This Steve Roach release has the most unusual packaging I've ever seen on a CD. Instead of the usual brittle plastic box, the CD is sandwiched in between two quarter-inch-thick slabs of real slate rock. The plastic holder, with a printed paper insert, is stuck to the slate, and the two six-inch-square slabs are held together with four patches of incongruously futuristic Velcro. Try putting this one in your CD caddy! (An expanded version of this album will be released on Projekt next year, in a "conventional" CD case.)
Well, once you open this up and play it, what does it sound like? From the beginning, you know you are in Roach Country, with its cavernous reverberation, mysterious industrial and cave sounds, whispers and whistles, slowly building rhythms on Native drums, and of course the shimmering swells of the synthesizer, which no one in the electronic music business does better. These are all familiar Roach repertoire, but as with every new Roach album, you never know quite how he will combine them, and what you are going to get.
The title suggests anthropology, and the Flintstones-style packaging also points toward a "cave man" theme, but this is not a cliché evocation of hairy, fur-clad Cro-Magnons drumming and dancing round a fire. Rather, it is an exploration of the sounds of the Earth as these very ancient people might have heard them, perhaps before our modern consciousness separated us from nature. It is not just a "picture" of "early man," it invites the listener to BE "early man."
Roach's recent albums for the last few years, from On This Planet to Body Electric and the spectacular Light Fantastic , have featured a fierce intensity, often high volume, and superfast rhythms. But here in Early Man the rhythms are much slower, the mood is quieter, and the volume is low almost throughout the album. This time, Roach spins trancemusic, especially in the 25-minute title track 2, "Early Man." A hypnotic, very even rhythm beckons the listener to sway to the beat. Slow guitar riffs (played by Steve), looped to repeat, and heavily filtered and reverbed, add a watery depth to the sound mix. It's actually restful; its mood is summery, warm, and nocturnal without being "dark."
The next tracks are more explicitly electronic, with long passages of atonal, mysterious environments wrapped in reverberation. These pieces are examples of Roach's "abstract" style, which he has occasionally used in more "desert"-oriented albums such as Desert Solitaires or Artifacts. This "abstract" style is one of his more esoteric modes, and here it is made somewhat more accessible by a steady (but again slow) percussion beat (some of it added by "Vir Unis"), as in track 4, "Walking Upright." Track 5, "Hunting and Gathering," features the only speed on the album, a twanging electronic sequence which soon sinks low onto the sound-horizon and eventually disappears into the dusk.
Towards the end of "Hunting and Gathering," and into the last track, #6, "Flow Stone," the real reason for the slate packaging becomes clear. Into the mist comes the bell-like sound of a grinding stone, one of Steve's many "found object percussion" items. When you pick up the slate slabs of the CD cover, and slowly draw them against each other in various ways, you have that very sound that Roach is generating - though of course without the cavernous reverb. This must be the only CD where the artist has given you one of his actual musical instruments in the packaging! It is another way that Early Man invites the participation of the listener.
Early Man is definitely not a "popular"- oriented album, crafted to cause excitement. Nor is it along the lines of his strictly ambient, long-format pieces like The Dream Circle or Slow Heat. It is challenging, thoughtful, designed to subtly alter the listener's consciousness through trance rhythms. And yet even though it is challenging, it is also surprisingly serene, a "music of the earth" encased in some of earth's very own stone.