April 28, 2009

Steve Roach – The Magnificent Void (1996, Fathom)

This is another “all-time favorite” ambient album. Steve Roach has been prolifically releasing albums since the mid-‘80s, to the point where he now has an astonishing back-catalog of nearly a hundred releases! His style ranges from drifting tonal ambient music to tribal, pulse-driven textures utilizing traditional ethnic sound sources like didgeridoos and frame drums. Some of his work focuses on layers of shimmering arpeggiated synthesizer sequences slowly morphing over long periods of time, while other works have a more formless, drifting essence. Whatever elements are utilized on any given album, Roach’s music is always meant for deep listening, mental journeying and transcendental experience. In fact Steve used to sell padded eye-masks on his website along with his CDs, suggesting that listeners immerse themselves fully in the listening experience. At the time I found this album I was reading a lot of material by consciousness gurus like Tim Leary, Terence McKenna and John Lilly, as well as Stanislav Grof’s book The Holotropic Mind. I can’t recall if I found The Magnificent Void while searching for Grof, or if it was just a coincidence, but the album features a long quote from The Holotropic Mind on the back cover, and the music is Roach’s attempt to embody the transpersonal experience of “the void.” The music is a perfect fit for this concept, like the sounds of an out-of-body-experience captured on CD. The mood is hardly “chill out” or “new age-y” ambient, rather thick clouds of sound unfold and envelope the listener, slowly dissolving and shifting as time passes. There is a sense of mystery, of being lost and moving through unknown sonic territory. The sound is from electronic sources, but has been so heavily processed through Roach’s racks of equipment that it is impossible to point to any recognizable, “earthly” sounds. On the proper sound system this album can be a very visceral, intense experience, and still sounds fresh today, thirteen years after its release.