The stylistic blending of Sonar's precisely structured, polyrhythmic rock music and David Torn's freely improvised, raw and emotional guitar interjections - a trademark of Sonar's 4th album Vortex - is now continued in a live context on the six tracks of the Live at Moods album. There are three pieces from Vortex (“Waves and Particles”, “Red Shift” and “Lookface!”), a piece from Static Motion called “Twofold Covering” (the title of the track refers to the fact that the main bass riff of the piece is exactly the same as the guitar riff, just played half as fast and two octaves lower), a completely improvised David Torn solo piece called “For Lost Sailors” and “Tromsø”, a piece that Sonar played without David Torn. “Tromsø” is one of the first pieces that Sonar rehearsed together and it is the first track on the band's first album A Flaw of Nature. As a composition, it is a very minimal and austere piece that consists of only six small fragments in 9/8, but it remains one of Sonar's most dramatic and dynamic pieces.
Fusing a rigorous minimal concept with the power of a rock band and the sensitivity of a jazz combo, Sonar have quickly gained international reputation for creating a unique blend of music. With their slow-build approach to dramaturgy and avoidance of conventional forms, they focus on collective group efforts and a deeper kind of interaction amongst their members Stephan Thelen (guitar), Bernhard Wagner (guitar), Christian Kuntner (electric bass) and Manuel Pasquinelli (drums). Sonar's music is complex but still visceral, hypnotic but still dynamic. The ground feels as though it's continuously shifting beneath your feet in opposing directions as multiple motifs and rhythms flit about your head, circulating in different orbits.
Sonar was formed in late 2010 and have been on tour in the USA, UK, Canada, Japan, Switzerland, Germany, France, Romania, Liechtenstein and Austria. In 2012, they released their first CD A Flaw of Nature on Nik Bärtsch's Ronin Rhythm Records label. Cuneiform Records released their second full-length CD Static Motion in 2014. Their third album Black Light was recorded and mixed by Peter Gabriel and Tool producer David Bottrill and released by Cuneiform in 2015 on CD and vinyl.
For their 4th full-length studio album Vortex, Sonar invited producer and guitarist David Torn to work with them. During the recording, the chemistry between Sonar and David Torn worked so well, that Torn became a de facto fifth band member, playing extensively on every track. David Torn is a renowned guitarist, film-composer and producer, working with texture, high-contrast sound, spatiality & electronics in improvisational performance, music production and film-scoring since 1972. He is regarded by many as one of the most influential electronic guitarists of our time, including David Bowie and Madonna, who have both invited him to play on their records. He's played with countless well-known musicians including Tim Berne, Jeff Beck (Grammy winning production of “Jeff”), Mick Karn, David Sylvian, Tony Levin, Bill Bruford, John Legend, Michael Formanek, Tori Amos, Matt Mitchell, Meshell Ndegeocello, Laurie Anderson, Kaki King, k.d. lang, Ryuichi Sakamoto etc.
“Sonar, Swiss masters of multi-rhythm tritone minimalism, continue their career-long quest for a state of grace with Vortex, an album made with American impressionist guitar slinger David Torn, a combination of opposites that compliments one another marvellously on a scintillating journey into the abyss.” (Roger Trenwith, The Progressive Aspect)
“Torn's blasts, arches, and suspensions decisively enrich the sound of the quartet. Their mutual fascination for sonic textures is contagious, and I found myself exploring every minute of this well-weaved tapestry of polyrhythmic rock lustiness and groovy backgrounds. Vortex is a masterstroke that treats sound with prestige.” (Felipe Freitag, JazzTrail)
“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.” (John Kelman, All About Jazz)
“The combination of two seemingly disparate and distinct musical styles can often be an abject failure, or surprisingly may occasionally create an unexpected delight. In the case of Sonar’s Vortex, the band's polyrhythmic math rock style has been mixed and melded with David Torn’s exquisite tones and expressive, improvised guitar interjections to create something that is rarely unappealing, but is frequently magnificent.” (Owen Davies, dprp.net)
“Sonar is life at ground level; Torn is the weather. Their interaction feels at once organic and bifurcated. The aptly named title track could be a 10-minute sonic simulation of a tornado moving through a town...Torn add(s) a sunset-like brilliance to the already translucent beauty of Sonar's tuneful math.” (Britt Robson, The Jazz Times)
“Torn explodes chords into millisecond shards and sustains single notes through eons of emotion in rhythmically complex multipart compositions that sound unlike anything else in rock.” (Richard Gehr, Relix)
“Why else did I, one day, play this mesmeric album continuously, seven or eight times straight through? Is it rock or is it jazz – and, who cares? It”s brilliant.” (Michael Tucker, Jazz Journal)
“An anti-hero's masterpiece ... a revolutionary shot across the bow ... Sonar has defied the norm by crafting something singular and magical.” (Jeff Miers, Static Motion review, The Buffalo News)
Sonar + David Torn @ Moods Zürich - 24.5.2018.
