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Stephan Thelen: Fractal Guitar

John Ephland By

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A guitar lover's delight, the Swiss Stephan Thelen's Fractal Guitar reeks of the many splendid effects the instrument can bellow, belch, intimate, cry out and sing. And all within the narrow yet liberating, pattern-based corridors Thelen's ofttimes arhythmic funkfest conjures. With nods to David Torn, Robert Fripp, Glenn Branca and even Nik Bärtsch, the aesthetic creates the illusion of one-chord jamming from track to track. Closer listening reveals a multi-layered soundscape. Like Bartsch, who can take a limited format and squeeze all the juice from it, as if he and his band were dissecting a musical specimen from as many angles as possible, the accent on surface sameness with an undeniable underbelly of complexity also pertains to Thelen's approach.

How does one accomplish this seemingly monochromatic rollout, with its veneer of excessive repetition and lack of obvious motivic, let alone emotional, invention? How does one sustain a dramatic interest and drive from track to track, forgoing the traditional Western reliance on chord changes, not to mention variations in mood? Thelen does this by employing a staggering array of fellow guitarists, all of whom offer expansive playing through a limited number of compositions (five), the pieces with lengths ranging from just under nine minutes to well over eighteen. That longest piece is the opener, "Briefing For A Descent Into Hell," a rather fatuous title for a funky modal jam that is slightly ominous in mood but a rather fun bit of medium-tempo grooving that allows the whole gang to weave in and out of the song's open-field structure.

In fact, Torn helps lead the charge behind Thelen on Fractal Guitar, along with Markus Reuter (co-producer with Thelen) and Henry Kaiser. The cast is filled out by other guitarists: Barry Cleveland, Matt Tate, Jon Durant, and Bill Walker. The crews vary from track to track, range from quintet to sextet. Tate's touch guitar provides the bottom end most often with either Manuel Pasquinelli or Benno Kaiser delivering the supportive drumming touch that serves as vital punctuation.

Thelen, in the liner notes, describes working with his group Sonar (co-founded with fellow guitarist Bernhard Wagner) and how important it was for him to record this material using "effects [that] were an integral part of the music." It was an effect he worked with before Sonar that Thelen calls "Fractal Guitar," a rhythmic delay featuring a very high feedback level. The various odd time-signatures heard on Fractal Guitar including 3/8, 5/8 and 7/8, are part and parcel of what makes this music work.

All told, Fractal Guitar, recorded in various settings, was three years in the making. The result is one where (similar to previous outings) soloing and virtuosic displays take a back seat to group dynamics, the limited harmonic schemes dispense with major and minor chord progressions, the polyrhythmic platforms (at times consisting of more than one time signature) helping to foster a playful restlessness. Call it the Thelen approach to minimalism, his "tritone harmonics" playing a lead role. Perhaps one of the less obvious results heard on the rigorous Fractal Guitar also includes the string players' uncanny knack of naturally avoiding stepping on each other's musical toes.

"Road Movie" continues the medium-tempo groove with plenty of reverb, and (yes, one can get a sense of forward movement) an on-the-road vibe with lots of open space and no sense of urgency. Just a lot of conversation. In fact, and throughout, the notes played from these artists tend to revolve in and around repeated lines, those lines a kind of spinal framework that allows the musicians to dip in a out with various touches, the jam aspect, of course, forgoing the head-solo-head format, opting instead for the "we always solo and we never solo" mindset of early Weather Report.

Thelen and Reuter's production perfectly captures the sonic tapestries and personalities of what becomes a collection of individual stylists playing as one, no one guitarist predominant. (Perhaps the closest we come to any kind of Mahavishnu episode occurs on the closer "Urban Nightscape," with Torn's full-throttle, scorching, insistent guitar blazing through an otherwise steady, sometimes menacing 6/4 landscape. An eery urban nightscape, indeed.) Instead, there is a painting with many brushes contributing, the feel of open-ended jazz improvisation ever-present even as you get the impression that everything is nonetheless nailed down. Things are orderly, the music's denizens giving us outlandish performances that could explode into a Hendrixian firestorm at any moment only to settle down into something sweet, almost delicate, the title track an echo of what came before but with a touch of serendipity and suspension that takes full advantage of the touch guitars, "soundscapes," "atmospheres" and "granular loops" just waiting to dance, the trancelike 6/4 pulse providing just the right amount of off-off-kilter momentum.

In the end, with the doubling and tripling up of strings, the openness remains with not a speck of sonic clutter, with varieties of listening experiences enough to keep one engaged, the personalities too obvious to place as background music. In fact, Fractal Guitar might serve as a tonic to our oversaturated, blizzardly driven postmodern world, the devices and techniques utilized here certainly state of the art, but in the service of a mood, aesthetic and attitude that tell us sometimes the best ways to transcend the trends and feel fully alive come in the forms of simplicity, a simplicity shorn of ornamentation, an ego-free collaboration, a permeable "let's get lost" vibe predominant.

Track Listing: Briefing For A Descent Into Hell; Road Movie; Fractal Guitar; Radiant Day; Urban Nightscape.

Personnel: Stephan Thelen: fractal guitar, tritone guitar (1), blue sky guitar (2, 4), granular loops (2, 3), organ (5), samples (5); David Torn: electric guitar (1, 5), live looping (1, 5); Markus Reuter: U8 touch guitar, soundscapes; Jon Durant: cloud guitar (1); Matt Tate: U8 touch guitar (bass); Manuel Pasquinelli: drums (1, 2, 4); Bill Walker: electric guitar (2), live looping (2); Henry Kaiser: electric guitar (2); Barry Cleveland: guitar atmospheres (3, 4), bowhammer (4); Andi Pupato: percussion (3); Benno Kaiser: drums (3, 5).

Title: Fractal Guitar | Year Released: 2019 | Record Label: MoonJune Records

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