The cover for Steve Roach’s Dynamic Stillness features some of my favorite cover art in recent memory. Not only is it an evocative image in and of itself, it’s also a perfect visual metaphor for the album’s eight long-form ambient soundscapes: a bleak yet evocative surface that hides vast, mysterious depths.
It’s a safe bet that for most people, the term “ambient music” conjures up ethereal layers of synthesizer tones and other blissed out sounds, and that’s certainly been the case with many Roach releases — especially when he’s in full-on ethno-ambient mode. However, with the possible exception of the masterfully minimal Structures From Silence (still my favorite Roach album), I’ve always found Roach more interesting when he’s exploring darker, tenser territories in his music, most notably on The Magnificent Void.
Throughout its nearly two-and-a-half hours, Dynamic Stillness conjures up the same sort of ominous, lonely sonic structures that Roach explored in The Magnificent Void, only they feel more terrestrial and even subterranean compared to the cosmically minded Void. Which is to say that Dynamic Stillness is not for the faint of heart; weaker listeners will certainly be weeded out by the 40-minute opener, “Birth of Still Places,” thanks to its deep, groaning drones and chilly, windswept banks of synths. There are no melodies or sense of rhythm to hang onto: it’s just pure, tonal drift, an exercise in sustained mood — and a foreboding one at that.
As such, Dynamic Stillness is daunting, and even exhausting from the get-go. Roach sets out to map a blasted, desolate wasteland with the music here, and as a result, he rarely allows the listener to settle in and become comfortable with the terrain. Something ominous always seems to be lurking just over the horizon, or behind some newly discovered alien formation. But that doesn’t mean that Dynamic Stillness is without moments of beauty. On “A Darker Light,” Roach’s soundscapes lighten up a bit, allowing some contemplative, peaceful moments à la Vidna Obmana, and “Further Inside” finds echoing pulses and arpeggios emanating from the song’s placid core like transmissions from a long-lost civilization.
Dynamic Stillness is one of the more challenging Steve Roach releases; it’s not without its rewards, but it makes plenty of demands of its listeners. Patient listeners can find treasures strewn throughout Roach’s desolation, but those who believe “ambient” music is primarily about relaxation and blissing out won’t find much of value here. Their loss, I suppose.