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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 Pandataria by Jeff Karsin Private release, 2000 c/o Jeff Karsin P.O. Box 2537 Taos, NM 87571 Pandataria, which has the distinction of being “mastered” by Robert Rich, is a journey into the drone zone. This is definitely in the department of “drone ambient,” an extreme form of ambient in which there is no rhythm and all notes are long and sustained. “Drone” is an acquired taste, but once you have acquired it, there is actually an aesthetic to it, which allows the listener to both appreciate and evaluate it. How, then, do you tell whether your drone is “good stuff” or “bad?” First, you must stay awake, unless you are listening to one of Robert Rich’s “sleep” concerts. It is no accident that Rich produced this album ­ Karsin takes a lot of influence from that master of cataleptic ambient atmospheres. Second, if you are awake, then you listen for whether he picks interesting sounds to hold onto, or whether he chooses ugly noise. Third, even drone ambient has harmony. Does your drone man choose interesting chords and tone-clusters for his layered synthesizer tones, or does he use incoherent, dull, or banal harmonies. Fourth, do things change as the sound goes along? Does it get louder or softer, does he introduce new harmonies, does he (yikes!) change key? Fifth, if you’ve managed to listen to more than 10 minutes of it, are you bored out of your skull, or have you moved into a nicer mood, more meditative, more relaxed? Or, on the other side, are you suitably disturbed or scared? I’m pleased to say that Jeff Karsin, most of the time, manages to produce material that satisfies at least 3 or 4 of those criteria, in places even all 5. In many of the pieces, like track 2, “Creatures that May,” or the bizarrely titled “Apple from a Dead Pig’s Mouth,” (track 6) he expands his drones into the realm of spooky and dissonant “dark ambient.” But there are also long passages of atonal crushed electronics which aren’t exactly dinnertime music. This album, like most “drone ambient,” is for the specialized listener. From the connoisseur’s point of view, this is a good album of its kind. Anyone else is advised to listen at their own discretion. HMGS rating: 6 out of 10 5/21/01



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