It’s rather wonderful when discovering music for the first time with which many others are familiar. A bit like finding a new path nearby that you’ve not previously noticed before and discovering new vistas and points of interest on your travels, something pertinent to recent weeks perhaps. Anyway, this is the case for me with this release. I approached it unfamiliar with Swiss minimalists Sonar, and although certainly having heard of David Torn, I’d not explored his work to any extent. Well, that’s going to change right away, because this record is a thoroughly enjoyable use of forty minutes. I mean, what can you do in forty minutes? Iron a few shirts you aren’t likely to need for a while? Or walk to the local shop and queue up to get in and buy a pint of milk? Cycle to the next village and back and struggle to regain your composure? I’ve tried all three, and would suggest that listening to music is infinitely more rewarding than any of those, and this album in particular would make the time pass in a flash.
So, four pieces of music, like slightly strange animals which at first look familiar, but which on closer inspection are unlike animals you usually encounter; each clearly related, but with different personalities, and behaving slightly oddly. Take the opening track (check the track listing, I can’t write it again) which starts with an interesting but repetitive pattern, a swirl of atmospheric soundscape, a second guitar pattern interlocking and joined by bass and eventually drums together creating a textural ambience over which David Torn begins to coax some strange cries from his guitar, gently at first. Further other-worldly soundscape washes swirl around, and the rhythm has become more assertive, then Torn’s guitar wakes up and catches fire, raining coruscating notes and flourishes before subsiding again. It is typical of the songs on display here; often lulling the listener into a hypnotic reverie before unleashing the sort of guitar sounds which cannot be ignored.
There are moments that remind me of 1980s Crimson, with the interlocking guitars weaving a world over which Fripp and Belew would create the strangest solos. I suppose the approach here is more textural and minimalist, and at the same time allowing more space for full improvisational expression. On the title track, Torn’s controlled feedback howls are somehow both gloriously unbridled and yet used sparingly to increase their effect. For me the album succeeds because of the rare dynamic between the band and Torn, between the fury and restraint. Quite what Sonar sound like as a unit on their own I’ve yet to discover, but it’s certainly on my list, because the atmospherics and assertive underpinning on display here provide the springboard for everything else, and yet are enjoyable in their own right.
The compositional aspect of the pieces here is easy to overlook. At first listen, they sound like simple rhythmic devices or patterns over which Torn’s fireworks can be displayed, but Stephan Thelen’s writing is far more than that when one listens more acutely. The ebb and flow of each piece is no accident of noodling in the studio, there is a skilful and subtle writing method at work making the twists and turns appear evolutionary and natural. Once the listener realises, (ok, it took me a few listens) another layer of interest is added to the whole experience.
You may notice that Sonar use tritone guitar tunings. Not being a guitarist myself, I had to look up what this meant, and confess that talk of augmented fourths and diminished fifths went completely over my head. Fortunately I can report that my lack of understanding has not noticeably affected my enjoyment of the music on display, but I guess musos might find this more interesting than I did. All I can say is that this is an album which challenges the ears and pushes boundaries, but in a way which is readily accessible and wonderfully engaging. That’s enough for me.
01. Triskaidekaphilia (9:45)
02. Tranceportation (12:42)
03. Slowburn (10:03)
04. Cloud Chamber (9:40)
Total Time – 42:10
David Torn – Electric Guitar, Live Looping
Stephan Thelen – Tritone Guitar
Bernhard Wagner – Tritone Guitar
Christian Kuntner – Tritone Bass
Manuel Pasquinelli – Drums, Percussion
Record Label: RareNoiseRecords
Country of Origin: Switzerland/U.S.A.
Date of Release: 26th June 2020