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Stephan Thelen: Fractal Guitar

John Kelman By

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For his Moonjune Records debut, Stephan Thelen, USA-born/Swiss guitarist and primary composer for the post-minimalist/post-progressive band Sonar, challenges some of the foundational premises of a group that has, over almost the last decade, garnered increasing critical and popular acclaim. As informed by Robert Fripp and the guitarist's work with (and beyond) King Crimson as it is the Zen Funk of Nik Bärtsch's Ronin and the similarly minimalist-informed Don Li, it's unlikely that Sonar's polyrhythmic, groove—heavy, tritone-based music will ever put it on the top of the Billboard chart. Still, beginning with 2012's A Flaw of Nature (Ronin Rhythm), through 2014's Static Motion and 2015's Black Light (both, Cuneiform), and last year's particularly exceptional, game-changing Vortex (RareNoise), the band has grown its audience as unexpectedly as Ronin's unanticipated international success.

In addition to Sonar's predilection for tritone-based harmonic excursions over complex yet booty-shaking grooves, the twin—guitar/bass/drums quartet has most intentionally eschewed the kind of pyrotechnics largely considered de rigueur for this kind of setting and, instead, based itself on improvisation of a most considered and largely spare fashion. Sonar has also largely eschewed the arsenal of effects available to guitarists today, instead choosing to maintain a largely direct line from guitar to amplifier, barring the judicious use of reverb and occasional delay. Still, Sonar raised its already increasingly high bar by inviting album producer and fellow guitar experimentalist David Torn to add his live sampling and manipulations to a couple of Vortex's six tracks. The results so wonderfully dovetailed with Sonar's more rigorous approach that Torn ultimately contributed the personal expansion of his instrument's potential, last experienced full—on with the guitarist's extraordinary solo album, only sky (ECM, 2015), to Vortex in its entirety.

The Sonar/Torn collaboration was so well received that it led to live performances and the release of Live at Moods, near the end of last year on the intrepid 7D Media imprint.

While all this was going on, for the past three years Thelen has been working on a different kind of guitar album, one that dissolves many of Sonar's cornerstones. Beyond exploring harmonic possibilities beyond the group's clearly expansive tritone explorations, with Fractal Guitar Thelen introduces all manner of guitar effects, including the personally developed approach that lends the album its name, described by Thelen in his liners as: "rhythmic delay with a very high feedback level that creates cascading delay patterns in odd time signatures such as 3/8, 5/8 or 7/8."

In addition to Torn making a return guest appearance on two of its five extended tracks, Fractal Guitar is also a dream date for fans of other atmospherically charged, multi-stringed instrumentalists, from guitarists Bill Walker, Barry Cleveland, Jon Durant and Henry Kaiser to touch guitarists Matt Tate and, most notably, Markus Reuter, who has, over the past two decades, become an increasingly vital and influential force in sonically experimental, improvised music, and who co-produced the record with Thelen.

Reuter first emerged with a series of solo albums, and collaborations with composer/keyboardist/producer Ian Boddy, Centrozoon (with keyboardist Bernhard Wöstheinrich and invited guests) and Tuner (with King Crimson's electro-acoustic drummer, Pat Mastelotto, and others). But the touch guitarist, for whom color, texture and timbre are equal grist for improvisational explorations as melodic/harmonic concerns, has garnered increasing acclaim, in recent years, for his work with Mastelotto and King Crimson bassist/stick player Tony Levin in Stick Men, and for a series of albums for Moonjune including two groundbreaking improvisational 2017 forays, The Stone House (with guitarist Mark Wingfield, bassist Yaron Stavi and drummer/percussionist Asaf Sirkis) and Lighthouse, a trio date with Wingfield and Sirkis. Increasingly in demand (and for very good reason), Reuter is the perfect constant foil for Thelen on Fractal Guitar, contributing soundscapes and melodic counterpoints to the leader's more significantly expanded explorations.

Still, you can take Thelen out of Sonar but you cannot entirely take Sonar out of Thelen; after all, it's occupied a significant portion of the guitarist's musical work since 2010, when the self-described "Minimal Groove Band" was first formed. Rhythmically, there are plenty of common touchstones, especially with Sonar drummer Manuel Pasquinelli appearing on three of Fractal Guitar's five tracks, with Benno Kaiser holding down the pulse on the remaining two. Both are undeniably masterful drummers, though Kaiser is the one more likely to contribute more frenetically charged work, especially on the album-closing "Urban Nightscape." One the album's two quintet tracks (the others are sextet-driven), Kaiser lights a major fire underneath Torn, Reuter, Tate and Thelen, with an early, overdriven and mightily impressive guitar solo that simply wouldn't have a place in Sonar's more rigorous approach to group interplay.

