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Jim O’Rourke - Steamroom 40 Music Album Reviews

Jim O’Rourke - Steamroom 40 Music Album Reviews
The 40th installment of the prolific producer and composer’s Steamroom series is a highlight, one long, meditative piece of synth overtones, slowly rising arpeggios, and pure drift.

Most of Jim O’Rourke’s music is not made for you or me. Some of it is: the Wilco and Sonic Youth records he’s played on or produced were certainly meant to have an audience. His collaborative output—scores of releases, many improvised, alongside players like Oren Ambarchi, Keiji Haino, Fennesz—is part of a greater conversation encompassing both players and listeners. And his “rock” albums for Drag City, a loose series stretching from 1997’s Bad Timing through 2015’s Simple Songs: No matter what the Chicago native, long a resident of Japan, may say, those are surely meant for ears beyond his own. They’re too meticulous—and too joyous—not to be. But then there are the Steamroom releases, and those truly are a private, paging-through-his-journals affair. Not because they’re particularly unguarded or revealing; it’s simply that he would be making those recordings whether anybody listened or not. “I just have to make them,” he told Bandcamp, the artist-to-fan retail platform where he hosts the series. “It’s like my oxygen.”

Named after his studio, the Steamroom series amounts to a curated archive of his daily practice. Since 2013, when the series launched, it has included reissued early work, film soundtracks, and tour-only releases, but the bulk of it comprises previously unreleased recordings made in his Tokyo workspace. O’Rourke spends a good chunk of his day holed up with a Serge synthesizer and a drawer full of field recordings, massaging sounds into a shape that feels right to him. It’s less about composition or songwriting—there’s nothing approaching a song on these albums—and more like painting or throwing pots, only with duration itself in place of pigment or clay. “I like longform music that isn’t necessarily about structure,” he says. “It’s just a long period of something happening.” The Steamroom releases amount to a kind sculpted air.

For the most part, that means drones. Steamroom 20’s “Silent Night” is an inky hour colored the semi-matte black of a fogged-up window on a moonless night. Steamroom 27’s “Long Night Part One,” 47 minutes long, brandishes tight clusters of needling tones that feel like they’re trying to crowd their way into your ear canal. Not all the material is so shapeless; Steamroom 29’s “from here to there” sets playful, almost circus-like synth chords against insect chirps and shortwave chatter. Whether sinister or bucolic, what all the releases share in common is an almost total absence of discernable structure in favor of pure drift.

But if the austerity of many Steamroom releases means they’re likely to appeal mainly to confirmed fans of dark ambient music, Steamroom 40 stands out, even though it clearly occupies the same continuum as its predecessors. For one thing, as drones go, it captures a brighter, airier mood, and its consonant tonal field is instantly recognizable. Plenty of this kind of music can sound largely interchangeable even to its fans, but Steamroom 40’s lone, 41-minute track, “Improper Release,” can’t easily be mistaken for anything else in the series—or anyone else’s work, either. Its gentleness is reminiscent of Kevin Drumm’s 2009 album Imperial Horizon, but O’Rourke’s materials are less muted, more clear-cut. It’s hard to say how he made it, but it feels like all the notes in a major scale are fading softly (and perhaps randomly) in and out of earshot, overlapping in such a way that creates a perpetually shifting moiré of cottony harmonies.

The bulk of its frequencies occupy a moderate range, smack in the center of the spectrum—you imagine a cat curled up in the middle of the keyboard—and slowly cycling arpeggios gradually conduct the energy upward in waves. There’s almost no dissonance; the rare off note flashes like a blade of grass showing its underside before the wind whips it around again. It’s easily among the most placid, peaceful music O’Rourke has ever made—perhaps the only thing in Steamroom’s catalog you could conceivably call “pretty.”

But despite its outward simplicity, there’s more going on here than meets the ear: frequencies cascading just out of earshot, microtones extending like a hall of mirrors. Funny things start to happen the longer you listen; you may begin hearing melodies that aren’t there. I tend to hear echoes of New Order’s “Procession,” which shares its key, and its palette of smeared analog synthesizers, with O’Rourke’s piece. And if you listen loud and on good speakers, the occasional rumble of bass will feel like there’s a truck idling outside your house. This is not music for laptop speakers or lossy compression. O’Rourke entreats his fans to download his music in the “best possible quality,” and like everything in the series, Steamroom 40 both wants and deserves a high-fidelity experience. That’s not just an issue of audio fetishism; it’s almost a philosophical question. This is music that proceeds according to its own logic and its own time scale, music that offers a stern rebuke to the anthropocentrism of the old tree-falling-in-a-forest maxim. Whether or not there’s anyone there to hear it is irrelevant, this music seems to say. The sound itself is self-sufficient, self-sustaining, and maybe even self-aware. It does not need us, which makes us all the luckier to have it.

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