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Steve Roach: Empetus

img  Tobias Fischer

In a now frequently repeated claim by journalist and electronic music activist Darren Bergstein, Empetus "established Steve Roach as the American answer to the pioneering European electronic masters of the '70s". A  statement perfectly suitable for promotional purposes, it does beg two important questions straight away: Was there really no scene for electronic music in the USA before Roach's arrival? And: What exactly was the question the album was supposed to have been a response to? The two issues are intricately related to each other, as in Germany, for example, surely no one would have considered Klaus Schulze to have been an "answer" to Tangerine Dream. Without a doubt, there seems to persist a European ignorance to what was happening across the Atlantic. Surely, what composers and sound artists like Milton Babbit, Joel Chadabe, Morton Subotnick and Laurie Spiegel were conceptualising, sculpting and recording at roughly the same time – or even well before – Schulze, Froese and company ever set foot in the electronic domain, was easily as "progressive" or, to use Bergstein's wording, "pioneering" as the productions of their European counterparts. So why exactly did it take until 1986 and Empetus for the new world to stake its claim?

The reason lies in a particularity of the European – or more precisely, the German – approach to electronic music at the time: The focus on a new compositional entity called the "sequence". Essentially, in its most simple form, a machine-driven ostinato, it had both rhythmical and melodic traits to it, without being explicitly percussive or thematic, and therefore allowed artists to create a both propulsive and meditative, equally floating and driving music. Contrarily to the techno-aesthetic of simply piling various motivic layers on top of each other, sequencing didn't work on an additive basis, but through gradual shifts in accent or textural density and none of the Krautrock-acts used them quite in the same way: While Tangerine Dream more or less operated like an improv-ensemble, in which every member continuously tapped in and out of the action and in which the sequence was the sole, undiluted core of the musical action, Schulze favoured a style in which sequences would hypnotically build up from nothing but a few tones into a dense web of pulsation, which would eventually, almost formulaically, serve as a foundation for extensive solo-excursions. Because both were well aware of the mechanisms of the concert scene at the time and staged their appearances similarly to the gigs of psychedelic scene, their contributions were widely regarded as belonging to the world of rock, which gave them an immediate popularity bonus over their American colleagues: Tangerine Dream celebrated a completely unique UK top-10 sensation with Phaedra and only shortly after, Schulze would turn into a widely respected artist in France, attaining unprecedented levels of popular recognition.

Although Roach has himself admitted that, at one point, Schulze's Timewind was as essential as his morning cereals, the patterns of influence are anything but obvious. By the time Empetus was released, he had already released a Kraftwerk-inspired band-effort under the Mobius-alias and four solo full-lengths, which, despite their occasional nod towards his Berlin-based electronic colleagues, sounded more like an early version of what was ultimately to become Acid-Ambient ("Mysteries Continue" off Traveler wouldn't seem out of place on a 90s Future Sound of London record) and a silent, epic version of New Age (the Quiet Music triptych). At the time of their release, meanwhile, the musical axis was still very much believed to run through the German capital – a supposition further confirmed by the fact that it would take until Western Spaces that his name first started appearing in the annual rankings of arguably the most influentia electronic music radio program of the era, Schwingungen. With Empetus, Roach may actually have been somewhat less visionary, but he certainly exactly hit the musical nerve of the time: In many regards, the album's production is remarkably close to what Tangerine Dream (Underwater Sunlight) and Klaus Schulze (Dreams) released the very same year and in its colourful, eclectic amalgamate, incorporating a variety of different approaches, it almost comes across as a sum and summary of sequencing.

What is most apparent on Empetus, and this was definitely a sign of the times, was the concision and dramaturgical tightness of these nine pieces of just four and a half minutes on average, most of which end abruptly and without having arrived at an obvious "conclusion". At the same time, Roach doesn't follow in the footsteps of an album like Underwater Sunlight by avoiding an all-too-melodic focus. Pieces like "Conquest" or "Urge" are pure, nervously pulsating rhythm-tracks, powered by feverish arpeggios and frantic drum machine poundings, while the thematic material on other compositions is intriguingly spread out across the canvas, never fully coalescing into fully-fledged themes, or comprises of ominous slides – abstractions and allusions, therefore. The impression is less one of catchy "songs without words" - although "Merge" may perhaps be the most immediate and to-the-point lovesong Roach has ever written – or sketches, but rather of musical doors into alien territories without definitive beginning or end, opening themselves up to the audience in one moment only to close again the next, leaving the aftermath of the imagery to reverberate inside the listener and leading straight and without ado into the next movement – in the liner notes to the collector's edition, Roach aptly characterises this tendency as being "about infusing high emotion into the pieces, which were moving from longer forms into concise, interconnected meditations on energy, movement and dynamic flow."

It was a process which had taken place at an astounding speed. The most fascinating aspect of this re-release of the original Empetus recording is its second disc, containing two pieces recorded just four years earlier in the first incarnation of the famous Timeroom in Culver City. Compared to the impressionist precision of the studio album, these archival discoveries clock in at almost seventy four minutes and well over the length of the studio album. As Roach reveals in the liner notes, recording a piece like "Harmonia Mundi" essentially took place in a different age, without MIDI and with the immediacy and spontaneity of a jam session: With the sequences synchronised by a master analog clock, Roach and his Swiss colleague Thomas Ronkin first freely created a pool of sequences on a carefree Saturday morning, before taking a necessary caffeine-injection courtesy of Roach's espresso-machine and launching themselves into a 46-minute flow. The anything-goes-mentality of the proposition is apparent at every single second: Over the course of it duration, the duo not only take their patterns through a string of subtle variations and changes, they also add short, timbral solos and even a passage of drumming, which adds a surreal funk to the already epic proportions of the piece.

The sheer dimensions of a work like this seem to represent a contrast with the other Empetus-material, but that is a misconception. Roach had rightly estimated that the sequence, as a musical building block, was potentially endless by definition. Footing in stoic repetition, it was only through constant change that it came alive and only in infinity that this process of change ever led to a natural resolving. From this point of view, it really didn't matter whether a piece was cut off at the three quarters of an hour mark of after less than three minutes, as on the spiraling dervish-dance of "Distance is Near". On Empetus, this realisation culminated in astoundingly catchy configurations, sometimes even complemented by the voice of Wesley Brown, which really were a specifically American answer to the European developments. As Roach has pointed out, even more so, as they took place in an environment in which everyone was eager and willing to support the other in their strive for greatness – including fellow musicians like Michael Stearns, who adds his production skills to three tracks, and gear manufacturers like Oberheim. The tables weren't necessarily turning, but there was a pervasive sensation that the conversation could now be led on equitable turns.

In the end, of course, the ultimate consequences of the insight would prove to be even more monumental, leading Roach to the "new places and spaces" of his mid- and late-90s work. It wasn't long before VidnaObmana's Dirk Serries, one of the leaders of the new ambient-movement, would make his way to Roach to record their cross-atlantic collaborations and classics - rather than the other way round.

By Tobias Fischer

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