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Passing Strange: Directions in Electronic Music
Various artists
Broadvista Music, 2001
http://www.broadvista.com

        In the twenty-five or thirty years that ambient music has existed as a
genre, there are a few people who have been so influential in that genre
that they practially re-invented it. Steve Roach is one of these. Along with
his many collaborators, Roach gave us “desert spacemusic,” with its
windswept atmosphere, its floating chords, and its evocation of the classic
Southwestern landscape of emptiness, dust, mountains and sunbleached cow
skulls. Roach also enriched this genre with a reverent homage to Native
American (or Aboriginal) chants and percussion rhythms.

Now that the restless Roach has moved on to a more abstract cyber-sound and textural guitar playing, the “desert” genre continues with what I have often called the “School of Steve Roach,” a collection of ambient artists which numbers members in not only the USA but in Germany (Matthias Grassow, Amir Baghiri, and “Temps Perdu”) and Spain (Maximo Corbacho).

Perhaps Roach’s best inheritor is Biff Johnson, from Sacramento, who in his earliest albums stayed quite close to the Roach style, while adding another atmosphere of mining and industrial sound as well as his own bass playing. Over the years he has developed his own sound while remaining in the desert-ambient genre, and now presides over the label he founded, Broadvista Music, which features his own work as well as distributing that of other artists. Passing Strange is a compilation of favorite pieces by Johnson’s friends and collaborators.

Each one of these selections is top-flight ambient. Track 1, “Unanswered Questions” by John Pemble, is very much in the Roach/Johnson mode, with microtonal synthesizer note-clouds slowly spreading out and crossing each other in a vast sky of reverberation. Track 2, “The Coveted Mirror,” is by Jeff Karsin, who published his own challenging dronefest Pandataria in 2000. It is less Roachlike and more strictly drone-oriented than the rest of the album, and has a darker, more spooky sound than some of the other pieces. Track 3, “Blackbird,” by Mike Gustafson under the name of “The Autumn Project,” returns to the Roach repertoire of floating synthesizer chords, just on the verge of tonality, accompanied by rattles, “tribal” percussion, didgeridoo, and what sounds like heavy breathing.

Track 4, “Used and Left to Rust,” is by Brian Parnham, whose album The Broken Silence (2000) showed heavy Roach influence. So does this track, which is very much in the style of Roach’s 1993 and 1994 collaborations with Jorge Reyes and Suso Saiz under the name “Earth Island.” A slow, soaring melody is carried on an electric guitar, while synthesizer chords, mystical girl-voice, and didgeridoo accompany it. Rhythm is provided on clay pot percussion. Track 5, “Forward Steps” by Kirk Watson, is actually indebted more to Biff Johnson than to Roach ­ it’s a kind of third-generation desert ambient. It has Johnson’s lighter, more delicate synthesizer sound, while electronic rhythms tick along, punctuated by eerie electro-modified voices.

Biff Johnson’s own entry to the compilation, “Lupine,” (track 6) features his characteristic ethereal electronics, enriched with Roach’s rattles and “singing stones,” and moves into a steady rhythm sequence, around which electronic whizzes and zings flutter, suggesting insects and bats in an archetypal desert cave. The seventh and last track, David Hastings’ “Brush with the Lions,” is quite different from the others in the set, the only one which isn’t “desert space” at all. This piece combines driving techno-disco rhythms with digitally mangled urban pop a la “Pet Shop Boys,” as well as industrial noise and scattered bits of jungle sounds. It is hardly from Roach’s desert hermitage ­ it sounds more like an urban fantasy by those wry British technoids “The Orb.” Its dizzy mishmosh of assorted sounds is a perfect evocation not of the nostalgic world of the Old West, but the globalized chaos which we face every day, no matter where we are. Hannah M.G. Shapero 4/13/02 The Broken Silence by Brian Parnham Floating Point Records, 2000 http://www.floatingpointrecords.com This album by Brian Parnham is another entry from the “school of Steve Roach.” The sound-vocabulary that Parnham uses is very much like Roach’s, with floating synthesizer chords, rattles, rainsticks, ceramic percussion, gongs, sampled natural and man-made sounds, and didgeridoo notes. This is all enhanced and made rhythmic by the use of (digital) looping devices. But Parnham’s choice of chords and harmonies is somewhat different from Roach’s familiar gestures. Parnham’s sense of pacing and timing is much slower and more repetitive than Roach’s. He is less likely to change a musical formula in mid-stream than Roach, which means that he can, in places, go on too long with the same thing. The Broken Silence has three pieces on it, two shorter ones with an almost half-hour long piece in the middle. The first piece, “Forthcoming,” chugs along with a steady loop-driven rhythm, somewhat like Roach’s work in the mid-90’s on Origins and Artifacts. The second, long piece, “Solace in Solitude,” is again inspired by the longer slow ambient Roach works such as To the Threshold of Silence (from Roach’s World’s Edge,) or his later Slow Heat. “Solitude,” for most of its length, runs through a slowly repeating, softly played modal sequence on synthesizer, accented by various percussion sounds. Later on in the piece, the percussion noises collect together in a rather irregular rhythm, accompanied by eerie wails in the distance. The third piece on the album, “Silent Millennium,” is in my opinion the best, as it uses the familiar “floating chords” and percussion to build up an intense vision of “space desert,” In other passages it evokes surrealistic and disturbing vistas of modern ruins, even while incorporating (as the album claims) broadcasts recorded at the time of 1999 rolling into 2000. Brian Parnham, in his album notes, thanks Steve Roach for “initiation and telepathic assistance.” Whether this is serious or simply metaphorical, it shows that Parnham is very much in debt to the Tucson master. And, like all the other disciples in the “Roach school,” Parnham needs to find more of his own voice while still retaining the sense of wonder and vast open spaces that characterizes this “space desert” style. HMGS rating: 7 out of 10 Hannah M.G. Shapero, EER-MUSIC.com August 27, 2000

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