Swiss composer/guitarist Stephan Thelen's two Fractal Guitar albums were largely multi-tracked affairs, involving considerable file sharing. The idea of organizing a band to perform the music live may have been inevitable. The resulting Fractal Sextet is an international project consisting of guitarist Jon Durant (USA), keyboard player and composer Fabio Anile (Italy), bassist Colin Edwin (UK), drummer Yogev Gabay (Israel), percussionist Andi Pupato (Switzerland), and Thelen on guitar and programming.
The original plan was to get at least the core members into a studio together to record, but pandemic restrictions prevented that from happening. So file sharing again became an integral part of the process. There were still many connections tying the players to each other. Durant, Anile and Pupato played on the Fractal Guitar albums; the duo album Crossings was recently released by Durant and Thelen; a forthcoming album of string quartets and piano quintets which Anile and Thelen composed and recorded last summer cemented their relationship; and of course Durant and Edwin have the ongoing project Burnt Belief. Edwin recommended Gabay (an expert on polyrhythms), completing the rhythm section. Despite not being together in the same room the excitement of playing together is palpable from the first note to the last.
A close look at the piece "Mise En Abyme" reveals a lot about the arranging process. The title came from the infinitely recurring sequence effect in visual art (similar to Thelen's "fractal guitar" effect, a rhythmic delay with a high feedback level that produces cascading delay patterns in odd time signatures). The original version from Thelen's 2009 album of the same name was done with guitar only, Thelen's lines echoing over a strummed rhythmic ostinato and two loops going on simultaneously, one in 3 and one in 7. Durant and Thelen's version on 2021's Crossings was again mainly guitar (with a bit of electric bass) over the same rhythmic ostinato. More layers (including soundscaping) created a richer atmosphere, and Durant's fretless guitar solo added new energy.
Fractal Sextet expands the arrangement to a full band treatment. Edwin contributes a melodic bass line to the ostinato, which is further expanded by Anile's new keyboard parts (they form a soaring backdrop to Durant's first solo), and of course the drums and percussion add strength and timbral variety to the sound of the rhythm section. It's an altogether heavier arrangement, but still maintains some of the delicate filigree of the earlier versions (there's even a quote from Led Zeppelin's "No Quarter" in the opening electric piano theme)the dramatic dynamic shifts are electrifying. The lovely brief coda after the ostinato drops out is new, and a pleasant surprise. Here as elsewhere, Anile's role as keyboardist greatly expands the sound from the "guitars, guitars, guitars" sonics of the Fractal Guitars albums. The fact that he added his parts to the mix after the guitars and bass were recorded makes them even more remarkable.
This track is far from the only interesting music here. "Zeptoscope" opens the set with a compelling ostinato and a soaring guitar solo. "Fractal 5.7" is another track from Crossings which benefits greatly from Edwin's new melodic bass line, which varies continuously without ever losing the groove. Anile's "Planet Nine" (which includes a quote from King Crimson's "The Sailor's Tale" in Thelen's e-bow solo) and Thelen's "Slow Over Fast" are new compositions. The main theme of "Slow Over Fast" appears in different instruments at different speeds (half time, double time) in different octaves; and the whole piece moves from a fast pulse to a gentle slow conclusion with just guitar, bass and percussion.
Ironically, although conceived as a live band it seems unlikely the sextet will be heard live anytime soon. Blame visa problems, Brexit, and a host of other logistical issues. The musicians would love to do it, so one can only hope. But in the meantime we have this splendid document to enjoy.
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