SONAR – Static Motion [TrackList follows] – Cuneiform

by | Apr 20, 2014 | Jazz CD Reviews

SONAR – Static Motion [TrackList follows] – Cuneiform Rune 374, 69:48 [1/21/14] ****:

(Stephan Thelen – guitar; Bernard Wagner – guitar; Christian Kuntner – bass guitar; Manuel Pasquinelli – drums)

SONAR is not a typical experimental instrumental band. The progressive, minimalist Swiss quartet creates polymetrical, developmentally-structured soundscapes, a sort of sonic architecture, hence the SONAR name, which takes the SON from sonic and the AR from architecture. The group’s sophomore release, the 70-minute Static Motion, is their first album issued outside Switzerland and their debut on the open-minded Cuneiform label.

SONAR’s music is performed live-in-the-studio with no sequencers, loops or computers. Stephan Thelen, Bernard Wagner, Christian Kuntner and Manuel Pasquinelli use a modicum of equipment. Thelen and Wagner on guitars, Kuntner on bass guitar, three small amplifiers, and Pasquinelli on a basic drum kit. No effects and only a few post-production edits mean the music is clear, exact and precise. The material, while seemingly uncomplicated, is specifically fashioned with intent. Members shun orthodox major/minor harmonies; routine 4/4 beats are nonexistent; conventional soloing and deliberate virtuosity are replaced by unitary interplay. The most notable feature is tritone harmonics. In classical music, the tritone can be used to avoid traditional tonality. Thus, the two guitars and bass are tuned to the tritone interval of C and F#, and SONAR utilizes the natural harmonics of their instruments. Guitars frequently generate a ringing sound abundant with overtones, juxtaposed against subdued, arpeggiated guitar picking. While there is a largely esoteric character to the compositional style, the result is gradually evolving, pattern-based music which belies the underlying complexity. Heard at low volume, SONAR’s music is almost ambient, but at louder volume, the technical ability and thorough effort can be more easily discerned.

The nine pieces are symmetrically organized as a triptych (i.e., the tunes are divided into three interrelated sections). The first segment consists of the title track, “Twofold Covering” and “Landslide.” The main riff on this first three-tune subdivision has an isorhythm (a musical technique which positions a fixed design of pitches with a repeating rhythmic shape) in 9/8. Thelen states this “evokes the sonic illusion of something that moves forward and stands still at the same time.” Listeners might notice some influences on this number, since sections were inspired by Mahavishnu Orchestra’s “Meeting of the Spirits,” (from that ensemble’s 1971 LP The Inner Mounting Flame), and King Crimson’s “Fracture,” (which can be heard on 1974’s Starless and Bible Black). “Twofold Covering” and “Landslide” have a similar dimension, assembled around plain, repeated bass lines, while the two guitarists execute counter melodies and rhythms which slowly notch a sense of pressure. Both pieces are cyclically continuous, to the point some may find them too reiterating, while others could discover the configuration curiously contemplative.

The second triptych (“Shadow Play,” “Triptych,” and “Continuum”) has a tightly-controlled focus: more resounding and fluid. This portion acts as the conceptual centerpiece. “Shadow Play” expands the minimalism even further, where guitars, bass and drums establish an aesthetic nearly unchanging over eight minutes. “Triptych” has purposely incessant bass lines, percussive and electronic noises from scraped guitar strings, and a glacially advancing rhythmic arrangement interpolated via snare drum. One of the guitars forms a condensed chord on an off-beat which imparts a secondary texture. The tempo accelerates on “Continuum,” which has an arrangement prompted by Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s “Eruption,” from ELP’s 1971 Tarkus album. The three amplified instruments coalesce on a steady groove, underscored by sparse percussion.

The final triptych is more forceful. The rock-inclined “Tranceportion” includes a riff or hook which would not be out of place on a King Crimson project, and suggests the time Thelen and Wagner spent studying under King Crimson founder Robert Fripp. There is a resonant determination which can be enticing. “Zero Tolerance” has a parallel alignment. The rock-like arrangement has a strongly pulsating bass. The drums have a sonic snap and are played in an unobtrusive, no-frills way. Static Motion concludes with the longest track, the 12-minute “Vertical Time,” which displays a rhythmic arrangement linked to the opening title track, as well as an identical time signature and key. The title has a literary origin, from German poet Rainer Maria Rilke’s description of music as “time that stands vertical to the direction of fading hearts.” Here, SONAR is at their most trance-like, with music which proceeds in a practically ritualistic mode. The sound on Static Motion has an exceptional translucency. The recording is filled with dynamics and auditory subtleties which seem improved from having the four players in the same room at the same time during the recording process. That kind of set-up can sometimes cause too much audio bleed-through to the different instruments, but in this case the outcome is music with aural presence and essence.

TrackList: Static Motion; Twofold Covering; Landslide; Shadow Play; Triptych; Continuum; Tranceportation; Zero Tolerance; Vertical Time.

—Doug Simpson

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