A New Favorite From Steve Roach – Mystic Chords & Sacred Spaces

I’ve been spending the past few weeks building and exploring an archive of ambient music veteran, Steve Roach’s vast catalog. So far I have his first 161 major album releases, but Roach has at least 199 credited to his name, 18 of which were released this year alone, so it’s quite an undertaking.

I researched various forum discussions, ambient charts, and album reviews to determine the best point of ingress for such a large discography. Steve Roach is best-known for two particular albums – Structures From Silence from 1984 and Dreamtime Return first issued in 1988. These are Berlin-Schoolesque tribal ambient records which I enjoyed but I was more interested in exploring something along the lines of beatless freeform drones so I dug deeper. I queued up the more noteworthy of his collaborations, namely those produced with fellow-ambient-guru, Robert Rich. This included both Strata and Soma from 1990 and 1992 respectively and both issued on the Hearts of Space label. I also surveyed a number of multi-disc box sets Roach had issued for a sampling of multi-hour-long mixes as soundbeds for sleep.

Initially, because I had queued these albums in the chronology by which they were originally issued, the first several hours of content were rendered inaudible. This was due to the overall mastering volume of the albums increasing as the decades progressed, in line with the loudness war and trends in mastering. Because of this, as I’d set my amplifier volume so that the loudest selections didn’t disturb my rest, for the first few nights I didn’t actually hear some of the albums in the playlist. I decided to repurpose the list as a soundscape for my work day where I could adjust the volume as needed and give the releases proper attention. I’m so glad that I did!

That’s how I discovered the majesty of Roach’s Mystic Chords & Sacred Spaces 4CD box set from 2003. Parts one and two of this set were simultaneously issued as separate 2CD releases but they are far-better experienced in the Complete Edition box set. The set clocks in at a total runtime of just over 4 hours and 55 minutes, and is wonderful for both sleep and as a background soundscape for productivity. I’ve been playing the set on repeat daily and nightly for the past week and really enjoying it. 

I researched the details of the release and compiled a few remarks highlighting the merits of the set, where I found others had described its qualities far better than I ever could. I found some information on the Projeckt record label’s website as well as a dedicated discussion thread on headfi dot org.

The official press release for part one of the album from the official Bandcamp page states:

Moving into the majestic realm of pure, non-rhythmic electro-acoustic soundworlds, Mystic Chords & Sacred Spaces is a stunning 2-CD release marking a new milestone in Roach’s history as a true artist of sound. His landmark statements – including Dreamtime Return, Magnificent Void and Structures from Silence – are all parts of the uninterrupted flow building to this release. After a recent run of rhythmically fused CDs, Roach moves into awe-inspiring sonic immersion, delving into a spiritual dimension of sound. Nearly 5 years in the making, this release offers a listening experience beyond entertainment and pop culture appeals, creating a new sense of ‘ambient orchestration’ through a constantly shifting flow of sounds and textures that enters a sacred realm of music.

And ambient music guru, John Dilberto of Echoes – The Nightly Music Soundscape radio program wrote upon its release:

After dark descents into the abyss on The Magnificent Void and Midnight Moon, Steve Roach lightens up the textures a bit on Mystic Chords & Sacred Spaces . The mood harkens back to his influential 1984 release, Structures From Silence, but the atmospheres are more textured and layered while melody is virtually non-existent. And while Structures had a slow motion pulse, Mystic Chords hangs rhythm free. It floats in a space of richly detailed, but minutely shifting sound constructs that owe more to Gyorgy Ligeti and Mark Rothko than early Roach touchstones like Klaus Schulze and Salvador Dali. Roach is creating a free fall through space, less rooted in the pulsing techno-tribal sound of his 1990s music, and more ecstatic in its evocations of something beyond. He carries you to groaning turgid depths, then lifts you as electric guitar glides and synthesizers gurgle, shudder, and swell in an Aurora Borealis of sound.

I was also glad to see that Stephen Hill of Hearts of Space radio offered a few words on the album as well. He said:

Abandoning all conventional notions of music as melody, harmony and rhythm, Mystic Chords & Sacred Spaces allows the listener blissful hours on the high frontier between deep listening music and the spirituality of pure sound.

By any measure, Mystic Chords & Sacred Spaces is a masterwork from an ambient virtuoso with a career spanning four decades of musical composition. The box set is an instant favorite for focused or background activity. Curious listeners can check out the Hearts of Space broadcast #665 which originally broadcast on May 30, 2003 and was dedicated to showcasing highlights from this release.

I look forward to exploring the rest of my Steve Roach archive and acquiring the 18 releases he’s issued this year for further listening.