Robert Rich’s restless spirit still retains a collagist’s wicked sense of the surreal, how to both jostle and juxtapose sounds and enhance the molecular divisions between silence and signal. He has long been a champion, enthusiast, and expert knob twiddler of the given technology of the day, but his exploratory nature has found him straddling electroacoustic interfaces as well.
Age is a funny concept—it creeps up on you stealthily, methodically, unforgivably. Time is age’s engine, and it too manages to provoke both shock and awe, shock in the realization (as we age) at how much time has passed. Looking in the rear-view mirror, we marvel, and are indeed maybe a bit frightened, at how the great passage of time colors the past, filters it, and often paints the artistic fonts initially forged back then in even starker base relief. Art, too, is fluid, malleable, and just as vulnerable to the ravages of time and age; instrumentation and production methods carbon-date recordings but therein lies the marvelous construct of innocence, of fledgling strikes out in to the darkness. The great thrust of technology, as applied specifically to matters of recording format, is that we can evaluate a work of sonic art across multiple platforms and multiple generations, and simultaneously, the options of format can both negate and enhance both the recording itself and our interaction with it.
Electronic musician Robert Rich has treaded across the idiomatic spectrum of his respective genre for well over three decades now, moving veritable mountains of sound within it. He has long been a champion, enthusiast, and expert knob twiddler of the given technology of the day, but his exploratory nature has found him straddling electroacoustic interfaces as well, reconstituting air through didjeridoos molded from PVC pipe, thwacking the taut skins and polished surfaces of myriad percussives, and founding an entire subsidiary of granular texture mysteriously dubbed “glurp.” Rich came of age during the CD’s emergence as the LP and the cassette tape were undergoing drastic conflicts of interest. His compositions made full, glorious use of the CD’s expansive dynamic range and storage time; in fact, as part of the 80s ‘California’ scene that included West Coast colleagues Steve Roach, Kevin Braheny, Richard Burmer, Michael Stearns, and others, Rich’s music was uniformly compatible for the burgeoning five-inch silver disc, whose format revealed every brilliant hue, cranny, and nuance.
As the entire idea of ‘format’ itself threatens to dissipate in a proverbial puff of smoke, society’s current infatuation with vinyl, at odds with the compact disc, nevertheless paints it as a veritable time machine; these two editions of Rich’s works, framing his discography, unironically support both formats to freeze time itself, where the dots between then and now become explicitly connected. Spread across four LPs, Premonitions utilizes the ‘archaic’ surface tensions of vinyl to unveil Rich’s embryonic compositions and guileless experiments, aural preludes and prefaces leading up to his first legitimate cassette releases in the mid 80s. And his latest recording, Vestiges, signifies the CD’s importance as Rich’s premier organ of choice.
It seems strangely appropriate to experience the totality of Premonitions’s tracks on LP, warts and all, given Rich’s initial reluctance to release these pieces in the first place. Vinyl-on-Demand prides itself on using the highest-grade wax for its editions, all of which, Premonitions included, are housed in collectable-coiffed boxes, the records tucked in nonstatic dust jackets, production credits and liner notes decked out in lavish 12×12 books. Such attention to quality is reflected in equally engrossing listening. To hear Rich eke out these works is to break out in a Cheshire grin—he’s like a kid in a candy store who instinctively knows where the sweetspot is. Throughout the 27-minute gateway of 1980’s “Selene and Ether,” Rich spreads his ideas far and wide along sweeping elliptical planes of tentative synthesizer abrasions, and as the tones subtly shift from orange daybreak to pale nightshade, his modus operandi, recognized instantly in the opening phrases of Vestiges, comes full circle.
Nonetheless, Premonitions on face is a conundrum, despite the obvious talents of its maker, its birth pangs and youthful enthusiasm begging the question as to whether an artist should make such nascent work public in the first place. Rich seems to be empowering this notion by allowing VoD the access and choosing vinyl as its interlocutor. Whether this challenges the ‘legitimacy’ of the work is for historians to ponder; for the listener, the resulting music speaks for itself. Obvious care went in to Rich’s choices as he trawled through his archives, and although the LP’s limited duration prevented the chosen pieces from being sequenced chronologically, that doesn’t diminish from the surety of the tracks themselves.
