Steve Roach

If you had predicted in 1975 that a motocross-loving aspiring young sculptor out of San Diego would in latter days become one of the key figures of American ambient electronic music, not many may have necessarily taken you up on it. But such is the background of Steve Roach, who following participation in the early LA synthpop group Moebius struck out on his own with his 1982 solo debut Now. Freely admitting inspiration from such figures as Klaus Schulze and Tangerine Dream’s Edgar Froese, Roach achieved his breakthrough with his third album, 1984’s Structures From Silence, a showcase for his abilities to create involving, lengthy compositions matching the intensity and beauty of his lodestone artists. He began a run of releases that brought initial attention in new age circles in particular on the Fortuna and Hearts of Space labels, including his highly acclaimed Dreamtime Return double CD as well the first of many collaborative releases with simpatico figures such as Robert Rich, Michael Stearns and Jorge Reyes, among others.

Further into the 1990s and beyond, Roach concentrated on a regular string of releases via his Timeroom label while also becoming a stalwart of the Projekt label, whose founder Sam Rosenthal balanced his goth roots with a deep love for the electronic ambience that Roach had mastered. This helped move Roach out of ‘just’ being a new age artist to new, wider areas of appreciation, matched with increasingly elaborate, multi-CD offerings where he explored themes and approaches ranging from calm serenity to energetic, darker-toned efforts. Further collaborators such as Vidna Obmana, Erik Wøllo and Bryon Metcalf among others worked on releases with Roach, who also worked to present his material live in regular festival and one-off appearances around the world. Working out of his long established studio and domestic space in Arizona, Roach further embraced new technological possibilities by establishing subscription services to archival material via Bandcamp along with presenting further new work alongside more formal album releases as he went. By 2022, his fortieth year as a solo artist, Roach remained on the steady record and release pace he had happily found for himself, continuing to explore the possibilities of now-classic electronic synthesizer setups for himself as well as for listeners old and new entranced by his approach.

Dynamic Stillness cover

One of Steve Roach’s darkest works, 2009’s Dynamic Stillness plays out across two CDs and earns every minute, a remarkable demonstration of his abilities to create haunted and chilled electronic atmospheres and compositions without being simply alienating or forbidding. Beginning with the forty minute long “Birth of Still Places,” with deep echoing tones set against a quiet, soft motif that provides a strange anchor, Dynamic Stillness embodies the seeming contradiction of its name by feeling like energetic motion without a single beat or rhythm of note.

Vine ~ Bark & Spore cover

The second in Steve Roach’s irregular series of collaborations with Jorge Reyes, 2000’s Vine ~ Bark & Spore is another example of Roach’s interest in exploring the sense of what a ritual or spiritual event might be like via sound and atmosphere, in this case seeming to suggest something serene but still strange in a possible jungle setting. Titles like “The Holy Dirt” and “Healing Temple” underscore that aspect, but as a listening experience in and of itself it’s an agreeably mysterious and gentle one, with suffused echo adding to a sense of mystery.

Sigh Of Ages cover

Though the cover art might suggest this is Steve Roach going full-on goth, that’s not exactly the case with 2010’s Sigh of Ages. The liner notes speak of months of regular meditation leading up to the release, and there’s a strong feeling of a calming center being sought in how the music gently but not ominously sets a reflective, enveloping tone from the start with “Quelling Place.” Roach’s gift for seemingly simple constructions turning into entrancing moods remains paramount, and even what may seem a po-faced title in “Sentient Breath” suits the song well.

Quiet Music cover

Compiling the three similarly titled cassettes he released in 1986 into one extensive three hour deep dive, Quiet Music found Steve Roach presenting a variety of compositions done both solo and in collaboration with others between 1983 and 1986. On the one hand it’s something of an addendum and catch-all in the wake of Structures From Silence, but it’s also an early example of Roach’s incredibly steady and consistent work rate, where the process of recording mesmerizing electronic meditations is as important as the enjoyable end results.

