Steve Roach – Mystic Chords & Sacred Spaces

Mystic Chords & Sacred Spaces is one of ambient/soundscape artist Steve Roach’s most challenging and imposing releases to date. It is also one of his deepest, and offers new rewards with each listen.

This massive four-CD set is one of the most important ambient music releases in years. The set represents Roach’s music at its most ambient. The tracks leave behind the traditions of Western music – harmony, melody, regular rhythm and standard forms. While these elements are present, the focus of the music is abstract soundscapes.

Roach has explored this ambiguous territory to different extents on other albums. Structures from Silence, World’s Edge and many other of Roach’s releases focus on subtleties within soundscapes.

In most of his work, though, there is an element of the familiar, be it the beat of a drum machine or a sequenced melody. In Mystic Chords, these elements of familiarity are gone, and Roach’s drifting soundscapes become the foreground.

Like other ambient music, it can be listened to as a sonic background. On first listen, the music wafts past your ears and floats in and out of your consciousness. The 4 CDs collect a variety of tracks that feature similar qualities, so they can be listened to as one massive ambient soundscape.

The music rewards closer listening, too, though. Each of the tracks vary in emphasis and the sounds they explore.

The cover of the Mystic Chords and Sacred Spaces CDs features a beautiful illustration of what looks like a nautilus shell. The shell’s spirals seem to recede into infinity, so no matter how closely you look, you realize that there is more to see.

This imagery seems to capture the spirit of these CDs. The closer you listen to them, the more you details you hear. By encouraging you to listen for subtleties in the sounds, Roach seems to be trying to reveal an infinity of detail.

This music is challenging, in many ways. Roach has dispensed with the standard building blocks of music, such as clear rhythms or melodies. It’s also a massive work, like a Wagnerian Ring Cycle of ambient music. Some listeners may be put off by this and yearn for the reassurance of a melody or a beat.

It’s probably safe to say, too, that this music may be difficult to understand, for listeners used to the familiar rhythms of pop music or the standard forms of classical music. Roach’s work here explores a completely different world of musical expression. The tracks on these CDs are continuous soundscapes, and often explore dark and dissonant territory.

Listeners that yield to the subtlety of Roach’s ambient textures, though, will find the pieces rich and rewarding. Roach has created an extended work, avoiding traditional western musical techniques, that succeeds in exploring the beauty and mystery of pure sound.

The music challenges the listener to hear sound and music with fresh ears. Roach combines synthetic sounds with organic movement, giving electronic sounds the sensuality of flowing water or the wind. It also challenges the listener to slow down and become aware of the music’s details.

Active listeners may find themselves finding connections and distinctions between the pieces that Roach consciously or unconsciously incorporated into the work.

The music also has a spiritual quality, as suggested by the title. This spiritual quality captures the sense of mystery and awe that vast landscapes or massive interiors can inspire.

Finally, Mystic Chords and Sacred Spaces seems to be a challenge to skeptics that may think that ambient music can’t encompass a huge range of human emotion and experiences.

This release is available as a four CD set, or as two double CDs.

On Disc 1, Mystic Chords and Sacred Spaces, Roach explores drone-based soundscapes. Roach treats digital reverb almost as another instrument, so that the echo of a sound is as important as the sound itself. The music on this disc is restful, but has a mysterious quality resulting from the way Roach plays with ambiguous tonalities.

Disc 2, Labyrinth, has a darker, more mysterious feel to it. This CD has ten tracks that take the listener into even less familiar territory. Roach’s titles capture the mood of these tracks perfectly: The Otherworld, Slowly Dissolve, Womb of Night, Wordless and Nameless.

The disc starts with Wren and Raven, which includes what sounds like sampled bird calls. This is combined with dark synth drones. The result is a landscape that seems not quite familiar, almost as if you’re leaving the world you know behind. The rest of the tracks on CD 2 explore soundscapes that seem more dissonant than Disc 1. While the first CD has a sense of awe and mystery, Labyrinth mixes in hints of loneliness and fear of the unknown.

The third disc, Recent Future, explores a wide range of moods and sounds. This CD starts with Open Heart, a track that combines synth soundscapes and quiet percussion work. This transitions into Turn Into Light. It’s built around a continuously shifting drone, combining the comfort of repetition with the wonder of newness.

Left Perfectly Alone is a short gem. A chord sequence repeats itself exquisitely slowly, just audible through the deep reverberant sound space. Another highlight is Turning Back, which seems to explore the idea that repetition is a form of change. A sequence of chords repeats through the piece as an ambient wall of sound builds and builds. By the middle of the piece, the background ambience almost overwhelms the sequenced chords before it fades away again.

Disc 4, Piece of Infinity, is probably the most subtle of the tracks on all of Mystic Chords and Sacred Spaces. It is one long track, built on slow repetition of musical material that changes slightly over time. This track seems close in construction and mood to some of Brian Eno’s ambient work, where sound events have varying cycles that combine with the infinite variety of nature.

It’s tranquil, meditative music, and it is full of the eerie wonder that permeates the whole four-cd work.

With Mystic Chords and Sacred Spaces, Steve Roach has created a subtle work of great beauty. It’s a massive work that rewards whatever depth of attention a listener brings to it. The music challenges the listener to leave behind traditional ideas of music, and listen to the soundscapes with virgin ears.

The release is unique among Roach’s work, and reveals an audacity, confidence and freedom that Roach has earned.

Highly recommended!

The full four-cd set is available via Steve Roach’s web site.

Disc 1: Mystic Chords & Sacred Spaces

  1. Palace of Nectar
  2. Oracle
  3. Within the Mystic
  4. Presence
  5. Vortex Ring

Disc 2: Labyrinth

  1. Wren and Raven
  2. The Otherworld
  3. Wonderworld
  4. Threshold
  5. Dream Body
  6. Slowly Dissolve
  7. Womb of Night
  8. Soulwave
  9. Wordless
  10. Nameless

Disc 3: Recent Future

  1. Open Heart
  2. Turn to Light
  3. Shift the Dimension
  4. This Moment is a Memory
  5. This Moment is Another Memory
  6. Slightly Below
  7. Essence of Phaedra
  8. Left Perfectly Alone
  9. A Subtle Body Current
  10. Personal Nature
  11. Grounding Place
  12. Turning Back
  13. The Spiral of Time’s Fire Burns On

Disc 4: Piece of Infinity

  1. Piece of Infinity

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