Groove, repetition and bold sparseness: it’s SONAR.
SONAR with David Torn – Vortex – RareNoise RNR087, 56:12 [3/30/18] ****:
(Stephan Thelen – guitar; Bernhard Wagner – guitar; Christian Kuntner – electric bass; Manuel Pasquinelli – drums; David Torn – electric guitar, live looping, manipulation, mixer, producer)
Sometimes collaborations are planned. Other times they are fortuitously unintended. Case in point is the 56-minute Vortex, the fourth album from Swiss minimalist groove quartet SONAR. The foursome—comprised of guitarists Stephan Thelen and Bernhard Wagner; bassist Christian Kuntner; and drummer Manuel Pasquinelli—is known for the use of tritones tunings (defined as musical intervals composed of three adjacent whole tones). Avant-garde guitarist Henry Kaiser took a liking to the band’s material and told his friend and fellow guitarist, the legendary David Torn, that Torn should produce the quartet. One thing led to another, and what started as a production relationship became a full-blown partnership with Torn as producer and musical guest. The result is a unique blend of Torn’s uninhibited and open style and SONAR’s orderly, disciplined and specific approach. Thelen notes, “It’s a bit like ying and yang or the two opposing ends of a ring-shaped world.” Vortex was released as a CD; a double-sided LP (with two bonus live tracks); and via multiple download formats. This review refers to the CD.
The six lengthy tracks (which range from seven to 11 minutes) crisscross angular chordal and rhythmic lines underpinned by intricate time signatures. The band’s foundational set-up offers Torn open spaces where he provides blistering or quieter excursions, depending on the feel and mood of each tune. The ten-minute opener is a reconfiguration of Swiss composer Don Li’s “Part 44.” Thelen explains he kept Li’s basic rhythm but recomposed the guitar patterns and the piece’s harmonic movement. During “Part 44” Torn put a certain amount of grit at the bottom end and induced a heavier sound, both new auditory slants for SONAR. One of the longer cuts is Thelen’s three-part “Red Shift.” The first portion features just the quartet and is concentrated and strictly composed. The second segment is a tritone harmonics interlude where Torn and Pasquinelli improvise over a guitar and bass pattern. The third component includes a slowly-developing structure with Torn’s ambient sounds and loops. The loops employ micro-sampling as coloration. Torn says, “I would hit a chord and quickly sample four or five milliseconds of it and shift the pitch of it.”
The widest-ranging, and most extensive, composition is the 11-minute “Monolith,” credited to Torn and Thelen. “Monolith” has some of Vortex’s superlative and most resolute fluctuating harmonics. The arrangement has straightforward minimalism equalized against edgy dynamism and a sense of repetition and tension, which gives the music an abstruse and multifaceted course. Vortex concludes with two pieces which showcase SONAR’s two sides. The nearly ten-minute title track is highly involved. Thelen clarifies, “This is a tritone harmonics composition that’s based on two different rhythmic subdivisions. It was very complex to nail down, but it comes across seamlessly.” During the swiftly-moving “Vortex,” Torn subtly adds parallel harmonics to the written material. The shortest number is the seven-minute, totally improvised “Lookface!,” credited to all five musicians. This crunchy, moderately battering tune is propelled by Torn’s animated guitar, which blasts out of his amplifier. Torn’s rolling authority influenced the members of SONAR to follow Torn into a pulsing sonic journey. SONAR’S tritone instrumental music is not for all tastes. Those inclined toward rockier terrain and music which uses reiteration and recurrence will find that Vortex is something to appreciate and discover.
Waves and Particles