A Swiss rock instrumental quartet governed by the “less is more” philosophy.
Sonar – Black Light [TrackList follows] – Cuneiform, Rune 414, 41:23 [10/16/15] ****1/2:
(Stephan Thelen – electric tritone guitar; Bernhard Wagner – electric tritone guitar; Christian Kuntner – electric tritone bass; Manuel Pasquinelli – drums)
The Swiss instrumental quartet SONAR (short for SONic ARchitecture) is a group with a mission. This is a guitar ensemble which doesn’t do things representative of guitar-centric collectives. For one, they restrain from six-string spectacles (lengthy solos are not common). For another, they fashion material which has set, nearly mathematical, configurations based on tritones (musical intervals comprised of three adjacent whole tones). Despite compositions which have precise structures, SONAR creates music which has body, soul and spirit: this is music which is detailed for specialized performance, but the musicians (Stephan Thelen and Bernhard Wagner on electric tritone guitars; electric tritone bassist Christian Kuntner; and drummer Manuel Pasquinelli) are open to different ideas and sounds, and they keep events from becoming static. Genres can be confining, but if someone needs to do genre simplification, put SONAR in the post-progressive, post-rock, post-minimal musical vein, alongside musicians such as Swiss keyboardist Nik Bärtsch, Belgian cooperative Present, or Paris-based Magma.
The 49-minute Black Light (which can be streamed online) is SONAR’s fifth release, and follows 2014’s Static Motion (their first on the Cuneiform label). While Static Motion (which can also be streamed online) brought international notice to this foursome, the six extended tracks on Black Light prove SONAR isn’t interested in running a concept into the ground. The tritone approach continues, but Black Light represents a band developing and enlarging a perceptible musical personality. Black Light is available in three formats: CD, double vinyl and digital download (the digital and vinyl versions include two live bonus cuts). This review refers to the CD.
The band’s advancement is most clear on specific numbers. The title track, for example, uses surf music as a touchstone, but more akin to San Francisco’s post-surf combo, the Mermen, than the Beach Boys or Dick Dale. Originally, the piece was supposed to consist of a groove-oriented interplay with guitar riffs as the main focus. But Wagner started adding a reverb guitar element and his input became a larger component. It’s also the one of the few SONAR tracks in their discography which contains a bona-fide guitar solo. The closer, “Critical Mass,” (at 10:34, the record’s longest) has a stronger, minimalist flow, which Thelen describes as “an attempt to capture Glenn Branca’s atmosphere, but with more rhythmic complexity.” In some ways, it echoes aspects of Adam Rudolph’s Go: Organic Guitar Orchestra project, but contextualized in a left-of-center slant.
Thelen is a devotee of King Crimson’s early- to mid-‘70s releases (particularly the LPs Starless and Bible Black and Larks’ Tongues in Aspic). Thelen and Wagner, in fact, met when they participated in Robert Fripp’s Guitar Craft seminars. Fripp’s inspiration can still be heard, especially on the nine-minute opener, “Enneagram,” (the title denotes a geometric polygon with a nine-pointed figure). “Enneagram” has subtle and ghostly percussion and guitar effects which gradually cascade into an intricate form where odd time signatures produce a lightly off-kilter balance. There’s a similar design embedded in the aptly named “Angular Momentum.” The sense of dynamics and movement might not be readily obvious to some ears, but the measured tritone minimalism weds internal virtuosity (no flashy guitar work) with moving music (a groove which seems unassuming but is nonetheless tricky). SONAR’s music may not be for all tastes. Their “less is more” methodology might come across as reductionist; while the group’s apparent aversion to soloing may turn off typical rock guitar aficionados. But taken on their terms SONAR is a band to discover, learn from, enjoy and embrace.
TrackList: Enneagram; Black Light; Orbit 5.7; Angular Momentum; String Geometry; Critical Mass.