s discography has grown in size during the last fifteen years to nothing short of voluminous, and he's collaborated with the likes of, among others, Djam Karet, Vidna Obmana, Robert Rich, Michael Shrieve and Kit Watkins. The new Steve Roach album is a colossal four-disc opus named Mystic Chords & Sacred Spaces [note: only CD1 and CD2 have been made available to reviewers—CD3 and CD4 will not be discussed]. Obviously inspired by Klaus Schulze’s Moondawn and Timewind records, and Edgar Froese’s Aqua, Roach began perfecting his ambient game with 1984’s Structures From Silence (his fourth album), and the Quiet Music series in 1986. The music on isn't vastly dissimilar by any means, but much more textured and pristine, thanks in no small part to modern production values and the ability to present long-stretching pieces on CD.
The listener who wants to fill a gap in their music collection with at least one long-running ambient release will probably have to look no further: Mystic Chords & Sacred Spaces is Roach at his quintessentially spaciest, every track indexed yet connected, ushering forth reams of cascading drones and breves that unfurl and glide at an undefined pace. That is the most important tenet of this suubgenre—the undefined. There is no set scheme, no template, no manifesto. Treble and bass clefs have no true role here, the focus sounds to be purely modal—tones don’t serve a clinical purpose, which is why lovers of spacemusic revel in its soothing graces. The argument that may eventually surface (though not for all) is…is there a point to all of this? What has Roach accomplished here that he already hasn’t? Isn’t this simply more of the same? Nothing and everything, and yes and no. The combined thirty-four minutes of “Palace Of Nectar” and “Oracle” exemplify that ambient music is the most pretense-exempt form since jazz~rock fusion; there are no surprises, its devotees know what to expect. CD1 is the album’s namesake, with no single track less than roughly twelve minutes in length, and each one ambiguously-titled, e.g. “Presence” and “Vortex Ring.” Again, abstraction displaces definition.
CD2 is subtitled Labyrinth, and continues the odyssey into mystical space; “Wren and Raven” mingles birdsongs with synthtones that drone unto infinity to offset an otherwise familiar mood. “Otherworld” and “Wonderworld” finds the sonic colorations darkening and gradually growing more dissonant to paint the cavernous metarealm of the astral voyager. One of the best pieces, arguably, is “Dream Body,” a dark tapestry of nongratuitous murkiness which momentarily supplants my yearning for one of those great Schulzian sequences from Empetus to spring from the void and shatter the null-effect. Emergence from the Labyrinth is experienced via “Slowly Dissolve,” “Soulwave,” and the blandly-titled “Wordless” and “Nameless,” which frankly, aren’t very engaging—more gratification may be gained from softly shaking a beer can and placing your ear close to its porthole. The latest of Steve Roach’s myriad adventures draws to a close—his is a very familiar name, which is no small feat in and of itself.