During a recent online music festival hosted by local artist Steve Roach, listeners agreed Tucson likely has more ambient musicians per capita than any other city—something about the enchantment of the desert and its resulting states of consciousness. But even if the per capita claim isn't quite true, Roach's prolific musical output makes up for everyone else.
April 2 saw two album releases from Roach: As It Is and Temple of the Melting Dawn (a collaboration with Serena Gabriel). These follow another album released in January and multiple last year. Although Roach's music is often introspective, his ambient style also manages to foster a community—both those who tuned into his SoundQuest online music festival, and the multiple local artists with whom he collaborates.
"From the years of feedback from my audience, it's clear they immerse themselves in this psychological spiritual state within my music. A feeling supports one into deeper places within," Roach said in a press release for As It Is, recorded over the last year.
As It Is departs from his recent output of more energetic albums, replacing the arpeggiated synthesizer notes on last year's Tomorrow with darker, soothing tones. And while his more melody-driven output served as an uplifting escape from 2020, As It Is also provides relief from global woes, but rather than rising above them, it dips beneath.
Over the course of six massive tracks (all of which run longer than 10 minutes) Roach traces a kind of mental meditation journey, beginning with "What Falls Away," and passing through a "Threshold Meditation," before ultimately "Emerging."
"It's a daily meditation at that threshold, asking 'How is today unique? What is unique in this moment? How can I respond to this? What is the thing that's going to make today unique and empowered through this language of sound and music?'" Roach says.
The album opener is a series of smooth drones moving at a glacier's pace that essentially works to get the listener into a proper headspace. It's only until a few minutes into the second track (about 15 minutes into the album) that any form of percussion appears, but even this is mostly submerged behind the layers of mysterious electronics.
"Unreachable" includes some rare acoustic instrumentation on the album, with a suspenseful piano hiding within the shifting synthesizers. "Equanimity" references Roach's more spacey ambient, with futuristic drums and a particularly affecting central melody.
The album's theme is hidden in the cover art and connected images—shots of exposed minerals gleaming like the rainbows in oil slicks, hinting at how even when all else is stripped away, there is a vibrancy in the bedrock. Roach describes this theme as a "deep engagement exploring the psychology of sound: expanded consciousness creating meaning out of sonic abstraction."
While much of Roach's decades-long catalog works as a soundscape for meditation and relaxation, As It Is works as an example of the ambient pioneer somewhat mapping the mental journey—not just opening those internal caverns, but shining a light.
"That unreachable place is something you hear within my music," Roach says. "I'm reaching towards something I'm never fully grasping, and in that state of not-fully-grasping-it there's a recognition of knowing it as it is. Perhaps it doesn't need to be grasped, it can be unreachable, it can remain suspended."
As with multiple of his projects, Roach can't help concluding with a bright ascension, the natural emergence from the deep, thoughtful state As It Is places the listener in.
"These soundworlds offer nourishment and renewal along with a greater, more expansive state; at the same time I continue to discover a deeply cultivated connection to a core awareness of the self," Roach said. "Over time, the music helps to build energy and relationship through the self."
Temple of the Melting Dawn is the third full-length collaboration with Tucson musician Serena Gabriel, whose acoustic instrumentation and occasional singing add a grounding to Roach's swirling electronics. Gabriel describes the album, which has a decidedly new age focus, as "perfect for creating sacred space."
Unlike their 2020 collaborations, Temple of the Melting Dawn features less of Gabriel's spiritual singing, instead opting for echoing strings and atmosphere. The real draw is its blend of ancient and modern aesthetics, hinted at with track titles like "Visions of Delphi" and Gabriel's pensive performances on the lyre, kalimba and flute.
The album focuses on divination, described in the liner notes as "the practice of seeking knowledge of the unknown by various natural, psychological and other techniques." Again, similar to the meditative focus of As It Is, but with a potentially more metaphysical bent.
This goal is also exemplified in the album's artwork, a desert landscape beneath a powerful sun, warping with a psychedelic overlay.
This shows strongest in the track "In Another Time," which runs for a measly 12 minutes as far Roach's music is concerned. The vastness is necessary for the goal of the music, and that expanse is filled with hushed affirmations and dark ambience.
Of course, describing ambient music only goes so far, even if it is conceptual. Luckily, Roach and Gabriel's music often speaks for itself, whether it's quietly accompanying your thoughts or filling the room.
As It Is
by Steve Roach
Temple of the Melting Dawn
by Serena Gabriel and Steve Roach