Sonar, Swiss masters of multi-rhythm tritone minimalism, continue their career-long quest for a state of grace with Vortex, an album made with American impressionist guitar slinger David Torn, a combination of opposites that compliments one another marvellously on a scintillating journey into the abyss.
I first became aware of David Torn via his work with Bruford-Levin Upper Extremities, specifically, the utterly gripping double live album B.L.U.E. Nights, released back at the turn of the millennium. Since then I have enjoyed dipping into his vast and sometimes challenging discography, both as a solo artist, and as a contributor to the work of others.
Never one to play a straight solo, Torn takes more of a Jackson Pollock approach, splashing vivid swathes of visceral sound over the canvas of whatever music he is called upon to colour. In this instance, that not inconsiderable backdrop is supplied by the mesmerising intricacies of Sonar, who knit together impossible time signatures and metronomic guitar lines with a well-practised and deceptively nonchalant ease.
The thing that makes Sonar tick is the rhythm section, and the rumbling bass lines of Christian Kuntner are aided by David Torn’s wonderful production that renders the fat-stringed instrument into a subtly thunderous monster. The deft touch of drummer Manuel Pasquinelli weaves in and around the solid anchor of Kunter’s bass playing, creating a mesh of rhythm. Sonar’s regular guitar paring of Stephen Thelen and Bernard Wagner lay down their usual and seemingly effortless interweaving spidery math lines in complex time signatures, forming a top layer of intricate cross stitching, allowing David Torn to fire off his flights of fiery fancy at will.
Introduced to the band by avant guitarist Henry Kaiser, the original intention was to have David Torn produce the album and appear on only a few tracks. Encouraged by friend and mentor Anil Prasad, the Sonar and Torn combination ended up playing on the entire album, a decision that is self-evidently the correct one.
Straight away one can sense the upping of Sonar’s ante on the opening track. The grindingly fabulous beast entitled Part 44 contains a grit and heft of a kind not previously observed in the Sonar universe. Torn’s production adds an unprecedented industrial smog courtesy of Kunter’s rumbling bass and the producer’s own cloud of sonic sulfur to the hitherto pristine Swiss air that is both surprising and successful.
On Red Shift Thelen and Wagner’s melody lines are complemented in the latter stages by a looped e-bow Frippian effect by David topped off by a growling feedback discontent that is both beautiful and eerie. Elsewhere the signature taut tension in the build-up of the pieces is intermittently released by Torn’s wails and howls, the band and guitarist being “…a bit like yin and yang or the two opposing ends of a ring-shaped world”, to quote Thelen from the press release.
Weight and counterweight, or Sonar as the immovable object vs Torn as the unstoppable force, or any number of other classic comparison tropes apply to this pairing, and I would dearly love to see this sonic collision in the live environment. In the meantime, here’s a clip that explains everything… well, after a fashion, the studio beast is on another level:
Monolith sees Thelen succinctly describing Torn’s guitar “howling like a wounded beast”, on a track anchored in huge gravity that starkly contrasts minimalist precision with improvisational angst. That tension, it’s there again. It’s not the amount of notes played, it’s where and when they are played that has this piece crackling with a rarefied nervous energy. Lord alone knows how many time signatures are wrestling beneath the skin of this monster, but it will have you listening in all directions at once. If psychology had a soundtrack, this would be it.
The three tracks I have attempted to describe will hopefully shine some light on this album which seems to be a natural pinnacle in Sonar’s career that will take some beating. Sonar are always moving forward, and I hope you will be as surprised as I was by the rockisms of the concluding track, Lookface! David Torn says this was “…a totally improvised, crunchy rock piece”, and he ain’t wrong.
In conclusion, Vortex is an early and strong contender for my Album of the Year, and you need it in your collection. That is all.
01. Part 44 (9:56)
02. Red Shift (10:31)
03. Waves And Particles (7:49)
04. Monolith (10:47)
05. Vortex (9:37)
06. Lookface! (7:13)
Total Time – 55:56
Stephen Thelen – Guitar
Bernard Wagner – Guitar
Christian Kuntner – Electric Bass
Manuel Pasquinelli – Drums
David Torn – Electric Guitar, Live Looping & Manipulation
Record Label: RareNoise Records
Date of Release: 30th March 2018