Steve Roach's Tomorrow: Echoes January 2021 CD of the Month
by John Diliberto12/31/2020
Tomorrow. That’s a pretty simple, maybe even clichéd title, but perhaps never more appropriately applied than to the music of Steve Roach, who has been making the music of tomorrow since his debut album in 1982, Now. That may seem like a contradictory title in the context I’ve established, but even then I thought of it as the “future now.”
I’m writing some of this review in a tire shop getting my winter snows mounted. But with my Bose headphones on, silencing the din, Steve Roach has already taken me out of this dismal waiting room and sent me soaring through symmetrical space. Sequencer patterns ping pong in delay, left and right, while mechanized arpeggios course though filter sweeps.
Tomorrow continues down the modular analog synthesizer path that Steve Roach has been tracking for about five years since Skeleton Keys was released in 2015. (Also a CD of the Month.) It’s a more metallic sound than his earlier work and certainly less sonically organic than his techno-tribal recordings. It’s a sound that exults in sculpting patterns in space. That’s established on the opening title track, which drives relentlessly across its 20 minutes until coursing out in synth pads at the end. As Michael Stearns said in our Steve Roach Mini-Doc, “He’s taken his sequencing to a level that Tangerine Dream just never got to.”
“A Different Today” takes me back a bit to albums like Empetus, as synthesizer pads swirl amidst multiple, muffled, thudding sequencer patterns that plunge in counterpoint through the fog like a train traveling through a shrouded night, finally dissolving in spectral lights.
The fade-in and fade-outs of tracks like “Spiral of Strength” suggest that some of these are pieces sliced out of longer sessions, as Roach improvises, carving sound out of circuits, manipulating his complex array of synth modules as if he’s trying to tune-in the universe. One of the shorter pieces, “Spiral of Strength” is one of the most compelling on the album, a heroic journey of sequencers that percolate in moiré patterns played out under the slow motion swell of synth chords.
There is a minimalist sensibility to a lot of this music, in the sense of Philip Glass and Steve Reich minimalism. Roach establishes a pattern of sequencer arpeggios and tiny melodic fragments and then manipulates them, altering filters, timbres and notes, creating a sound with a fluid plasticity. And there is no denying the 70s German space music influences here, in particular on “HeartBreath” with its slow moving pulse, ratcheting electronic percussive effects, and oceanic synthesizer swells.
Tomorrow is an album born in pandemic. The title was composed in the immediate aftermath of Roach’s cancelled March performance in New York City this past year. A musician who is, by nature, introspective, it brought Roach into deeper considerations of the culture and the landscape and what happens on the other side of Pandemic. It called to mind the lyrics of Peter Hammill’s “The Future Now,” lightly altered here:
I want the future now
I want to hold it in my hands
I want to break the bounds
I want the promised land
I don’t know if Steve Roach can bring us to the promised land, but he can open a window to it, and Tomorrow does just that.