Sonar's fourth release Vortex reflects the sound of surprise. After three uncompromising quartet albums exploring the edges of minimalist groove, the Swiss group has partnered with renowned guitarist, composer and producer David Torn for its RareNoise debut.
The band, comprised of guitarists Stephan Thelen and Bernhard Wagner, bassist Christian Kuntner and drummer Manuel Pasquinelli have long been celebrated for combining the visceral power and dynamics of art rock with a minimalist aesthetic. Their previous album, 2015's Black Light, attracted significant media and musician attention. Legendary avant-guitarist Henry Kaiser took a particular interest in the group and was determined to pair them up with Torn for their next album. "Henry wrote me and said 'There's this Swiss band Sonar that uses tritone tunings in a really interesting way. They're pretty minimalist. I think you should produce it,'" said Torn. "I dug into Black Light and enjoyed the music right away. The band has a boldness within its sparseness. I started having ideas quickly. I felt some of the rock elements could be more rocking and that things could be rougher sounding. I wanted to add another layer to it. And off we went."
But what began as a production relationship with the intention of having Torn also occasionally guest on tracks, rapidly evolved. Torn ended up performing on every track, essentially becoming a fifth band member throughout the sessions.
"From the first second, David's playing was so intense and powerful that his energy immediately transferred to the band," said Thelen. "It was remarkable. David's sound meshed so perfectly with our sound, sonically and conceptually. Everybody was just stunned. Our friend, the music journalist Anil Prasad, was there to document the sessions. He took me aside and said 'You have to have David play on every track. Seize this remarkable and unique opportunity.' So, we did."
The sessions at Powerplay Studios near Zürich were full of camaraderie and collaboration. Sonar and Torn used virtually every minute of their work together on Vortex.
"We hardly edited anything out," said Torn. "I think that's because I played when I felt there was a spot in the pieces where something melodic or some weird, rhythmic looping thing could benefit the patterns Stephan and Bernhard were playing. I left a lot of space. I didn't want to get in the way of the pieces to the point where they call the paddy wagon and take me away in a straightjacket."
The end result is an exhilarating album and a 21st Century rock milestone. It's the sort of recording that rarely gets made anymore. It's five musicians together in a state-of-the-art studio, working in the moment and throwing caution to the wind. Vortex is pure artistry in motion.
"I never doubted David's free and expressive style would mesh perfectly with the clean, disciplined and precise approach Bernhard and I have in Sonar," said Thelen. "It's a bit like ying and yang or the two opposing ends of a ring-shaped world. We're all thrilled with how the album turned out."
1. Part 44
Thelen: The original "'Part 44'" was composed by Don Li, one of the most important and innovative figures in the Swiss minimal groove scene. For the Sonar version of this piece, I kept the basic rhythm, but completely recomposed the guitar patterns and the harmonic movement of the piece. It has a fascinating polyrhythmic, propulsive structure that sets the tone for the album."
Torn: "It sounds exactly the way we played it during the sessions, with tremendous amounts of space between sections. You can also hear a sense of dirt in the bottom end. It's a gritty sound that's new for Sonar."
2. Red Shift
Thelen: "This piece is in three parts. The first section is quite heavy and strictly composed, with just the Sonar quartet. The second section is a tritone harmonics interlude with David and Manuel improvising over a guitar and bass pattern played only with the natural harmonics of the tritone tuning. The third section offers a very slow build-up improvisation with lots of ambient sounds and loops from David."
Torn: "I really like the microsampling things I do on this track to help color it. I would hit a chord and quickly sample four or five milliseconds of it and shift the pitch of it."
3. Wave and Particles
Thelen: "This is my favorite piece. It has a spiritual quality and I love how David soars like an eagle over the constantly-shifting groove. It's based on a ridiculously complex rhythm, but flows very naturally."
Torn: "You'll hear me reharmonizing things and carefully crafting improvised ambiences on this. These things created a feeling of suspense. You'll also find me playing melodies that are harmonically different from Stephan's writing, not unlike the more open improvisations I did when I was with the Jan Garbarek band."
Thelen: "David's guitar howls like a wounded beast over the angular, contrasting rhythms on 'Monolith.' He can express more and deeper feelings of hope and despair with one long, bended note than other guitarists with 10,000 notes."
Torn: "This has some of the best and most patient shifting of harmonics on the album as the piece floats along. I was playing chords and textures with melodic-type shapes along with these shifting harmonies. It felt like a cross between Miles Davis and Jon Hassell."
Thelen: "This is a tritone harmonics composition that's based on two different rhythmic subdivisions. It was very complex to nail down, but it comes across seamlessly and David does some wild stuff on it."
Torn: "I start the piece with a major chord, which is something different for Sonar. You can hear me playing parallel harmony things on the guitar that I'd subtly add to what was written. Christian is also really pushing the piece along and holding it down. Manuel is simultaneously careful with the composition and kicking ass."
Thelen: "This is a totally improvised, crunchy rock piece. I counted us in and all of a sudden, there were these powerful notes blasting out of David's amplifier. His sudden surge of energy infected the band and we took off on a throbbing journey."
Torn: "I chose to hit the notes over and over and fed them back in a million different ways. You'll also hear Manuel playing a downbeat that I created a harmonic counterpart for. I used detuned Gamelan instruments to make that. They sound like gongs in a couple of spots in the track. I'm very happy with how it turned out."
1. PART 44, 9:56
2. RED SHIFT, 10:31
3. WAVES AND PARTICLES , 7:49
4. MONOLITH, 10:47
5. VORTEX , 9:37
6. LOOKFACE!, 7:13
Produced and mixed by David Torn.
Recorded at Powerplay Studio A in Maur near Zürich, Switzerland, Feb. 15-17, 2017.
Engineer: D.James Goodwin.
Assistant: Reto Muggli.
Mastered by Serge Christen, www.mazzivesound.ch.
All compositions by Stephan Thelen except
Part 44 by Stephan Thelen and Don Li
Monolith by Stephan Thelen and David Torn
Lookface! by Stephan Thelen, Bernhard Wagner,
Christian Kuntner, Manuel Pasquinelli, and David Torn.
Published by RareNoisePublishing (PRS).
Executive Producer for RareNoiseRecords: Giacomo Bruzzo.
Special thanks to: Anil Prasad, Henry Kaiser, Alex Mullarkey, Susann Smitka, Thomas Becker, Jerry Rojas, Markus Reuter, and Giacomo Bruzzo.
David Torn appears courtesy of ECM Records.