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 Review archive:  # a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z

Steve Roach - The Skeleton Collection (2005 - 2015) [Timeroom Edition - 2015]

Arizona based ambient music veteran Steve Roach released an album of classic Berlin style synthesizer music in "Skeleton Keys" earlier this year, channeling the original era of the ambient form by limiting himself to the use of classic analog gear.  This album, "The Skeleton Collection (2005 - 2015)" came a few months later, something of a post script to the original album, containing a number of similar unreleased tracks both from before and after the actual album was made.

The album appears to be in chronological order, beginning with 5 tracks of material from 2005, pre-dating "Skeleton Keys" but similar in spirit and style, and ending with 3 brand new tracks from 2015 that function as a sort of epilogue to the album.  Thus we can assume this first track, "The Skeleton Key" is likely the first thing Roach created for what became the 'Skeleton Keys' concept: compositions consisting solely of interlocking analog synth arpeggios.  It seems likely this song's title is the initial use of the phrase that would later become the title of the album, though this track wasn't featured on it.

It's a great dealer sparser and more empty feeling than anything on the "Skeleton Keys" album proper.  Consisting of a single undulating bass synth arp and a slight higher pitch counter melody that swell in and out of the mix, it's one of the most bare tracks I've ever heard from Steve Roach, where the electronics are naked and undisguised.  It actually sounds like the work of Richie Hawtin / Plastikman to me, and all you would need to transform it into an eerie early 90's acid techno track is a 4/4 kick drum.  I prefer the lush, more deeply harmonized and melodic sound of the tracks on the actual "Skeleton Keys" album to this rather 'skeletal' and basic track.

The 2nd piece, "Climbing Escher's Stairs" is instantly beautiful to my ears, a timeless and circular consonant note progression which seems to highlight the natural harmonic resonance spectrum.  A very zen, "om" like tone, though still sonically spacious and fairly sparse.  The notes of a vast, droning chord are implied in brief glimpses in the percolating notes of the arpeggios.  The density of the track picks up in a very pleasing way by 3 minutes or so into its total 7 minutes.  This wonderful piece is an example of Roach's melodic genius, and the fact that he doesn't need to hide his textures in a cloud of reverb to sound vast or ancient.

"Fantastic Elastic" and "The Right Membrane" are warm, inviting sounds as well, but continue the pattern of simplicity, and a feeling that the sounds are coming to you dry, straight from the synthesizer, with little or no additional processing.  I find this part of the album to contain a good deal less brain food than the actual "Skeleton Keys" album did.  While the texture of the synth is lovely, this is something of a 'monophonic' recording, containing little interplay, randomization or harmony to lend the sound additional facets.  The songs from 2005 range from 3 to 9 minutes, short by Roach's standards, and so never really wear out their welcome, but it could be said that each track is but a single arp, modulating and undulating slightly, but remaining essentially the same in melodic content.  This is certainly less true on "Skeleton Keys", which feels like an endlessly complex, randomizing mandala.

When the trio of songs from 2015 begin, the difference in sound is instantly apparent.  The music seems to deepen and sharpen considerably, the feeling of a raw, dry signal is gone, track durations all exceed 10 minutes, and the arpeggios are more complex, containing the kind of rich tonal variations found on the "Skeleton Keys" album.  The synthesizer remains the sole texture present, but here it is presented with a layered precision.  These are songs that could easily fit in among those on said record, which in my opinion was a true masterpiece, a vivid, direct and amazingly intelligent exploration of how deep the 'arpeggio' can truly go.  I consider this among the greatest psychedelic music of all time, illustrating as it does the principles of symmetry, consonance and harmony.  In every sense, it is the sonic equivalent of a kaleidoscope.  The track "Something For Now", in particular, is glowing with soulful intensity.

On "The Skeleton Collection (2005 - 2015)" we have some of Steve Roach's most raw and simplistic material paired with his most sophisticated and majestic.  The final 3 tracks, recorded this year, are without question some of the best music I have ever heard in my life, taking the use of analog synthesizers into an entire new sphere of complexity.  The older songs, while still indicative of Roach's understanding of harmonic balance and emotive melody, sound almost unfinished in their simplicity.  The contrast feels a little odd, but I can certainly recommend the album to fans of Roach and anyone who liked "Skeleton Keys".  If you're new to Steve Roach or ambient music, though, absolutely listen to "Skeleton Keys" or one of Roach's other classics first.

Rating: 4 out of 5Rating: 4 out of 5Rating: 4 out of 5Rating: 4 out of 5Rating: 4 out of 5

Josh Landry
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