Steve Roach Brings Down the Heavens
Steve Roach closed his more than two hour performance on Saturday night at The Gatherings Concert Series with an unceremoniously truncated “Structures from Silence,” one of his signature works. In newspaper terms, that’s called burying the lead, which Roach did in this expansive concert that found the highly regarded electronic musician taking a sold out crowd into largely uncharted terrain.
Steve Roach is a musician who paints in panoramas. Textures and pulses are his palette with little in the way of conventional melody or rhythm. And although he was surrounded by several electronic keyboards, his music has little to do with keyboards at all.
Having said that, Roach did open his concert planted front of altar, behind a lone, Nord Lead synthesizer, drawing out long, luminous drones that played out into twilight space. This served as an alap that drifted into deeper textures as Roach moved into his electronic cockpit, summoning up synthesizer growls, cosmic string swells and distressed textures. As the piece traveled on, fuzz tone horns brayed a clarion call as if signaling the last charge of a Viking tribe.
Those expecting the intricate analog sequencer dervish of his recent album, Skeleton Keys or the tribal moods of his 1990s work would be disappointed. Roach left his monster modular system and didgeridoo home and instead came with a collection of digital keyboards, mixers and computers, the latter of which was the main instrument of this show as programmed sequences, sounds, textures and percussion rolled out.
After what turned out to be a long prelude, the more recent 21st century Roach sound emerged chirping sequencers rising through filter sweeps and manic hi-hats slid in brush-stroked frenzy. His movements ascended to sometimes scary peaks before dissolving into the faintest of whispers of barely there wind-swept expanses and voices sitting at the edge of comprehension.
Out of the near silence, a jungle awakened to the dawn, chirping electronic creatures sending out semaphore signals in a fog shrouded valley. As a-rhythmic and a-melodic tension builds the drums of doom emerge like storm troopers on steroids, big thunderous claps of percussion dancing to voodoo machine music.
Even with tribal percussion, Roach never hit anything that might be considered a groove. Instead, over the course of 2 plus hours, he ebbed and flowed on usually beatless shores. Space probe melodies emerged amidst sweeping strings; a chrome-plated piano sounded like Conlon Nancarrow in a trance. Finally, 2 hours in, Roach brought out a classic Berlin-school sequencer groove that dissolved into more sonic abstractions and just as you thought it was ending, he segued into another section.
Steve Roach is a musician who never met a period. There were several times where it felt like he’d reached a satisfying conclusion, only to move into another section. His set was supposed to be 90 minutes long but it cascaded over 2 hours. I’m not sure if he was going to actually play “Structures from Silence,” or just leave it as a fragmentary commentary on his legacy. If he had played it, “Structures” would’ve added another 30 minutes to the set, but after a few of the opening chords, he was given the hook by The Gatherings organizer Chuck Van Zyl who was facing venue time constraints.
Steve Roach has evolved considerably since his early sequencer days. He really shouldn’t be considered a New Age or Space musician at all anymore. Roach is an avant-garde artist working in sonic textures closer to Karlheinz Stockhausen’s ‘Aus Den Sieben Tagen” than anything Tangerine Dream or Klaus Schulze ever purveyed. His is the art of the studio taken to extremes, which is why I find his concerts a little disappointing. There is very little that Roach plays live. Most of his music is running off of the two computers. Except for one segment where he blew into something that looked like a mutant ocarina designed by HR Giger, he spends most of his time tweaking faders and knobs with an occasional touch or chord on a keyboard. In that way, his performances are much like those of EDM artists, except he isn’t waving his hands in the air.
The opening set from Jeffrey Koepper provided the contrast that revealed just how far Roach has moved from conventional electronic and space music. A synthesist from Baltimore his sound is something like 70s Tangerine Dream channeled through Roach’s 80s electronic excursions. He created some wonderful, analog synth space, opening with oscillating electronic chimes that cycled over a filter swept drone before fading in a familiar sequencer pattern over which he soloed. As his set seamlessly progressed Mellotron-like flutes called out like ethereal wood sprites in his electronic forest and sequencer grooves powered through starfields of sound while textural layers built on top. It was made more vibrant by the “liveness” of his playing. Although he had a computer as well, there was a lot of live soloing and manipulation. It was a tight 40 minute set by a musician who has mastered the tropes of space-electronic music, but it also could have been performed 30 years ago.