Expectation is a burden. It opens the door to deep disappointment should what one has anticipated not live up to the preconceived hype. This is particularly true where movies and music are concerned.
I’ve known Swiss prog/math rockers Sonar were working on their latest album, Vortex (RareNoise Records), for more than a year. Their previous release, Black Light, is one of my favorite Bandcamp finds. Ive been eager to hear where their next step takes them.
I also knew they were working with guitarist/soundscape artist/producer David Torn, another favorite. I’ve enjoyed Torn’s unique approach to sound on records by David Bowie, Jeff Beck, and with Bruford Levin Upper Extremities, to say nothing of his own brilliant works. The thought of these two artists working together had me salivating like one of Pavlov’s dogs.
Still, that nagging doubt lingered. What if it didn’t work out? What if the the band and the guitarist didn’t gel properly? What if this collaboration becomes the musical equivalent of the Justice League movie? While I couldn’t wait to hear the results, I was still a bit nervous.
I needn’t have worried. Vortex is positively brilliant!
On the surface, Sonar has built a band around the interlocking guitar technique created by guitarist Steve Reich and “popularized” by Robert Fripp and Adrian Belew in the 1980s version of King Crimson, a band I hold in the highest regard. But Sonar takes the approach to the next level, creating an innovative sound based in familiarity. The tri-tones of guitarists Stephan Thelen and Bernhard Wagner weave in and around the mix, a musical Yin and Yang. Their sound creates and releases tension, often at the same time. No one guitar aims to outshine the other, resulting in the ultimate symbiotic guitar relationship.
This is not to accuse the guitarists of being too “busy,” either. In fact, their approach is a study in understatement. The sound is right there, with no need for the listener to actively seek it. But it doesn’t overwhelm the senses, either. Sonar’s music (refreshingly devoid of vocals) is the sonic equivalent of floating on the surface of warm ocean water. Occasionally, a small wave forms. The listener rises and falls gently right along with it.
Meanwhile, under the surface, Sonar’s rhythm section churns away, beautifully keeping things afloat. Bassist Christian Kuntner brings a sense of delicacy and taste to the proceedings, producing one of the most well-recorded bass sounds I’ve heard outside of acoustic jazz. His tone is ample and rich, even when played staccato. Comparing him to Crimson’s Tony Levin would be unfair, as their approaches are markedly different. The same can be said of drummer Manuel Pasquinelli, who’s approach is much less active than Bill Bruford. Where Bruford plays hard and fast on top of the mix, Pasquinelli’s drums almost seem to stroll, just a hair behind everyone else. Rather than propel the pieces forward, the drummer provides a lush sonic cradle of support. Pasquinelli does what the song calls for, and no more. This is the mark of a quality drummer.
Torn is the icing on a lush sonic cake. His loops, manipulations, and electronics bring a “wild card” element to Sonar’s proceedings. And they work beautifully! Torn’s sonic wails and dive-bombs provide a great counter to the mathematical approach of Thelen and Wagner, like a singer without lyrics, opting instead to make unusual sounds with his voice. Sonar’s music is great without Torn, but spectacular with him.
Most bands use their individual sounds to create a mix like sonic soup, where everything blends together to create a solid sound. Sonar and Torn are more like a stew, where each individual ingredient stands out, while still contributing profoundly to the whole. The stew won’t taste the same should one of the elements go missing, even if the music still makes sense. There are collaborations and there are collaborations. This is the latter. And then some.
Vortex is everything I hoped it would be a year ago. It’s a sound that will never get old, despite my repeated plays. Sounds this fresh don’t appear every day, especially in today’s music scene. Grab hold of this and make the most of it.