A concert review by Alessandro E. Danti
I'm not a concert type of guy. I love music, don't get me wrong - and there is nothing more exciting than witnessing a band that plays the music you like live in person. Still, I do not visit many live venues, as I have some problems with the "crowd" that might attend the place, or with the place itself.
Before tonight, the last concert I attended was King Crimson in Florence, Italy, for two important reasons: first of all, it was the first time I had the chance of witnessing them live with a friend of mine that has introduced me to their music when we were teenagers and secondly because it was held in a theater, therefore people were expected to be seated.
So yes, you'll never see me at a death metal concert or at an open air festival. I need to be seated. I don't dance, I don't bounce my shoulders against other people. Am I missing something? Maybe, or maybe not.
Anyway, tonight I moved my lazy ass to Zürich, Switzerland, at the Moods/Schiffbau to attend the "record release concert" of the Swiss band Sonar, together with David Torn.
I think that I do not have to tell you who David Torn is, nor I will tell you who Sonar is - move YOUR lazy ass and Google it if you need, we have the Internet also for this kind of stuff.
What I am going to write you is the best possible transcription of the feelings and the emotions that these four swiss gentlemen plus "the american" (no offense intended, Mr. Torn - just "quoting" a trio of UK car journalists that have been fired from the BBC a couple years ago and moved to an online platform in the US) were able to transmit to me and hopefully to the attending public.
They were there at the Schiffbau in Zürich to present their latest work, the album "Vortex", released on Giacomo Bruzzo and Eraldo Bernocchi RareNoiseRecords. Background information: I knew of the record because one of the band members is an acquaintance (Bernhard Wagner) who I met years ago through a company I've been working at,
therefore I was able to inform myself about the bands' activity and their releases. But I decided to reduce the amount of listening to the very minimum, focusing more on the words of some respected music journalists like Anil Prasad and the band members themselves, through their social media output on Lookfa.. err, Facebook and YouTube.
Frankly said: I had no idea about what I would hear tonight at the Schiffbau. I went in completely "blank" in my head, not knowing what to expect. Yes, I had previous knowledge about the band and their members' experiences and sounds, their collaboration with other musicians of varying notoriety and my own background into progressive rock / experimental music and the like.
Was I ready for what happened tonight? I went in fairly confident, also because I had the pleasure to attend the concert with a former work colleague who I didn't meet since a long time - but no, I
would soon find out that I was going to be positively "brainfucked" by Sonar and their music.
Before I dive in into Sonar's performance, I'd like to spend a few words on the supporting act: Joel Gilardini, texturing with guitar and electronics in the background while the people were arriving at the venue, during the break, and after Sonar's performance. Wonderful sounds that set the stage ready, drone-y harmonic sounds that I am fairly confident put the public at ease while sipping their wine and drinks.
Then, at around 20.45 Sonar take the stage. And here comes the part where I am going nuts and that will be very difficult for me to explain.
Again - first time hearing their new work, no idea about the tracks or their name, except when the drummer Manuel Pasquinelli takes the mike and explicitly mentions them.
What happens next is that for at least 50 minutes I get transported in a world of music, mathematics and organised "madness" that I thought I could easily handle but I failed myself to it, as I was having my left and right brain hemisphere on a collision course.
