Yes, sequencer music can be repetitive. But two things: one, we’ve known this for decades and for many of us, knowing hasn’t dampened our love of it. Two, in the hands of Steve Roach, who started in this sphere, took a long trip through so many other realms of electronic music and now returns to his hands-on, purely analog roots with Skeleton Keys, the dynamics of repetition take on a new timbre. He’s not trying to reinvent or reinvigorate the style here; he’s clearly just digging on coming home. If you’ve been along for the ride this whole time, the reverse-echoing intro to “The Only Way In” is like a vortex pulling you back the man’s early work. For me, it was a familiar sound, one I greeted with a broad smile, like seeing an old friend again. (And damned if I can remember which song I’m reminded of. Ah, age.) And, yes, both the opener and its followup, “The Function and the Form,” are deliciously old school, but the strength of Skeleton Keys is that is doesn’t just linger in that zone. Roach is a couple decades more experienced than the guy who created Now and Empetus, and he’s got a smoother hand. “It’s All Connected” shifts the feel toward a more subtle groove, reminiscent of the zones he played with on Immersion 5. This track spreads the sequencer bits out more, finds an easier rhythmic stride, and lets the focus fall more squarely on slow-breathing pads in the background. It’s also a welcome shift in pace after the high-speed runs of the two tracks before it, and it slips very smoothly into the just-slightly-faster beats of “Outer Weave.” Outside of the fact that I have always enjoyed this style of music, the more I listen to Skeleton Keys the more I’m aware that what I’m really enjoying about it is the seamless juggling of lines, pulses, and pads and they way the come together. On “Escher’s Dream Is Dreaming,” there’s a great sense of Roach as the patient conductor, deftly cue’ing his various phrases, picking and choosing and just watching the sound build around him. There are some great uses of small textural sounds hiding in here, skittering and burbling beneath the main lines. By the end of the album, we understand that the guy standing behind the modular rack might in many ways be the same one who caught the analog bug 40 years ago and switched us on with Now, but the man behind Skeleton Keys is a more confident, deeper composer—who has never lost his sense of play.
One thought on “Steve Roach, Skeleton Keys”
I’m compelled to count this release among Roach’s finest work. I’m wondering if the title for “The Function And The Form” was in any way a hat tip to the song “Vital Signs” by Rush, which even starts with a bold synth sequence (although, sounding nothing like that of Roach). Either way, Roach is on top of his game here.