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Steve Roach & Byron Metcalf: Dream Tracker / Nada Terma

img  Tobias Fischer

With a youth mainly spent gazing at nature in solitude and the better part of his adulthood living in the middle of the desert, Steve Roach has always been something of a loner. And yet, his discography and progress as an artist have always been decisively stimulated by collaborations. Over the years, Roach has worked with a wide range of musicians from the most diverse corners of the musical spectrum, including Tibetan monk Thupten Pema Lama (on Prayers for the Protector), legendary drummer Michael Shrieve (The Leaving Time), King Crimson's Robert Fripp (Trance Spirits), Belgian ambient master vidnaObmana (on a string of now classic works from the mid-90s onwards) as well as late Mexican electronica-poet Jorge Reye. Each of these endeavours, which have ranged from personal studio- and live-sessions to the exchange of files through the web and from intimate duo constellations to large-scale groups – 2000's epic double-disc set The Serpent's Lair featured an all-star ensemble of friends and colleagues - has brought Roach in touch with new philosophies, each has allowed him to realise his solo oeuvre with even more precision. Some of these collaborations have been short-lived and purely project-based. And then, there have been a handfull of like-minded musicians, which have accompanied him for long stretches of his otherwise solitary path. Starting with his contribution to aforementioned Serpent's Lair, Arizona-based drummer Byron Metcalf is one of them.

The mutual sensation of having found a kindred spirit may have played a part in this now over a decade long creative partnership. Just like Roach's, Metcalf's childhood was mainly spent living with and inside of music after having seen The Gene Krupa Story twice in a row as a little boy. Both, too, share an interest in expanded states of awareness and of facilitating access to them through music. Just like sounds take on an unusual plasticity and deeper meaning in Roach's oeuvre, drumming, for Metcalf, is a tool of changing a listener's perception and of making him susceptible to experiences that lie hidden beneath the surface or far beyond his regular horizon. While Roach-epics like the essentially open-ended works of the Immersion-series have dealt with hypnagogue states of both extreme calm and concentration, Metcalf aims at activating potentials through movement. As he has pointed out, the quality of his percussive work relies on the fact that steady, monotonous pulses at 220 beats per minute will, after a quarter of an hour at most, begin to shift the listener's brainwaves into the theta-levels associated with trance and dream. In combining the unfathomable depth of Roach's multifarious sound layers and the hypnotic potential of Metcalf's shamanic grooves, the music attains an irresistible pull and a stimulating power, which is strangely at odds with many outsider's perception of ambient as a genre aimed at relaxation and comfort zones.

It is a potential further increased and expanded upon on two recent releases with befriended musicians, both of which highlight entirely different aspects of their collaboration and demonstrate the kind of flexibility it allows for. Last year's Dream Tracker marks their first musical encounter with Dashmesh Khalsa, whose talents as a tabla-virtuoso and didgeridoo-player on his solo debut Fusion have already raised the interest of Bill Laswell. With Khalsa aged twenty-two, this is clearly not just a meeting between like-minded colleagues, but an intergenerational exchange as well. His youthful energy and enthusiasm certainly seem to have colored off on Dream Tracker, which contains comparatively to-the-point pieces around the ten-minute-mark (miniatures in the world of Roach and Metcalf), all but unanimously radiating optimism, confidence and a general mood of departure and expectation. It is also one of the most diverse collections any of these musicians has ever been a part of, ranging from the luminous drift of „Dreamtime Alchemy“, propelled forward by Mercalf's frame drums like a sailboat on a summer breeze horizon, to the melodic bliss of „From the Inside“ and the majestic trod of „Thunder Walk“.

The contrast with Nada Terma could hardly be more striking. Here, Khalsa is replaced with practising psychiatrist and shaman Mark Seelig, another long-term companion, with whom Roach first established contact in 2003. Not only does Seelig add different colours to the equation by contributing flute- and dilruba-lines and overtone singing. His participation also shifts the music into darker, more mystical territory, into a realm of inwardness, reflection and infinite, borderless space. Eschewing Dream Tracker's clearly delineated pieces, all of which work on their own, Nada Terma has rightly been described by the participants as a „continuous flow in seven parts“, with each movement feeding from and building on the other as the musicians carve out a single mood in ever more detail and relief. The patience and serenity on display here is remarkable - Metcalf doesn't even come in before the twenty-minute mark. Once he's in, though, he doesn't stop playing for a full fifty minutes, constantly varying his rhythms, conducting the ensemble from the front and leading the music through movements of slow-grooving sensuality and all-but complete standstill. There is an undeniably sacred mood to these time-suspending procedures, all of which are underpinned by Roach's „drones, zones and atmospheres“, continually changing in timbre and tone, yet forever remaining in the sun-tone of c, thereby creating the impression of witnessing a ritual, a passage intended to lead one straight into an altered mode of perception.

The differences in composition are a direct result of the differences in interaction: While Dream Tracker was originally supposed to remain a Metcalf solo work and only later fleshed out, Nada Terma was conceptualised as a group work at an earlier stage of the process, when Roach was invited on board by Metcalf and Seelig. What one quickly realises is that the trio have conceptualised their journey similar to a live set and the way a jazz band might approach an album session: There are solos, duos and trios. Buildups, climaxes and breakdowns. Moments of improvisation, compositional rigour and completely weightless drift. Passages of dense group performance and sequences, where each of the individual members is free to explore concepts of his own, only to lapse back into the fold. The notion of immediate, spontaneous human interaction resulting in a music as atmospherically tight and otherworldly as this adds an element of suspense and excitement to the unfolding: A single careless note could rupture the peaceful surface of this still ocean of sound.

As much as careful planning can benefit a recording, the process of collective creation can yield results inaccessible to the solo performer. Steve Roach and Byron Metcalf have widely used both – and turned their collaboration into a shared platform for achieving deeply individual goals with ever more precision.

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Steve Roach
Homepage: Byron Metcalf
Homepage: Dashmesh Khalsa
Homepage: Mark Seelig
Homepage: Projekt Records

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