Tracking Sonar's time division excursions is like trying to track down Dr. Who through space and time - it might be possible, but can be very, very hard even for well-trained minds - therefore I
started having a headache, trying to follow each member's master track.
The colleague nearby advised me to focus instead on the "big picture", that has indeed helped me to avoid getting completely lost in synchronising polyrhythms together in my small and primitive mind.
When I got back on track, following my colleague's advice, I felt like every part was played like a theatrical piece and dialogue, making more sense overall. The guys' touch control, dynamics and
sonic arrangement is something I have never, ever heard so far - it was like pieces of a puzzle fitting together just at the right time, building up the tension to be then resolved in a contrasting but flowing "chorus".
Really, I could try to make a technical analysis, but it would definitely bring a headache back - focus on the orchestration, that is what matters.
For the half of the first part, Sonar have been alone on stage. David Torn joined after two or three tracks, starting to work on his guitar textures, and it was exactly then that I found the safety rope
on the whole - Mr. Torn was keeping the whole thing "organised", making sure that Sonar's unique metrics would not make my brain collapse completely.
David Torn's long-lasting abrasive loops and textures acted as a sort of "liquid" that would penetrate the crevices of Sonar's interlocked harmonies and rhythms, thus creating a continuously rolling motion of sounds. I am not sure I can explain this properly with words, so please pass me the term "well-oiled machine".
The whole evening progresses through incredible tracks, that definitely satisfy my desire regarding length - according to the new album, the shortest one is 7 minutes and 13 seconds - and the interlocking of human executed guitar loops (with the compliments of Stephan Thelen and Bernhard Wagner), together with the solid rhythmic foundation of bass and drums (courtesy of Christian Kuntner and Manuel Pasquinelli, respectively), topped with the live looping of David Torn makes me feel like I am watching a movie or a theater work with my ears. So I am actually hearing a story, but I can see the pictures in my mind. Is this what they call "synesthesia"? I don't know, but it doesn't matter. At the end of the show, Sonar and Mr. Torn came back on stage for an encore that, given the length of the tracks, could be relabeled "part three".
After such an intense evening of special music, my personal recent assumption that music composition has come to an end and that only regrettable crumbs are being presented to a mass of consumers on a daily basis has, happily, proved false. There is still something to tell, there are still people who can innovate with their own style of music and playing craft, there is still hope that curious minds like mine will still find quality "food" to eat. True, it's becoming more and more difficult - but then, the reward is more and more delightful.
To end this very long piece of text, I would like to point out a single thing that, in my humble opinion, could have been done differently. The amplification of David Torn setup could have been better - his sound was relegated to his amplifier on stage only, while I would have expected that he'd go through the PA system as well, but I wasn't able to discern In the most intense moments, his sound was covered by Sonar's amplification.
If he would have been more present on the PA, his sonic impact would really have surrounded the whole venue hall, I am quite sure of that.
Anyway - I am thankful for the powers that be (whichever they are, but especially my family) to have had the chance of witnessing Sonar with David Torn performing live.
Thanks to you as well, dear reader, that you spent a considerable chunk of your time to read this annoying and lengthy review - hopefully it will make you check out Sonar the next time they show up near your place :)
released November 16, 2018
Recorded live at Moods Jazz Club, Zürich, May 24, 2018
David Torn: Electric Guitar & Live Looping
Stephan Thelen: Tritone Guitar
Bernhard Wagner: Tritone Guitar
Christian Kuntner: Tritone Bass
Manuel Pasquinelli: Drums
Edited & Mixed by Stephen Thelen
except “For Lost Sailors” Edited & Mixed by David Torn
All tracks written by Stephan Thelen except:
“For Lost Sailors” written by David Torn
“Lookface!” written by Stephan Thelen, Bernhard Wagner, Christian Kuntner, Manuel Pasquinelli & David Torn
Mastered by Alexander Vatagin
Cover photograph by Tim Berne
Band photo by Joel Gilardini
Special Thanks to Nicole Grau, Trey Gunn, Anil Prasad & The Moods Team
David Torn appears courtesy of ECM Records