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Sonar: Black Light

Karl Ackermann By

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By virtue of its experimental and often convoluted definition, progressive jazz seems to require an increasingly larger umbrella. Under that broadly encompassing category, the Switzerland- based quartet SONAR is a noteworthy and unconventional standout. Black Light is their fourth release (but only the second to be made widely available) and for those who have followed the artistic development of the group it is all the more revelatory an experience. SONAR has nuanced the more percussive tone of Static Motion (Cuneiform Records, 2014) to further emphasize contrasting rhythms and splintered meters. Black Light is an example of risk-taking that is visceral without going straight for the jugular.

California born guitarist Stephan Thelan, the principle composer of the group, is the practitioner of a democratic process of creation and participation. A PhD in mathematics with extensive classical training, Thelan studied with guitarist Robert Fripp. Fripp, one of the most influential artists in progressive music history, and a founding (and ubiquitous) member of King Crimson, had a significant impact on Thelan and the halo effect of King Crimson's shadowy intensity looms large on Black Light.

Guitarist Bernhard Wagner, a software developer as well as musician, combines those skills in evolving repeated melodies and rhythmic patterns. Wagner has worked as a backup act for Nik Bärtsch's Ronin for many years. Bassist Christian Kunter has strong ties to free jazz including having played with two of John Tchicai's groups. Drummer Manuel Pasquinelli has played in numerous regional bands covering an eclectic mix of styles from punk to chamber. The unique sound of SONAR is due, in large part, to the tritone tuning (C / F# / C / F# / C / F#) of the guitars and bass adding a surprisingly pleasant dissonant quality.

As Thelan relates in John Kelman's extensive liner notes, King Crimson's Larks' Tongues in Aspic (Island, 1973), is a particularly key influence on the content of Black Light. That said, there are other forces at work here, even if unintended. Listen to "Enneagram" or "Orbit 5.7" and there is more than a trace element of the late, great Esbjorn Svensson Trio, circa the Leucocyte (ACT, 2008) era, arguably, that trio at their best. Both aforementioned pieces emit a unique pulsing energy and mystery balanced with equal parts modern progressive music and sophisticated jazz. Positioned between those two tracks is the title track refers to the opposing forces of darkness and light rather than the familiar long-wave bulbs. Here—as on "Angular Momentum," "String Geometry" and "Critical Mass" the King Crimson impact couldn't be clearer though SONAR does not come off as emulating the classic band but rather as taking the band's vocabulary and technique to another level.

SONAR speaks to a wide-range of listeners with intelligently constructed tunes and an appealing blend of atmosphere, melody and process. Not surprising for a group whose name is a fractured acronym for "sonic architecture" and who craft compositions of surprising complexity without technical overindulgence. The music—written by Thelan with the exception of the Pasquinelli co-authored "Angular Momentum"—is difficult to describe but thoroughly enjoyable to listen to.

Track Listing: Enneagram; Black Light; Orbit 5.7; Angular Momentum; String Geometry; Critical Mass.

Personnel: Stephan Thelan: Guitar; Bernhard Wagner: Guitar; Christian Kunter: bass; Manuel Pasquinelli: drums.

Title: Black Light | Year Released: 2015 | Record Label: Cuneiform Records

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