It might be all too simple to explain away Sonar, the Swiss twin-guitar/bass/drums quartet now in its eighth year together, through a series of touchstones. King Crimson
, by way of that band's co-founder/guitarist Robert Fripp
's Guitar Craft? Check. The influence of Nik Bärtsch
and Don Li's innovative meshing of Steve Reich
-ian minimalism with deceptively complicated polyrhythmic and isorhythmic rock/funk grooves, where as much as can be is made of as little as possible? Double Check. Guitarist and primary composer Stephan Thelen
's career as a mathematician, contributing to his polymath approach as Sonar's primary composer? Triple Check. An intended avoidance of guitar pyrotechnics and, instead, a group sound based upon complex interactions, where layered vertical harmonies remain, despite their innate complexities, somehow comfortably spare, spacious and eminently appealing?
You get the idea.
Except that even this multiplicity of foundational cornerstones doesn't really go far enough in describing a group that is truly like no other. Most often lumped into a progressive rock rubric occupied by far too many others who view it as a genre rather than a philosophy, Sonar is a rare band that has truly focused on the "progressive" in "progressive rock," beginning with its 2012 debut, A Flaw of Nature
(released, perhaps unsurprisingly, on Bärtsch's own Ronin Rhythm imprint).
With further international visibility garnered through its association with Cuneiform Records, Sonar continued honing its foundational cornerstones, making significant strides forward with two subsequent releases, 2014's Static Motion
and 2015's Black Light
. Further mining the tritone-based tuning and specified harmonics that have been both philosophical and harmonic context-setters for bassist Christian Kuntner
and guitarists Thelen and Bernhard Wagner
, the quartet also made significant headway when it chose, after its first two self-produced recordings, to collaborate with renowned engineer/producer David Bottrill on Black Light
Best-known for his work with, amongst others, Peter Gabriel
, Jon Hassell
and David Sylvian
, Bottrill brought an ever-valuable set of independent, objective ears to the table, rendering Black Light
as the group's most song-like collection of music yet, while, at the same time, remaining unequivocally a part of the larger Sonar universe. With Vortex
, however, the band makes its biggest leap forward yet, collaborating with an engineer/producer who, as a hands-on guitarist himself, has inspired Sonar to expand the boundaries of its universe far beyond anything suggested by its previous releases.
Sonar continues to be predicated on a combination of interlocking lines that often coalesce into wave-like harmonic shifts, even as they are driven by grooves born of irregular and/or multi-layered meters. But as exhilarating as the band's first three releases are, they are best described in terms of an icy
kind of heat. Despite tritones remaining a defining harmonic foundation throughout much of Vortex
, Sonar further expands its harmonic palette, while Torn's contribution as guitarist breaks with other Sonar traditions.
Sonar has always eschewed overt guitar gymnastics, looping and the kind of extensive sonic processing that is, these days, pretty much de rigueur
for any progressive-leaning guitarist. Torn, on the other hand, has built his career upon otherworldly guitar sonics that challenge the very definition of how the instrument can sound, coupled with extensive sampling/looping, all while never approaching any of the superfluous excess that is the bane of too many a six-stringer, and evidenced most clearly on the guitarist's own absolutely stunning only sky
Joining Torn's personal sound world together with Sonar's seemingly diametrically opposed approach turns the icy blue heat of the band's prior releases into a fiery red on Vortex
. Sonar's most positively incendiary release to date, Vortex
is a scorched-earth, 55-minute program of six lengthy pieces (as ever) largely composed by Thelen, but with three of them co-compositions with Torn, members of the band and/or (a first for Sonar) Don Li.
In a way, opening with "Part 44," a Don Li piece adapted for Sonar by Thelen, feels somehow appropriate. Most only familiar with Nik Bärtsch's more globally available work for ECM Records, beginning with 2006's Stoa
, are unaware of the role that Li played, as a collaborator with Bärtsch, until artistic differences pushed them apart. But the part Li played, with his reductive Tonus-Rhythm, in Bärtsch's early music and, ultimately, that of Sonar's can be felt straight away, even as Thelen's own compositional evolution makes "Part 44" a composition that only Sonar could realizealbeit, this time, taken even further with Torn's contributions.
