Stephan Thelen and Sonar: Minimal Grooves at Maximum Volume

Geno Thackara By

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Live at Moods
7d Media

Imagine the gamelan-infused minimalism of 1980s King Crimson crossed with the droning heavy-rock menace of Sunn O))). Imagine Steve Reich if he discovered metal and turned to devil worship. You may be approaching the distinct neighborhood of Sonar, though their strange brew is far out enough that any such comparisons can only end up falling short. There's plenty of energy behind this Swiss outfit, but it's a slow-burning kind so rigidly controlled it borders on obsessive-compulsive. The longer the trance goes on, the less body-shaking it becomes.

That's partly because Stephan Thelen's compositions have the brain-twisting complexity of mathematical formulas (which they're actually often based upon). Vortex (RareNoise, 2018) gave the formula a wild shake-up by adding David Torn, who's nothing less than a walking force of chaos. His guitar manipulations added a torrent of sonic colors to the band's previously clean-toned production values, in addition to balancing their strict discipline with the anything-goes looseness of free improv.

Live at Moods gives much of Vortex's material a further boost in a live setting. Torn and the band meld their seemingly contradictory spheres like... well, like waves and particles, paradoxically occupying the same space at the same time. Torn's epic improvisation "For Lost Sailors" weaves a dynamic story arc in sound (and the roiling of the ocean makes one of the best analogies for his sonic stylings possible). Underlying his noise, the band's chemistry is insistently combustive. Christian Kuntner's sludgy bass anchors the guitarists while keeping the momentum at a roil; he makes a particular springboard for Torn's flights through "Red Shift" and the propulsive finale "Lookface!" Their juxtaposition makes a paradigm both faithful to the band's roots and wildly ambitious. Meshuggah-loving metalheads and jazz cats who appreciate Nik Bärtsch can all find something appealing in here somewhere.

Stephan Thelen
Fractal Guitar
MoonJune Records

Outside the natural limitations of composing for that ensemble, Thelen takes the chance to dive into the guitar's sonic possibilities with relish. U8 guitarist Markus Reuter makes the most prominent backup here. He provides another superb foil in sonic wizardry, although a lineup of other guitarists (Torn, Henry Kaiser, Matt Tate and Jon Durant among others) gets in on the string-bending as well. The palette of odd noise-making instruments is wide—"blue sky guitar," anyone?—yet the immersive lake of tones is only partly the point. Gearheads can enjoy picking apart the individual noises or guessing who does what. Those not interested in that side of things can just soak in the sounds and feel the rhythms in the gut.

When going solo, Thelen doesn't really change the blueprint so much as grab a colorful new batch of pencils. The painstakingly intricate rhythm patterns are here in abundance, combined with the heavy drones of low waves traveling through murky ocean depths. A rotating mini-crew of percussionists keep the patterns ever-shifting, Thelen's intricate motifs never repeating quite as exactly as they first seem. The extensive trances are steady without actually becoming regular, plodding through these staggered patterns with effortless-sounding smoothness.

Under his guidance the crew is admirably devoted, able to stay in step and maintain a groove long after less focused players would have wandered off for a coffee break. Fractal Guitar is a trawl through the more expansive side of Thelen's imagination, speaking a fascinating language of static, buzzes, wails and crackles. We can only wonder what other facets he might have still waiting to be revealed.

Tracks and Personnel

Live at Moods

Tracks: Twofold Covering; Waves & Particles; Red Shift; Tromsø; For Lost Sailors; Lookface!

Personnel: David Torn: electric guitar, live looping; Stephan Thelen: tritone guitar; Bernhard Wagner: tritone guitar; Christian Kuntner: tritone bass; Manuel Pasquinelli: drums.

Fractal Guitar

Tracks: Briefing for a Descent Into Hell; Road Movie; Fractal Guitar; Radiant Day; Urban Nightscape.

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

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