In the beginning, there was silence. Then dark, womblike synth atmospheres, shot through with bits of bright, high-pitched percussion. A slow undercurrent of sound movement becomes audible, the first stirrings of life amidst the volcanic sulfur stink and violent electrical storms of earth’s infancy. Rattles, creaks, and groans resound across the landscape as vast mountain ranges grind and crash, thrusting up against each other and the lurid orange sky. With a distant gong, a new species steps onto the primordial scene, joining its tentative voice to those of the other creatures whose calls trill and ululate in the crackling air while the first dawn’s rays set the horizon on fire.
And that’s just in the first track — “Early Dawn” — of this two-CD, nearly two-and-a-half-hour magnum opus from Steve Roach. For my money, this is Roach’s best work since his 1995 collaboration with Vidna Obmana, Well Of Souls. Like that release, Early Man digs deep into our primordial unconscious, painting gorgeous dark soundscapes with synths and electronic and traditional percussion. Each track flows seamlessly into the next, weaving an uninterrupted musical journey in which themes and variations are introduced, slowly submerge, then resurface again later. Recurring motifs are hollow sounds from the darkness of an underground cavern; water dripping, lapping, or splashing; a deep, throbbing heartbeat of the first human, or the earth itself; and ricocheting electronic blips like sparks dancing from an ancient campfire or stars shooting across the primeval heavens.
Like many dark ambient works by Roach and others, Early Man rewards complete immersion and drifting off to the music almost as much as close, conscious attention. For long stretches, especially on Disc Two (which consists mostly of remixes and reworkings of the sonic source material for Disc One), not much seems to happen. But this repetition induces an almost hypnotic state, in which even the tiniest change produces a strong reaction in the listener, heightening their awareness of certain often-overlooked sounds (especially high frequencies, according to Roach’s notes in the press release) that form a crucial part of our internal and external soundscapes. The bottom line is, Early Man is a very fine release, and one that is likely to form a milestone in Roach’s oeuvre almost as important as his ground-breaking Dreamtime Return.