Undoubtedly, Rich’s imprimatur was hallmarked early on, his feel for what constituted moods both light and dark colored in from the outset. His facility with manipulating sound borders on the sublime. The respiratory atmospheres on “Clouds” are practically abyssal as Rich merges the infinite expanse of ambient with the exhaustive hypnos of drone to conjugative effect, while two longform works, “Live Monterrey” and “Live Stanford” demonstrate how he could reincarnate the ghosts of Tangerine Dreams both literal and far-flung with ease. The softly purring sequencer motif of “Monterrey” is especially galvanizing, augmented by a repeating bell-like substructure, trance music that plays with the subconscious as hallucinogenically as Terry Riley’s minimalist exercises. The reams of velvet darkness extracted from “Live Stanford” and “Guitar Drone” are the precursors of his often mammoth sleep concerts of the era, narcotic mini-symphonies of inner ear tilt and mind-altering REM deprivation. Contrast all this then to “CCRMA Voices” and “Manna,” two of the box sets’ most distinctive tracks. The former finds Rich exploring Stanford’s computer music lab, recontextualizing Froeseian arpeggios in a magnificently elegant filter sweep of quark and quirk, married to a pristine, knotted pretzel logic of notes as American as silver apple pie. “Manna” is Rich’s love letter to the Prophet 5 synth, an infectious seventeen minutes of bulking metallic drift, cosmic flutes, and interstellar clarion calls, a blast of pure, unadulterated space music that distilled the very essence of his post-adolescent muse.
The lugubrious nature of those early recordings has transmogrified over the years, as Rich’s production alacrity and a surfiet of technological moxie enabled him to qualify sonic identifiers every bit as potent as progenitors Froese, Eno, Vorhaus, etc. Yet his restless spirit still retains a collagist’s wicked sense of the surreal, how to both jostle and juxtapose sounds and enhance the molecular divisions between silence and signal. What is most evident in Rich’s thirty-five-year-plus journey isn’t just the remarkable consistency displayed across an equal number of releases, but the provenance his work has now attained from its decades-long evolution. This is not to suggest any rote similarities throughout his catalog, or to levy accusations of ideological stasis that has blemished the work of some of his contemporaries. On the contrary, as Vestiges so vividly illustrates, Rich’s way with keyboard and slider is one of refinement on a broad level; within his own well-established vocabulary he tweaks each release’s syntax convincingly enough. Familiarity doesn’t breed contempt but rather abject wonder.
The CD format also serves Vestiges well. In fact, it is ideal. This is not some arbitrary statement or glib supposition. Embracing the textured cartography spanning such desolate vistas as the one traversed on “Spectre of Lost Light” speaks volumes on how Rich’s music needs to be interpreted, and that roughly translates into an elimination of the LP’s omnipresent sonic detritus. As Rich executes each electronic whoop and holler with a deft craftsman’s touch, the sheer dynamic potential of what the CD offers is never rendered so impactfully. And the very architecture of Vestiges behooves the format’s lengthy timestamp. The opening clutch of pieces, blending together in a starkly wrought triptych, establishes the album’s tracking shot: smoky, barren landscapes, the whisper of toothless fauna scuttling about, darkly synthetic winds blowing over environs of apocalyptic aftermath in epic lament. Never shy about depicting such bleak atmospheres, the acts of archetypal solace underpinning Rich’s cinematic contours drawn across Vestiges is the leftover mist arising from the first breaths taken on Premonitions, further expounded upon and realized with three-decade hindsight. Rich’s aural poetry is as poignantly reflected in his track titling. “Obscured by Leaf Shadows” posits ceremonial shakers behind contemplative, Budding piano and stricken, whitewashed synths that characteristically shift and eddy behind a metronomic burst of EMP bass pulse. “Equipoise and Dissolution” further extends the ominous metaphors of some unnamed cataclysm bridging worlds past and future, mysterious voices flittering just out of earshot amidst Rich’s trademark manmade flutes and wild-eyed electronics. The finale, nicked with the Dylan Thomas-esque title “Anchorless on Quiet Tide,” is a sixteen-minute edict of tranquility and pause, as Rich’s emotive and sparse piano notes lay adrift in a new-dawn thrush of soft-spoken, whispery tones. Rarely does electronic, née ‘ambient’, music connect two apposite poles with such a gripping statement of intent and become all the Richer for it.