by Allister Thompson
Tribute albums suck. Yep, and they were really big in the nineties, weren’t they? For every act from the sixties and seventies you could pay homage to, there was at least one album of crappy covers (and they’re still getting made somehow). Oh yeah, you could wallpaper a house with the inserts — probably inserts from Big Star tribute albums alone! I had one tribute album to Richard Thompson that was okay on the whole, but at least half the performances were godawful. So these sorts of things are hit and miss at best.
But here’s a new way to go about it: Free Floating asked some of today’s finest ambient musicians not to cover Steve Roach’s music (it would be kind of weird to cover ambient music anyway, granted) but to compose their own music in the spirit of the original iconic 1984 album and the legendary artist. The results are heartening indeed.
I’ve given plenty of ink to Steve Roach’s music here (see my recent review of The Delicate Forever and my best-of list). See the second of those two articles for an explanation of Roach’s importance to the ambient genre as a whole and of the remarkable breadth and quality of his music. As for Structures from Silence itself, here’s what I had to say about it in an earlier article (quoting myself now, eh?):
“Just about everyone considers this one of the great influential classics and Roach’s first truly great album. Roach himself has become sort of the guru of ambient, an incredibly prolific artist for over 30 years who has a gift for anticipating trends. As noted on ye olde Wikipedia, this is his first ‘purely textural’ album, meaning the pieces are long and are given space to stretch out. The first track, ‘Reflections in Suspension’, has a certain energy but is quite mournful. The second and third tracks, ‘Quiet Friend’ and the title track are spacious and repetitive … the very essence of soothing ambient. Basically you can’t call yourself a fan of the genre without owning this one.”
So there you have it — it’s a “without which” of the genre we love so well. Maybe the without which, except for some of that stuff that Eno guy did.
I’m actually quite familiar with the work of most of the musicians who contributed to this album, so it was interesting to see how “Roachian” they got and whether they departed from their customary styles. They represent some of today’s most prominent artists operating in the ambient music field.
Gregg Plummer‘s opener, “Convergence” is pure pad-based and very pretty (in a good way) and tranquil, as his stuff usually is; this track feels more like it could have been on Roach’s Quiet Music album from 1986, which is a big compliment coming from me.
Scott Lawlor‘s work is usually quite cosmic and spacy and can be very dark as well, and indeed, while this track, “Quiet Mind”, is not what I’d call “dark”, it’s certainly deep, reminding me of The Magnificent Void in Roachian terms.
Canada’s Altus, a long-time fave of myself and many others, has, like Plummer, chosen a vintage synth sound much like that heard in early Roach. Like the music on Quiet Music, it’s light, airy and uplifting, indeed like much of Altus’s best work — and it only gets bigger and more heavenly as the track progresses. I’m not familiar with Seconds Before Awakening, but “09.30.14” is a fine track that like Roach’s “Reflections in Suspension” has a melancholy tension running through it. Phase47, the chap behind the wonderful Fire Temple project, has contributed a track more modern-sounding in terms of sonic choices but in its undulating, gauzy waves (some guitar in there too, perhaps) is an excellent evocation of the original “Quiet Friend.”
Our own Simon Slator (he writes for me here) takes a different direction with a track that includes field recording-type mysterious sounds, an unusually modern effect for him, but there’s a natural, environmental feel close to Roach albums like Streams and Currents and New Life Dreaming. Chris Russell‘s “Particles in Sunlight” is another classic-sounding pad piece that reminds me of the work of Diatonis, another early ambient pioneer, in its great use of sonic space and echoing reverb; from a spartan beginning it changes into a vintage-sounding synth piece very close sonically to album they’re honouring.
Boris Lelong‘s “Suspended” contains lovely light sequencing, deliberately calling to mind Roach’s classic opening track. Andrew Lahiff’s “Illuminating Perceptions” is very much redolent of Roach’s masterwork Mystic Chords and Sacred Spaces with mysterious echoey sounds in the background and overwhelming billows of pads.
C.paradisi‘s track is very spacious and minimal, like the music on Roach’s “Immersion” long-form series, while ambient maverick Jack Hertz is the most aggressive in his approach, with slightly harsher, up-front sounds (harsh is a very relative term in this context!) and light sequencing that is a little closer at times, in my opinion, to the vibe of Dreamtime Return than to Structures from Silence.
MYOT fave Phillip Wilkerson kicks in a slightly uncharacteristically dark piece for him, “Drifting Past Before”, which to me feels very much in the mournful spirit of Darkest Before Dawn. Over a cavernous dark backing, a single pad line weaves sorrowful tones. Space Megalithe’s celestial “Crystal Landscape” also captures the mood of Roach’s spaciest material like Dynamic Stillness, while Robert Douglas’s “Beyond the Summit” has a delicately sorrowful feel. And finally, Daniel Robert Lahey‘s “Things Work Out” has the typical heightened emotional tone of his work, with a little bit of longing thrown in. A perfect conclusion.
That’s all of ’em, right? Phew. Oh, and the mastering is quite skilful — all the tracks sound very much like they belong on an album together, so cheers to Rudy Ensueno, the mastering engineer.
So, as you can tell, while some tracks do seem to pay direct homage, I don’t so much find this album a tribute to Structures from Silence as a tribute to certain aspects of Roach’s overall style, the synth pad-based, meditative end of his work, which is my favourite. Though I wouldn’t say there’s a ton of variety here in these tracks, there doesn’t need to be; all of these tracks are very beautiful, without exception. One thing’s for sure, if you like nothing better than to lay down on a nice bed of synth pads, this recording was sent from Heaven just for you! It’s no wonder it’s received an official endorsement from the man himself.
I now look forward to the 30th anniversary tribute to Thom Brennan’s Mountains. ;>
Thanks for taking the time for the review. It is greatly appreciated.
One small correction; Space Megalithe is the artist and Crystal Landscape is the track…
Now that’s a relevant correction!
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Thank you so much, Allister! I am so honored to be in such company and very glad that the heightened emotional tone comes through (and isn’t overbearing like it often is in 3D!). Shhh! Don’t tell anyone, but this is really fun!
Thank you, Daniel. Your albums get regular play around here.
am so honored and happy to hear that!