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Steve Roach - Skeleton Keys CD (album) cover


Steve Roach

Progressive Electronic

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Rock Progressivo Italiano Team
3 stars A quietly intelligent artist constantly bursting with inspiration, it's not surprising to find several new releases of fresh music each year from progressive electronic/ambient pioneer Steve Roach. `Skeleton Keys' sees him reconnecting in spirit and mindset with the European artists that initially inspired him in the Seventies, and is a return to purely analog and sequencer compositions. After many truly ambient releases completely devoid of beats or percussive elements (unless you include his more tribal influenced works like `Monuments of Ecstasy' and `The Ancestor Circle'), the idea of Roach returning to a form of electronic music that originally influenced him is an interesting proposition, but considering he's been on a consistently strong hot streak of superb albums of late, perhaps this time around the results are somewhat slightly disappointing and not as engrossing as many other works by the artist.

Originating from a series of demos dating between 2005 and 2015 (which can be found on a separate companion disc to this one entitled `The Skeleton Collection'), most of the tracks that make up the finished product here seem to house a few minutes worth of ideas that are stretched on far too long and repeat over and over with little variation. Roach's albums are known for being very minimal and subtle, but here the more upfront presence of mostly unceasing sequencer patterns means attention can start to wane very quickly, as the way he usually gradually unfolds his soundworlds as intoxicating sustained atmospheres is often missing here. But most disappointingly, all those serene delicate rising and falling synth washes Roach paints all his musical portraits with are pushed more to the background this time that they almost completely vanish beneath the beat patterns. Roach may be no stranger to lengthy albums, but 74 minutes in this style that all starts to blur together quite rapidly definitely challenges the friendship!

Sly sequencers pulse into infinity throughout opener `The Only Way in', and there's a creeping, breathless uneasy tension trickling through `The Function Inside'. The restrained, gently tense `It's All Connected' introduces low-key symphonic synth caresses, but despite a mellow chilled mood, it barely changes throughout its almost ten minute length and grows a little dull. `Outer Weave' is one of the strongest pieces due to running only a little over five minutes, one that, along with the next piece `Symmetry and Balance', starts introducing subtle darker modern dancier grooves, but again the latter is overlong by several minutes. Sequencers bounce around `Saturday Somewhere', take on a more chiming, precious and crystalline quality throughout `Escher's Dream is Dreaming' (probably one of the loveliest pieces on offer here), and album closer, `A Subtle Twist of Fate', far and away the best piece on offer here, weaves a better balance of the sustained tones of his recent purely ambient albums with loops racing serenely like a running stream around them.

There's no doubt the compositions on `Skeleton Keys' have been painstakingly programmed and carefully considered, but many sections of the album are too drawn-out, meaning constantly getting through the entire album can be a challenge, which is a shame as the stronger material comes right near the final stages of the disc. It's admirable to see Roach changing direction after several beat-less, low-key ambient sound collages, and, despite acknowledging this is a return to the types of Seventies artists that inspired him, it's good to see the artist doesn't ever simply fall back on a lazy or uninspired recreation of the past masters here. But there's a niggling thought that most of his other recent releases such as the sublime `The Delicate Forever' offered more variety and proved more rewarding through constant re-listens to reveal their mastery of ambient sound than much of the material here does. Perhaps a beautiful symbiotic balance between long lengthy pure ambience that moves in and out of sequencer patterns, as delivered on the final track, would deliver better and more varied results on a future release?

But for now, `Skeleton Keys' is hardly a poor album, one that improves on repeated listens, yet it still seems occasionally unengaging, samey, overlong or more of a fleeting surface listen, which means those required repeated listens may not come. Perhaps it's best looked on as an `interesting diversion' to something more exciting that this master of ambient sound will no doubt deliver again sooner than later.

Three stars.

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Posted Tuesday, June 2, 2015 | Review Permalink

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