Torn's soft sonic cloud is the very first thing heard on Vortex
and "Part 44." Still, it's Thelen and Wagner's interlaced guitarsalternating bars of eight and six and quickly joined by Kuntner and Pasquinelli's half-time pulse, which juxtaposes two bars of four with a bar of two to cause everything to stretch apart and come together againthat make immediately clear how this is a Sonar record with a difference. Even as Thelen and Wagner's lines gradually evolve, Torn begins layering searing, volume pedal-driven lines that lend the piece even more defined form. Torn also works some sonic magic on the sound of Pasquinelli's kit, sometimes sounding relatively natural but, other times, compressed, gated and reverbed to create more electro-centric timbres.
This is the first Sonar album not described, in its liners, as "recorded 'live in the studio.'" It's uncertain just how much post-production work has been done to a group normally very light in that regard, since Sonar's contributions still feel very much as though they were recorded with the group set up and playing together in a single room. But as "Part 44" develops over the course of its 10 minutes, the energy continues to ratchet up as Torn's own playing becomes increasingly searing, and his approach to mixing the sound of the band unlike anything heard on its previous three recordings.
It was another guitarist (and sonic explorer), Henry Kaiser
, who suggested that Sonar might be a perfect fit with Torn, and throughout Vortex
he is proven so absolutely correct, with Torn driving Sonar into areas hitherto unexplored and, in return, Sonar creating contexts for some of the guitarist's best group work ever. Writing for this expanded version of Sonar has also driven Thelen to capitalize on lessons learned with Black Light
, as he continues a more decided exploration of song form, albeit in ways that avoid convention.
"Red Shift" wanders across multiple terrains, its jaggedly staggered, strummed guitar parts and greater harmonic shifts juxtaposed with knottier lines, all driven by a gradually building, slow-burn groove. Everything dissolves when Torn enters, however. While an underlying pulse continues it's almost imperceptible, as the guitarist begins layering wammy bar-driven phrases and crunching sonics, increasingly bolstered by Sonar's return to greater dominance. While the line between form and freedom has always been a tenuous one with Sonar's disciplined approach, over time an improvisational energy predicated on how each member engages with one another has lent the group a greater spontaneity that's only further expanded upon throughout Vortex
, in particular on the rhythmically formidable, group composition, "Lookface!," which closes the album. With Pasquinelli, in particular, mirroring Torn's spontaneity this fiery, spontaneously composed track feels more, perhaps, like a jam than anything Sonar has ever recorded, and yet still reveals, under the covers, many of the touchstones that have defined the group since inception.
"Monolith," co-written by Thelen and Torn, is a particularly good example of how this collaboration creates something that is, to quote an overused phrase, greater than the sum of its parts. With Torn's tart guitar phrases and burnished electronics leaving behind traces of looped clouds, the piece builds even more gradually than is Sonar's norm, its slow pulse only emerging a full three-and-a-half minutes in. As Torn shapes an increasingly dense series of loops, it's Sonar's build from near silence to one of the the album's most aggressive stances, including a particularly frenetic underpinning doubled by Kuntner and one of the guitarists, that contributes to this high point on an album filled with them.
As admirable an overall aesthetic as a group can have, the whole of Vortex
seems to be striving for something just barely out of reach, even as it seems to approach it more often than not. Torn's guitar soundscaping and greater sonic liberties taken with Pasquinelli combine with Thelen's increasingly assured writing and the band's equally confident interpretive skills to create one of the most exhilarating albums on the group's new label, RareNoise Recordsand, given the label's existing discography, that's no mean feat.
If writing about music has been compared, to cite another overused phrase, to "dancing about architecture," Sonar has always been a particular challenge to nail down. All the touchstones, harmonic and rhythmic definers help in appreciating what Sonar is about, as the band takes its multifarious conceptual components and expands upon them further, it seems, with each successive album. And if it's even possible (and it is), Torn's invaluable assistance drives the band even further, challenging its own complex modus operandi
and, consequently, creating its very best record to date. If Sonar has proven anything from the very start, it's that it has a sound that may reference many things but is ultimately all its own. One listen to even just a minute or two from Vortex
and it becomes crystal clear that, in the 21st century, few groups have emerged as incomparable, innovative and imaginative as Sonar.
Stephan Thelen: guitar; Bernhard Wagner: guitar; Christian Kuntner: electric bass; Manuel Pasquinelli: drums; David Torn: electric guitar, live-looping & manipulation.