"Urban Nightscape" is, in fact, the album's most immediate, visceral, violent and supercharged track, between Kaiser's relentless kit work, Tate's pulsating, bass-centric touch guitar, and otherworldly sonics from Thelen, Torn and Reuter that are (at least, seemingly) clearly delineated yet, at the same time, not always easy to ascribe. It appears clear that the cleaner, delay-driven and mathematically constructed, labyrinthine guitar shapes belong to Thelen. The early solo, with its feedback-intensive and in-the-moment treatments, feels very much like the kind of sinewy, serpentine linearity that has long been one of Torn's touchstones, dating as far back as early his ECM recordings as a leader (1987's Cloud About Mercury), with Everyman Band (especially 1985's Without Warning), and with the vastly influential Norwegian saxophonist Jan Garbarek (1985's It's OK to Listen to the Gray Voice). Reuter, too, contributes melodically, but his work as a textural improviser is, perhaps, most significant as the 18-minute composition builds to its roaring climax before gradually fading to black, with Torn soloing again right through to its outro. It's intriguing, however, to learn that the Fractal Guitar at the beginning of "Urban Nightscape" (a full eighty seconds, in fact) is actually played by Reuter, not Thelen, rendering those delineations even less readily apparent.

Still, even if Thelen doesn't actually play it, Reuters' intro to "Urban Nightscape" remains a strong example of Thelen's Fractal Guitar concept, as the touch guitarist sets up a repetitive, minimalist pattern made all the more compelling by the complex delay patterns that interact with what he's playing...and with themselves. That a mathematics-driven track like this can feel so absolutely cooperative is all the more remarkable given it was, like the rest of the album (and, as Thelen writes), "recorded across the Western Hemisphere during the last three years." Sending files from one musician to another doesn't always work, but in this case it works so well as to be indistinguishable from a recording made with everyone in the room at once. And if Reuter's Fractal Guitar performance is a foundation of this track (and the concept, usually from Thelen, bolstering Fractal Guitar in its entirety), it's difficult to imagine anyone but Thelen—classically trained but also a participant in Fripp's '90s-era Guitar Craft workshops—delivering the brief, rapidly picked, eminently Frippian figure that gradually ascends, around the four-minute mark.

"Urban Nightscapes" may almost be Fractal Guitar's longest track, but the album-opening "Briefing for a Descent Into Hell" trumps it by almost a full minute. With Pasquinelli on-board alongside Thelen, Reuter, Torn and Jon Durant (contributing "cloud guitar"), the piece feels more like an expansion of Sonar, with the drummer's thundering but more measured playing and Thelen's utilization of Fractal Guitar with a tritone-based harmonic compositional construct.

The symmetrical tritone scale is, for Thelen and Sonar, more than "just" a scale; on "Briefing for a Descent Into Hell," as with Sonar, it is also defined by guitars and (at least, in Sonar) bass in an altered tuning that may seem simple—C-F#-C-F#-C-F#—but which completely alters harmonic relationships between strings and intrinsically drives the players into new territory. That said, mastering the tuning and its infinite potentials is no mean feat but, on this single track featuring Tritone Guitar (and with only Thelen adopting the altered tuning), it nevertheless inspires his band mates to explore harmonic terrain which they might not otherwise have considered.

Fractal Guitar also differs in that, while Thelen is Sonar's primary composer, a full three of the album's tracks here (representing 45 of the album's 67-minute runtime) are co-compositions: Torn is a co-composer of both "Briefing for a Descent into Hell" and "Urban Nightscape"; while Reuter receives credit for "Urban Njghtscape" and "Radiant Day," a shorter track (still almost nine minutes long) driven by Tate and Pasquinelli and featuring, in addition to Thelen and Reuter, guitarist Barry Cleveland, a leader in his own right with a small but substantive discography including 2005's Volcano (Supersaturated Records). Here, Cleveland contributes guitar atmospherics and "bowhammer," a device developed by Michael Masley that looks, according to Wikipedia, like "a cross between a fiddle bow and a dulcimer hammer, attached to the finger with a ring," and which provides yet another textural possibility for Cleveland's already heavily processed instrument.

"Radiant Day," alongside the mid-set title track that is another particularly clear example of Thelen's Fractal Guitar, are amongst the album's two most relaxed tracks, though not sacrificing either groove or the expansive sonic landscapes vividly delivered, on both tracks, by Reuter and Cleveland, with "Fractal Guitar" also featuring a guest appearance by percussionist Andi Pupato, a former member of Nik Bärtsch's long-standing Ronin group, and last heard on that group's Live (ECM, 2012).

"Road Movie" is Fractal Guitar's most unusual track, if only because the core quartet of Thelen, Reuter, Tate and Pasquinelli are joined by one-time guests Henry Kaiser and Bill Walker. While Reuter's soundscapes and Thelen's Fractal and Blue Sky guitar work provide consistency with the rest of the album, both Walker and Kaiser's emphatic guitarisms (despite applying effects like overdrive, tremolo, pitch shifting and more) lend the track a more overtly guitar-heavy complexion.

Which is an odd thing to say, perhaps, about a recording that features no less than four and, sometimes, five guitarists on each and every track. Still, if there is a single connective thread amongst Thelen, Reuter and the six other guitarists/touch guitarists who grace Fractal Guitar, it's their irrepressibly experimental approach to melody, harmony, rhythm and texture that often renders them decidedly un-guitar-like.

That instrumental experimentalism, the unique approach each guitarist brings to his instrument, the complex yet potently groove—heavy contributions from Pasquinelli, Benno Kaiser and Pupato and, most importantly, Thelen's underlying conception make Fractal Guitar more than merely a powerfully engaging album. Sewing all of its many, often disparate elements together into a concept both as singular and as different as Thelen's work with Sonar renders Fractal Guitar not just a masterclass of 21st century guitar, but a true guitar masterpiece of the new millennium.

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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