Mirage at the Crossroads
is Biff Johnson's second album of electronic experimental music. Like his first one, Reading the Bones
, its final production is by Steve Roach in his "Timeroom" studio in Arizona. But though Johnson remains definitely in the "school of Steve Roach," this album shows that he is finding his own individual voice. Though he uses most of the same elements that Roach does, such as floating synthesizer chords and unconventional percussion, he has built his own sound with them. He may be using the same language as Roach, but he is saying different things.
As a bassist, Johnson brings a jazz influence to this usually unstructured type of music; you can hear the subtle sounds of Johnson's bass guiding the drifting masses of formless harmony into a soft order. He also likes to use recognizable chords out of jazz harmony, though in brief fragments, such as in track 2, "Urban Initiation," rather than the more dissonant tone-clusters of Roach.
Johnson is still working within the soundworld of the American Southwest; but unlike Roach's sunstruck, endless vistas, Biff Johnson seems to evoke the underground world of the mines beneath that desert surface. His percussion notes sound like miners' picks and shovels, drips of water, the clink of stones – a "mineraloid" sound which brings a harder mood than most of Roach's work. Synthesizers simulate the cries of birds and the chitter of bats. There is also, in some tracks, an "industrial" sound of clanks and engine whirrs – the machinery of the mines, and a chainlike sound (made by a metal Slinky-toy) in track 3. And in track 1, "Five Sticks Burning," Johnson depicts the sound of a desert mine train, the rumble and click of rails and its shrieking whistle in the distance.
This album does not depend on simulated "tribal" rhythms to drive it along; in fact there is little direct evocation of anything Native American, except perhaps in the somewhat "jungle-styled" track 8, "Badaraca" (which to me sounds inconsistent with the theme of the rest of the album). Most of Johnson's rhythms are those of mechanical devices, and the sounds, even from "natural" instruments, are used to paint a dark, spooky picture, a stark vision of abandoned mines, dead technology, rusting slag. At times it is both beautiful and chilling, scary and graceful. The pace does tend to move slowly, and at almost 73 minutes it is a long listen. But it's an enthralling one, if, like me, you like to gaze towards the darker horizon of the futuristic desert.