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Steve Roach & Erik Wøllo: Stream of Thought

img  Tobias Fischer

How long can two artists orbit each other before their tangents finally meet? All in all, it has taken Steve Roach and Erik Wøllo more than thirty years. In 1985, Roach bought a copy of Wøllo's Traces, stunned by the emotional intensity of the album. Three years later, his Norwegian counterpart spent entire days listening to nothing else but Roach's Dreamtime Return, putting the LP in a loop to immerse himself fully in the work's pioneering blend of Aboriginee drumming, Berlin-school sequencing and trance-like states of slow-motion drift. And yet, they spent the 90s wandering different roads, with Wøllo refining his lyrical guitar-soundscapes and Roach entering deeper and deeper into a mysterious cave, in which absolute time was suspended and the constituents of composition set free. This latter tendency inherently implied an even stronger focus on infinitely malleable electronic materials and finding devices other than melody and harmonic progressions – somewhat in contrast to Wøllo, who increasingly found inspiration in scoring for acoustic instruments. So when their paths finally crossed in 2004, they seemed to inhabit different galaxies, the opportunity passed by, a chance wasted.

In reality, of course, it was exactly their synergistic competencies which had always attracted them to each other in the first place. And underneath these outward polarities, symbolised almost cartoonishly by Roach living in the midst of the Arizona desert and Wøllo on the Norwegian countryside with its freezing winters, the artists importantly had a lot in common, too: A shared appreciation for perfect solitude in the moment of creation, a sculptural approach to composition, the indivisibility of art and life as well as a remarkable longevity of vision. And so, rather than feeling like strangers in each other's presence, they instantly connected, entering into a four-year period of exchanging files, sequences and concepts, which has clearly bled into their first release. Even without prior knowledge of any kind of overarching concept, Stream of Thought sounds like the work of two artists bouncing ideas off each other, playfully exploring new directions and pushing each other into realms they would probably never otherwise have considered feasible. A staggering nineteen tracks are spread out over seventy minutes here and one can't help but feel that plenty more were either discarded or considered unsuitable for the project, that this already prolific surge of creativity merely represents the tip of the iceberg. Just as in a good conversation, one suggestion appears to have lead to at least two more so that, even after hours of intense debate, the amount of potential topics will actually have increased.

This sense of anything-goes – or almost-anything-goes – has carried over into the eclectic stylistic scope of the album. While most of their individual releases seemed intent on zooming in on a particular muscle and then massaging it for an extensive period of time until it relaxed, Stream of Thought contrarily tickles every nerve, synapse and cell in the body, sending stimulating auditive messengers from one end of the musical spectrum to the other in the blink of an eye. Within the first half hour, Roach and Wøllo have already explored rhythmically driven tribal trance, floating dronescapes, hallucinatory collages between bliss and delusion, pounding echoes of decaying loops, slow-grooving acid and a gently undulating duet between guitar delays and streaks of glistening harmonics – and there's plenty more to follow. On top of the nervously twitching tension between tracks, every single element within them is also kept in constant motion: Bass lines and beats are sent through filters, themes and patterns gently tweaked and transformed, atmospheres and pads shifted and shaken into continually new constellations so that, for example, a piece like „Stream of Thought Part 13“ will start out as a hypnotic slice of sequencer-electronica and end up a floating piece of percussive ambient.

Despite the obvious pleasure gained from this undiluted spirit of joyful creation, it also presented Roach and Wøllo with the structural issue of shaping an uncontrolled outburst and avoiding the impression of randomness. Intriguingly, the answer to the dilemma lay in giving in to it: Rather than trying to find a Freud'ean explanation or Leitmotif to their stream of thought, the artists instead tried to emphasise its very inconsistency, willfulness, mutability, seeming illogicality and fleetingness in their collaboration. At times, listening to the album really feels like taking a roller coaster ride through someone else's mind, the carriage shooting through chains of intense scenes at the speed of light, almost skidding off the tracks at times. There are no seamless transitions here, with one section segueing into the next as suddenly and abruptly as changing channels on a TV set. Meanwhile, to a generation which grew up on remote controls, multitasking and the curse of partial attention, this newsflash-like rate of transformation will probably barely register as unusual. And after the initial shock has subsided, one quickly experiences the transitoriness of the record as a flow, the fractures as nothing but tiny scars on an otherwise perfectly smooth tissue.

It is only after repeated listens that one notices just how meticulously this impression was consciously created by the artists in their studios, textures re-appearing at various stages of the album like markers, themes being re-cycled and re-worked, moving from the back- to the foreground, mutating from melodic fragments into a rhythmical spine. Just like Roach once famously culled structures from silence, he and Wøllo are now searching for order in chaos. A stream of thought, after all, is anything but a unidirectional entity. Rather, it can jump both back and forth in time, wilfully skip particular passages while minutely honing in on others, mulling them over with an almost obsessive intensity and superimposing various layers of memories to arrive at new, more complex constructions. All of this is represented directly in the music, as Stream of Thought speeds time up in one instant and then considerably slows it down in the next, refining one passage with utmost attention while discarding another almost listlessly. It is only at the very end and in an epic grand finale-composition, that the album reaches its point of destination, all confluents flowing into the steady flow of a big river, the tension resolved, the music fading peacefully into silence and calm.

Occasionally, one would wish for some of the shorter pieces to be worked out just a little bit more. But that's the downside and very nature of human imagination, to which this album pays an intriguing homage: Everything is in flux and a moment, once lost, can never be recovered.

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Steve Roach
Homepage: Erik Wøllo
Homepage: Projekt Records

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