by Allister Thompson
I did a post quite a while back on some essential Steve Roach albums, which has proven popular in introducing some of his intimidatingly large back catalogue to new listenership. And I’ve written similar posts on Thom Brennan, Alio Die and David Parsons. Why not do one for the other biggest legend of ambient? Rich, mind you, is not as prolific as Roach; only amoeba can subdivide and create new works at the astonishing pace that Steve does.
However, Rich has a lengthy, innovative, high-quality discography of his own. In Rich’s work we can clearly find the roots of dark ambient, for there is often a melancholy, nocturnal tone to his music. There’s also avant-garde, experimental sounds, tribal, and at the other end, lush beauty characterized by Rich’s hallmark slide (or “glissando” if you’re a Steve Hillage fan) guitar, as well as processed flute sounds.
Rich started making music in California in the early eighties (apparently his childhood interest in music started with playing music to his plants, which makes sense), as did contemporaries Roach, Michael Stearns and Kevin Braheny. These synth pioneers are largely responsible for creating the ambient genre as we know it today. Through his sleep concerts and other live appearances, Rich also demonstrates that ambient is not just bedroom music but can be played satisfyingly from the concert stage. He remains vital and active to this very day.
Here are ten essential Rich albums for you to explore and enjoy. Every one of ’em is quite available to purchase wherever music is found (see his site as well).
This is Rich’s most recent release, and like the lushly beatific Nest, pads are a big part of this recording, very pillowy ones, mixed with nature sounds and that wonderful ambient slide guitar sound. From the first few minutes of the title track, you know this is a classic Rich album. However, it’s not all spacy pads; “Majorana” brings in the Berlin-style sound with some sequencing, which is not quite as frequently used a part of Rich’s repertoire as you might assume. Those are the two main styles here: swooning undulations of pads and busier sequencers, but it’s a seamless ambient journey; the work of a grand master of the style.
I did a standalone review of this album, in which I say: “this music is very, very peaceful and very reassuring, conjuring up lovely pastoral images of forests and starry night skies. It’s unabashedly beautiful, and frankly that’s just what I have needed of late.” Indeed, in some ways this sounds more like Rudy Adrian album in that, clearly, tranquillity and beauty were the express goals here, without the tension, melancholy, and even coldness (in the big, universal sense) that often characterize Rich’s work. This is organic and brimming with life.
Calling Down the Sky (2003)
Probably my fave Rich album, to which I return very often, this is a space music classic that probably features very prominent use of the guitar, with a truly cosmic effect that extends throughout, despite the vaguely tribal feel that the flute adds. There is definitely a chilly, boreal or even outta space vibe to many of the tracks, with those high-pitched delayed guitars standing in for the twinkling of winter stars. An essential for any and every ambient music fan.
This cassette album is now legendary, being Rich’s first. And I’m sure there was very little around like it at the time. “Oak Spirits” uses nature samples and sparse drones to great effect over a forty-three-minute running time, while the equally spartan “Sunyata (Emptiness)”, with its booming resonance of altered vocals (I think) has an appropriately Buddhistic feel. I wouldn’t say it’s his best album, but it was far ahead of its time and makes for an excellent introduction to his work.
Cheating a bit, but Rich’s second and third albums have been released in a single package. They take the style of “Sunyata” and elaborate and deepen it with bigger, wider synth scopes. Very much drone music and very much a template for an entire genre to come, this is also where we first get to hear those long, delayed slide guitar lines. These lengthy tracks are as wide as a galaxy and probably deeper; drone music doesn’t get better or more hypnotic than this.
Inner Landscapes (1987)
I can’t point out any particular reason why this album is so successful. It’s a pure ambient album of slow-building, pad-based tracks. Very drony, very slow to develop, very beautiful. Big, booming soundscapes that sound deadly on a big set of headphones turned up loud. More of the cosmic slide guitar and a bit of flute. Classic.
This album is huge, a three-disk live set of 1998 concerts that basically lays out all of Rich’s typical styles, from the tribal (“Demilitarized Zone”) to the spacy (“Synergistic Perceptions”) to the abstract (all of “Beyond”). Because it’s derived from live recordings, guitar is very prominent, but other than that, you’d be hard pressed to tell it from a polished studio album. Even more impressive is how much of it was improvised.
Echo of Small Things (2005)
This could be considered a natural, ground-level companion to Calling Down the Sky. The sounds are abstract and organic, with lots of field recordings, making it sound more “electroacoustic” and modern than other Rich albums. This album feels like a summer night, which I do believe is the aim, and while the tracks are very abstract, hints of melody pop in and out amongst the nighttime sounds and gamelan-like tones ringing around. An unusual release for Rich but a great success. The one that would appeal to Taylor Deupree (and his ilk) fans.
I include this collaboration with B.Lustmord because it’s widely considered to be a dark ambient touchstone. It’s about what you’d expect, if you know both artists’ work: Lustmord supplies bassy, scary, moany, metallic tones, while Rich contributes experimental textures and, of course, guitar. The result is certainly an immersively dark vampire-movie type of experience and a very successful union of styles.
I include this very interesting release to show the impressive breadth of Rich’s work. This is very different, music used to illustrate the essential traits of denizens of the animal kingdom. As such, it’s not peaceful, often more disquieting and busy, as with the clicking and chomping sounds of “Mantis.” “Nesting on Cliffsides” has some tribal-style sequencing and slide guitar, so it sounds more recognizably Rich. If Hitchcock’s movie scared you, stay away from the scary bird sounds of “Sharpening Her Talons”! Maybe not his most relaxing release but one of his most interesting, akin to the style of Rapoon. There’s even a sax solo!
How do you think Perpetual stacks up next to Somnium?
I am shamed to admit, Matt, that I haven’t shelled out for that one yet. Somnium I love, of course.
Perpetual is pretty interesting; it is still longer and much more minimal than Somnium.
I’ve been following/listening Robert Rich since the early 90’s and I think you have made an excellent selection! Anyway I’d add the compilations “Below Zero” and “A troubled resting place”, “Numena” -for some nonstandard tunings-, and some recently issued live recordings of his early period like “Morphology” or “Premonitions”.
Yeah, I love all those as well — “A Troubled Resting Place” is a very interesting album.