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Passing Strange: Directions in Electronic Music
Various artists
Broadvista Music, 2001

        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 Listen to samples & Buy CDs/DVDs here

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Mirage at the Crossroads by Biff Johnson BroadVista Records, 1999 Mirage at the Crossroads is Biff Johnson's second album of electronic experimental music. As with his first one, Reading the Bones, its final production is by Steve Roach in his "Timeroom" studio in Arizona. But though Johnson remains definitely in the "school of Steve Roach," this album shows that he is finding his own individual voice. Though he uses most of the same elements that Roach does, such as floating synthesizer chords and unconventional percussion, he has built his own sound with them. He may be using the same language as Roach, but he is saying different things. As a bass player, Johnson brings a jazz influence to this usually unstructured type of music; you can hear the subtle sounds of Johnson's bass guiding the drifting masses of formless harmony into a soft order. He also likes to use recognizable chords out of jazz harmony, though in brief fragments, such as in track 2, "Urban Initiation," rather than the more dissonant tone-clusters of Roach. Johnson is still working within the soundworld of the American Southwest; but unlike Roach's sunstruck, endless vistas, Biff Johnson seems to evoke the underground world of the mines beneath that desert surface. His percussion notes sound like miners' picks and shovels, drips of water, the clink of stones – a "mineraloid" sound which brings a harder mood than most of Roach's work. Synthesizers simulate the cries of birds and the chitter of bats. There is also, in some tracks, an "industrial" sound of clanks and engine whirrs – the machinery of the mines, and a chainlike sound (made by a metal Slinky-toy) in track 3. And in track 1, "Five Sticks Burning," Johnson depicts the sound of a desert mine train, the rumble and click of rails and its shrieking whistle in the distance. This album does not depend on simulated "tribal" rhythms to drive it along; there is little direct evocation of anything Native American, except perhaps in the somewhat "jungle-styled" track 8, "Badaraca" (which to me sounds inconsistent with the theme of the rest of the album). Most of Johnson's rhythms are those of mechanical devices, and the sounds, even from "natural" instruments, are used to paint a dark, spooky picture, a stark vision of abandoned mines, dead technology, rusting slag. It is both beautiful and chilling, scary and graceful. The pace does tend to move slowly, and at almost 73 minutes it is a long listen. But it's an enthralling one, if, like me, you like to gaze towards the darker horizon of the futuristic desert. HMGS Rating: 8 Hannah M.G.Shapero, 10/6/99 Listen to samples & Buy CDs/DVDs here

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