Structures from Silence cover

Steve Roach already had a couple of engaging releases under his belt prior to the release of Structures From Silence, showcasing his already committed approach to the exploratory electronic school of acts like Tangerine Dream and Klaus Schulze. But Structures was the breakout moment, three lengthy tracks that remain among the most emotionally stirring and serenely memorable in his extensive catalog, including the half-hour long title track and especially the muted fanfare of “Quiet Friend,” which has become a regular live standard.

The Road Eternal cover

The second of Roach’s collaborations with Norwegian guitarist/ambient composer Erik Wøllo, 2011’s The Road Eternal, thanks partially to its cover art invoking the Arizona deserts he calls home, finds Roach in one of his most serenely uplifting modes, where the road in question feels like a soaring progression. The easy flow of the opening title track sets the stage beautifully, settling into a quick sequencer pulse, and further pieces like “The Next Place” and “Travel by Moonlight” convey an overall sense of motion towards a stopping point never reached.

The Magnificent Void cover

Steve Roach’s varied work in electronics ranges from gentle warmth to forbidding sublimity, and with 1996’s The Magnificent Void he created one of his masterpieces in the latter category, holding a key place in the canon of his many listeners since. Created at a time when the concept of ‘dark ambient’ was starting to be more widely understood and interpreted worldwide, The Magnificent Void, besides having a title that couldn’t be more perfect, extended Roach’s love for his 1970s inspirations into the deepest of farthest space, a full trip and then some.

Ascension of Shadows cover

One of Steve Roach’s most regular collaborators over time has been Belgium’s equally steadily prolific Dirk Serries, who worked under the Vidna Obmana moniker for many years, and it’s little surprise that their equivalent interest in deep electronic meditations were simpatico. The three disc Ascension of Shadows, originally released in 1999 as a marking of the impending millennium, is arguably the logical end point of their maximalist sides (in length if not necessarily sonically) nearly four hours of enveloping compositions that each fill their respective discs beautifully.

Dreamtime Return cover

Starting in 1987, Steve Roach spent some years recording and releasing formal collaborative efforts, another one of his continuing practices as a whole – but there was one big exception, an album whose long-term impact was as deeply felt as Structures From Silence. Dreamtime Return, developed partially as a soundtrack to David Stahl’s Art Of The Dreamtime film on the deep culture of Indigenous Australians, was recorded with a number of performers, a fascinating blend of traditional instrumentation and the deep flow of Roach’s electronics.

The Serpent’s Lair cover

One of Steve Roach’s more extensive releases at 2 CDs, The Serpent’s Lair is also one of his more notable collaborations, formally credited as well to djembe player/drummer Byron Metcalf with further assistance from percussionist Jeffrey Fayman. Very much in the fusion spirit of Dreamtime Return with its similar blend of acoustic beats and textured electronics, The Serpent’s Lair has its own moody power, with Metcalf’s contributions adding both propulsion and a further air of sonic possibilities to Roach’s ever accomplished synthesizer performances.

Early Man cover

First released in 2000 as a single disc and then rereleased in 2001 with a ‘decomposed’ bonus disc reworking the material on the original release, Early Man is one of Steve Roach’s most involving and fascinating efforts, a sonic portrayal of, indeed, prehistoric humanity, with all the suggestive mystery that still implies. The song titles alone like “Walking Upright” and “Mastodon” do part of the heavy lifting but the blend of instrumentation throughout results in an engaging sense of being wordlessly immersed in a natural world at once familiar and deeply strange.

Bloom Ascension cover

Steve Roach’s work has been so suited for the CD and then the streaming era that it’s sometimes hard to remember a time when he was limited to vinyl and cassette length options. But Roach himself hasn’t forgotten and in the same way he carefully works with older gear as desired, 2019’s Bloom Ascension is a self-conscious and striking callback to those days. Consisting of four short pieces, the longest at sixteen minutes and the shortest at six, it’s a lovely dip into a favored blend of floating textures and bubbling sequencer progressions.

