The Magnificent Void by Steve Roach (Review)

This is a soundtrack for outer space, with all of its wonders and terrors.
Magnificent Void, Steve Roach

I’ve found that trying to describe a lot of the music I listen to is somewhat akin to describing a sunrise to a blind person. This is especially true of ambient music. To most people, it’s just noise and random sounds. And this is certainly true of Steve Roach’s The Magnificent Void. One day, while listening to this album, my roommate came in and sarcastically remarked, “Boy, he sounds original.” And I dare say that this is the opinion that would be held by most people.

But to people who are fans of ambient music, true ambient music, this album won’t disappoint. And if you’re one of those individuals who wants to get into ambient music, but isn’t sure what album to get, you can’t go wrong with this one, because this is about as ambient as they come. In many of his recent recordings, Roach has opted for a more ethnic/world-ambient sound, utilizing traditional instruments like the didgeridoo, combined with synths and keyboards. On The Magnificent Void, Roach completely abandons all earthly devices and designs, and ventures to the stars.

As the album title might suggest, The Magnificent Void conjures up images of deep space, the regions between the galaxies, where no stars or matter exist. It brings to mind dense collections of dark matter slowly moving, unseen by anything or anyone, or the distant nebulas where stars are born. And this album is truly majestic — grandiose, slowly unfolding, and extremely cinematic, like the soundtrack to an alien film, or to a film about the depths of a black hole. This is a soundtrack to outer space, with all of its wonders and terrors.

The album opens up with a slowly repeating pulse. Some alien broadcast, or the repeating signals of a nebula? Whatever the case, this pulse is slowly overcome as dark synth clouds collapse around it. As the rest of the album unfolds, haunting melodies, clanking chains, and distant chimes all combine to create a beautiful emptiness. There are no musical signposts on this album, no traditional forms of music. On “Infinite Shore,” occasional melodies rise up, but they are so few and far between that they don’t even register at first. Underpinning these melodies are dense synths and deep, sinister bass synths, like an alien Flying Dutchman.

The album culminates in “Altus” which begins with crystal clear notes, rising from the dense blackness, like the birth of stars. Perhaps if the whole album denotes the vastness of the universe, the depth that makes us so insignificant, these shimmering cascades of sound in “Altus” denote the universe’s wonders. Slowly unfolding and disappearing, it is like the moment of creation.

It would be very easy for this music to have no soul, no emotion to it. However, Roach imbues a sense of awe and wonder to this album. At times, it is very easy to get lost in the sheer sound, the isolating sense of it all. But on those rare moments, this album truly is like floating in a void. And perhaps Roach is hinting at the universe inside us, the microcosm that exists inside of us. And in that respect, this album takes on an almost spiritual sense.

I’ve probably come across as pretty pretentious and ignorant, as I probably do in most of my reviews. But it is so hard to put the vastness and grand nature of this album into human words. How do you describe having the earth fall away from you and suddenly floating in the depths of space, the fire of a thousand galaxies surrounding you? How do you describe a sunrise to a blind man? You can use all of the words in the english language, but nothing works except for the experience.

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