Steve Roach & Robert Rich
Soma, released on the Hearts Of Space label in 1992, is seen as both the spiritual and actual successor of Robert Rich's and Steve Roach's Strata, mostly crafted in 1989 and released in 1990. Not only do the titular similarity and the second collaboration of these New Age veterans suggest this thought, but also the stylistic similarities between both releases. Sure, sarcastic people might add that all New Age albums sound alike, to put it mildly and inoffensively. However, Soma is a surprisingly good album overall, and that can on the one hand be attributed to the marvelous drum sections. Like typical Exotica records of the late 50's, Roach and Rich come up with a huge variety of instruments, some of them as esoteric as clay water pots or ocarinas, others as exotic as steel guitars and kalimbas – with the exception of the opening composition, these instruments are carefully placed, and while they are the album's unique selling point, they are never overused or embedded in favor of a carefully crafted ambience. On the other hand, the aesthetic strength of Soma derives from the enigmatic darkness that traverses throughout each of the eight tracks. This mystique is driven by the drums and the baleful synth washes which allow the listener to relax, but always let him or her keep in mind that they encounter mystical entities. Reverberated splutters and abyssal rumbles round off the listening experience. Again, don't be fooled by the New Age categorization, at least not this time, for this album connects the dots of Strata in a more appealing way, I believe.
Wind chimes, reverberating rain sticks and gurgling ceramic drums. These are the vivaciously calm ingredients of Love Magick, and every few seconds, an additional percussive instrument is introduced, making this a terrific opener that leaves any cliché behind you might think of. The tribal atmosphere, the lack of melodies on the first 100 seconds or so is mind-blowing. Before the two-minute mark, galactic synth washes float in the background all the while Roach plays an Indian flute. After this opulent section, a short but delicious Ambient intermission follows that is later enhanced with eclectic drums, cherubic swirls and the warm droplets of Rich’s kalimba which function as the perfect counterpoint to the glacial heaviness of the backing synths. Say what you will, but this opener is one of the duo’s best tracks. The atmosphere is intimate, focused and deep. Sure, the New Age factor is definitely perceptible, but neither are the synthesizers all too soul-purging, nor are the various drums too tedious, although this is the showcase track in terms of the drums – the variety is nowhere bigger than on Love Magick. The following Nightshade starts with rather eerie nocturnal synth strings, owl-like pulses, melancholia-amplifying flute melodies and scattered drums whose characteristic trait is danger-evoking and stomping, although this is a downbeat song. Surprisingly enough, all the ingredients are already introduced in the first minute, making this a coherently chilly song that depicts a certain majesty, but also a much stronger coldness. The occasionally earth-shaking drums are indeed the best part of the song, dampening the esoteric factor by a great margin and strengthening the deepness. While Going Inland, the shortest track just beyond the four-minute mark, harks back to the distinct kalimba-laden and demoniacally gloomy jungle atmosphere of Mica, a track off Strata, with only the slightest boost of tempo, Silk Ridge is the crystal clear ethereal Ambient track on Soma, since every drum is left behind: icy strings, aerial washes and purifying patterns like bubbling water and thunderous vault-like reverberations paint the mountainous surroundings flawlessly. A lamenting steel guitar played by Rich is a prominent addition on this song and reminds of the phantasmagoric galaxies of System 7. If you like their Ambient tunes, you will surely dig this particular song.
Blood Music, as its name already suggests, is a strikingly portentous composition full of glaringly red synth gusts with glistening counterparts of hibernal blue, fulminant drums and the frightening derisive exhalation of a brutish creature. Female chants are interwoven at different points, suggesting the procession of a forbidden ritual. This is yet again a rather strong track, and while my explanation might lead you to the conclusion that this track is terribly kitschy, it is not, believe me. Whenever Roach and Rich decide to create a gritty ambience, they go all in without terrifying the listener with cheap tricks. This is a proper Dark Ambient track with a strong focus on the synths and the drums, and not a single drone. The title-lending centerpiece Soma presents every style the duo comes up with and merges it in a consistent track of 12+ minutes duration. There are no specific surprises to be found, which makes it a proper drum-filled Ambient track. Spellbinding but tensely spectral synth washes and hazy veils of mystique interact constantly, and exotic drums of all kinds meander along without detracting from the baneful atmosphere. Monotonously played bamboo flutes inject solemnity to the track, but they expand the coldness even further. Seduction Of The Minotaur is a terrific Ambient song, bringing to mind the superb Magma off the duo’s first album Strata. Permanently cavernous bass drones, foggy synth mists and spectacularly mesmeric synth washes ebb and flow through the creepy atmosphere. The long sustain of the fading synths evokes both plasticity and wideness. The song isn’t without its flaws, though: for quite a long time in the middle of the track, an Indian flute coupled with a didgeridoo bring back the usually unwanted New Age scheme, but whether this is an affront or a cute enhancement is up to each individual listener. I can tolerate these devices, for they merge well with the enigmatic soundscape. The outro is called Touch, and it is indeed an unexpectedly bright and resplendent song. Seraphic synth choirs, echoey four-note melodies on the steel guitar and whale song-like strings of pompousness on the same instrument make this a warm, conciliatory composition of System 7-esque proportions. Thumbs up for this last track and – yes, indeed – for the overall album!
Less New Age, more threatening aural surroundings: that's Soma in a nutshell. Even though Roach and Rich hark back to the stylistic qualities of Strata with songs like the tropical mystery of Going Inland and the scary caverns of Seduction Of The Minotaur, it is the eclectic drums that carry this particular release. Their punchiness and plasticity is awesome, and it is possibly due to my love for Exotica releases that I dig their inclusion so much. The drum patterns aren't specifically complex, but their vividness works great in juxtaposition to the dark synth cascades in the background. At times, New Age strikes back in the form of Indian flutes and didgeridoos, but I am willed and capable to accept these as devices of enigma and arcaneness. If you mind the drums, go for Seduction Of The Minotaur, but if you are up for something else than drum machine-created beats, the opener Love Magick offers almost the whole spectrum of percussion. Indeed, one could call this an esoteric New Age album, but this time, I prefer a clumsily called genre categorization like Tribal Dark Ambient due to the eclectic drums and crestfallen synth sweeps. Only the closing track Touch offers a silkier, lighter undertone, so consider this one if you're not too fond of the album's overall theme.
Ambient Review 097: Steve Roach & Robert Rich – Soma (1992). Originally published on Jul. 25, 2012 at AmbientExotica.com.