The Passing cover

Released on the occasion of Steve Roach’s 62nd birthday, The Passing serves as a notable marking point for someone who has over the course of innumerable albums explored the concept of timelessness or at least how the pursuit of deep electronic composition via both meditative and propulsive structures can lead to other states. Consisting of a single hour long piece, The Passing feels like a summary of all those facets of Roach’s work, a progression that involves no motion.

Immersion: One cover

One of Steve Roach’s most involving series of releases, the Immersion sequence, began with this 2006 one-disc effort, consisting solely of the title track. It’s a well-named effort all around because over its entire length it feels quite simply like just that, a capturing of a perfect form of stasis that is very, very subtly cyclical if not actually rhythmic, but otherwise in its blend of various parts feels like a sinking into a true ocean of open-ended sound. Saying it’s a perfect flotation tank soundtrack is one thing, but it honestly feels more like melting into open space.

Tomorrow cover

Even the impact of COVID couldn’t slow Steve Roach – if anything perhaps it gave him even more time to compose and create, and 2020’s Tomorrow, recorded in spring and summer of that first terrible year, was one of the most engaging and inspiring releases of his long career. With a deep texture and sense of interwoven layers that his sometimes more straightforward if still striking improvisations don’t always capture, Tomorrow showed that Roach’s gift for electronic composition and compelling mood remained as strong as ever.

Kiva cover

It’s often through his collaborations that Steve Roach explores more explicitly specifically ritualistic work, and 1995’s Kiva, a joint effort with fellow synthesists Michael Stearns and Ron Sunsinger, demonstrates that to the full, growing out of various recordings made by Sunsinger of Native ritual events in both North and South America. Roach’s own running interest in music drawing on indigenous ceremonies certainly helped, and the resulting blend of the field recordings and understated electronic elements is an at-times striking fusion of old and new.

Trance Spirits cover

One of the more inspired and intriguing collaborative efforts one can find, this 2002 partnership between ambient composer Steve Roach and percussionist Jeffrey Fayman not only includes another fellow drummer, Momodou Kah, but another musician Fayman has worked with various times over the years: King Crimson mainman Robert Fripp. Trance Spirits avoids a too-many-cooks scenario by splitting its core balance between the two drummers’ sometimes frenetic work and Roach’s moody electronic float, with Fripp’s additions adding extra elan.

Mystic Chords & Sacred Spaces cover

Steve Roach’s extensive series of albums regularly fill up a CD’s worth of music but 2003’s Mystic Chords and Sacred Spaces, in its final compiled form drawing on earlier partial releases, reaches a notable height even for him in its filled-to-the-brim four CD sprawl. It’s an earned effort, though: across the first three CDs of a series of individual songs and concluding with the over-an-hour-long “Piece of Infinity,” Mystic Chords showcases Roach’s sense of gentle warmth offset with a hint of his more mysterious, alien-tone side, music to truly get lost within.

Dust To Dust cover

One of Steve Roach’s many collaborative efforts, done with guitarist and bassist Roger King, 1998’s Dust to Dust is also one of his most striking and unique, an evocation of the high desert country where he has lived and worked for many years. With King’s murmuring bass work and especially his country-blues acoustic guitar at various points set against Roach’s keen sense for electronics shaping vast sonic spaces, the result is an appropriately shimmering hybrid that feels like it could soundtrack either a drama or documentary in such a geographic setting.

Back to Life cover

Steve Roach’s sense of what to do with his electronic approach, whether aiming for a warm embrace or a cold power or any number of styles in between, means that there’s music for almost any mood he’s composed, and 2012’s Back To Life is one of his stronger efforts on that warm front in particular. Starting with the calm, gentle float “Where Rasa Lives,” Back to Life covers a first CD’s worth of interwoven compositions before a second disc captures one long composition, “Mist of Perception,” as a complement and conclusion to the whole experience.

Shfl