As Lonely As Dave Bowman: Monolith

Steve Roach: Etheric Imprints

Erik Wøllo: Echotides

This latest trio of Projekt releases brings with it a number of surprises, perhaps the biggest one being the deeply atmospheric style of Steve Roach's Etheric Imprints. There's none of the tribal-ambient material that appears on some of Roach's recent output and sequencer patterns are pretty much absent altogether. Put simply, the seventy-four-minute Etheric Imprints presents a decidedly different Roach than the one documented on other recent Projekt releases.

That being said, certain characteristic qualities remain, among them Roach's penchant for long-form settings. In this case four are featured, the shortest twelve minutes and the longest thirty. It's the latter, the album's title track, that provides the biggest surprise, given that it features highly processed electric grand piano as the central sonic element. It's tempting to draw a parallel between the gossamer piano sound Roach features on his electro-acoustic setting to the presentation of the same instrument on Eno's Music For Airports and Harold Budd's collaboration with Eno, The Plateaux of Mirror, and the temptation grows even stronger when Roach augments his piano playing with an aromatic, crystalline haze of analog modular synth tones.

Certainly there are similarities in that regard, but there is a key difference, too, specifically the pronounced degree to which Roach's piano drifts during its half-hour journey. By comparison, the playing on the other albums hews closely to melodies that strengthen the recordings' foundation in song structure. Roach executed “Etheric Imprints” in real time, a detail that helps account for its seemingly spontaneous character and the impression generated of material being created and shaped in the moment, and though it's a retiring and introspective piece, it's not lacking in dynamism.

“Etheric Imprints” isn't the album's only surprise. The second piece, “Indigo Shift,” which follows the first without pause, exudes an hallucinatory and haunted, even nightmarish quality in the pitch-shifting of its synth patterns and vaporous backgrounds. The effect is so dramatic, it induces a psychic queasiness in the listener that's hard to shake. A sultry, seventeen-minute exercise in nuanced synthetic soundsculpting, “Holding Light” adheres to a deep ambient style that's more familiar by comparison, while “The Way Forward” closes the album on a quieter note with fifteen minutes of silken synth tones and washes. It's a compliment to Roach that after so many years of music production, he's still able to surprise, as demonstrated so strikingly by the album's opening settings.

In the time that I've been listening to Projekt releases, I've regarded Sam Rosenthal as the label's curator and showrunner. But Monolith, the seventy-three-minute collection he's issued under the As Lonely As Dave Bowman alias (he also issues material under the Black Tape For A Blue Girl name) reminds us that he's an electronic musician and composer, too. The album title and moniker, of course, will resonate immediately with anyone familiar with 2001: A Space Odyssey, and not surprisingly the recording's track titles also reference the work's narrative in alluding to Bowman's journey. It's a credit to Stanley Kubrick (not to mention novelist Arthur C. Clarke) that his visionary film treatment still mesmerizes almost fifty years after its release.

Issued in both a standard edition with the CD inside a DVD-sized case and a special plexibox edition, the recording presents four settings, two of them relatively short and the other two eighteen and forty-one minutes, respectively. Though Steve Roach is credited with having contributed “subtle atmospheric conditioning” to the opening track and others are enigmatically credited, too, one gets the impression that the recording is still very much a solo effort by Rosenthal. Track differences aside, the recording is electronic drone music designed to evoke the limitless expanses of deep space. Scaled down to its minimal core, the material also suggests the terrifying emptiness of space and the traumatizing effect such awareness can have on a lone astronaut hurtling through it.

The loud, shimmering organ chords that introduce the opener “Failure of the AE-35 unit Radio Antenna” evoke the epic scope of the story-line, while the track's subdued space drone episode suggests the bleak stillness and remoteness of space. But at an ultra-immersive forty-one minutes, it's (deep breath) “A long, dark corridor filled with lights. A memory. And then a bright room with air.” that is the release's natural focal point. With its title conjuring imagery associated with the film's closing chapters, the piece unfolds with controlled deliberation, advancing during its journey through extended fields of organ drones and icy synth textures. About halfway through, a lonely foghorn-like theme appears, punctuating the stillness with its distant call and accentuating the isolationalist character of the material; the other disruptive event occurs five minutes before the end when a metallic shimmer swells in volume to bring the material to a controlled climax before expiring. The press release's recommendation that one think of Monolith as “drone insulation rather than drone isolation” is certainly one clever way of encapsulating the recording's tone.

Though it's pitched as an EP (and a standalone at that, with none of its content scheduled to re-appear on a future album), Erik Wøllo's Echotides is as substantial as a full-length in featuring seven pieces and being forty-three minutes long. Its content is very much in the vein of pure electronic music, with the Norwegian composer using electric guitars, guitar synthesizers, keyboards, and programming to produce the settings, and though it's also very much a solo production by Wøllo, percussionist Kouame Sereba appears on two tracks. Rhythm isn't absent on the other five, however, as Wøllo animates the synthesizer patterns on the opening “Echotide,” to cite one example, with a significant degree of propulsion. The EP's sound is luscious but not overbearing, with the mood serene and the music, especially when buoyed by sequenced synthesizers and percussion elements, lulling.

The recording's appeal is bolstered by the presence of the electric guitar, which, it turns out, provided the impetus for the project when Wøllo recorded a number of loops using guitars and new special effect pedal boards he'd assembled. While lyrical guitar melodies elevate the contemplative second piece in particular, textures and effects generated by the instrument are subtly woven into the material's fabric throughout the recording, so much so that it's next to impossible to differentiate between a guitar-generated texture and one produced by synthesizer. The soft melodic phrase that surfaces towards the end of “Echotides No 3,” for instance, might just as easily be one sung by the guitar synthesizer as a standard keyboard synth.

The EP title wasn't selected randomly, by the way, as Wøllo deliberately set out to create material that would reflect the ebb and flow of tidal movements and cyclical movement in general. It's this insistent rhythmic flow that helps unify the seven pieces, regardless of the differences between them.

September 2015