Sonar with David Torn – Tranceportation Vol.1 [RareNoise 2019]

Sonar with David Torn – Tranceportation Vol.1 [RareNoise 2019]

Nov 17, 2019 0 By Marcello Nardi

So you just released an acclaimed recording in 2018, Vortex, featuring one of the most adventurous musicians around, guitarist David Torn, and your band, Sonar, is now getting the highest attention among audience. That was the easy part. The same critics, who celebrated your recording with complimentary reviews and patted your shoulders, are now lying in wait for the following recording. So you are ready to benefit of the garnered success and sit back, repeating the same recipe for success. There is just one snag: if you are Sonar, you are not wanting to sit back and, instead, looking for rolling forward to new adventurous and risky options.

Somewhere in between the opening track Labyrinth and the third one, Red Sky comprised in Tranceportation Vol. 1, released on RareNoise, it’s clear that the Swiss quartet Sonar and American guitarist David Torn are opening the gates and heading to a new quantum leap forward. Last year Torn started with the duties of producer and eventually made light work of his trademark ambient guitars with the band during the recording sessions of Vortex. But that was not just a stint: instead they worked out a plan to keep on playing live and then recording a new album. When meeting again end of April, start of May this year in the recording studio in Bellmund, Switzerland, they made it clear from the start they still had a lot to go through together. The ritual vision of music, which keeps standing at the core of the quartet made by the tritonic-tuned guitars played by Stephan Thelen and Bernhard Wagner, the tritonic-tuned bass by Cristian Kuntner and the drums by Manuel Pasquinelli, has offers a rendition of highly structured mazes of isorhythmic and polyrhythmic nets through its discography. Despite they have deeply crafted a much personal sound, the collaboration with David Torn taps into even more relevance, if possible, that ritual side of their work. Coming to their fifth release, it is now even clear they are not breaking loose of their own vision, instead they are adventuring at the very deep of it. 

The opening Labyrinth makes it very clear from the outset that the collaboration with their American guest was not to be intended as a one-off project. Few pickings on the guitar strings, played over on a thrilling soundscape, roll out the red carpet for the scary entrance of the distorted and storming chords by David Torn. The brief intro is pivotal in setting the narrative of what’s to be later developed at a slower pace. After the initial break, the main verse of the song starts back with the trademark interlocking parts played by Thelen and Wagner, reinforced this time with the deep basses driven by the rhythmic section -careful of your stereo bass boost before Kuntnter plays any note! At the moment the soundscape keeps going on steadily, the tension grows until David Torn adds some wailings and drills over the powerful strummings of clean chords by Wagner and Thelen. It’s the six minutes mark when Pasquinelli unexpectedly discontinues the tempo, before hastening with a frenzier pace. David Torn unerringly explores every possible nuance of the polyrhythmic patterns, carefully dosing distortions, syncopations and reverbs. Everything has such an organic mold that’s impossible to break loose of the tension. Again Pasquinelli momentarily breaks off at eleven minutes mark. It’s just to let his presence even more in the whirlwind of sounds when entering back few bars later, for the the closing three minutes: a show of unmerciful aggressiveness that jumps the heart in the throat. Labyrinth is from many point of views a trademark Sonar track; yet however it proffers an unprecedented energy the band never reached before.

Red Sky is potentially a leap forward in the direction of what the quintet -now it becomes clear it’s impossible to disguise the separate contributions of single players in this effort- envisages as its declarative vision. The rhythmic guitars place a muted two notes riff at the lower end of the spectrum, leaving space for the ambient explorations by Torn. The American guitarist feels free to play at his own will, regaling soaring melodies over almost inaudible ringings. Thelen adds ascending and descending arpeggios, interacting with Torn with a quirk sense of rhythm. The Swiss guitarist now offers new nuances in the palette his guitar, evidently paying a debt to the work done on his solo album Fractal Guitar: easy to link this with how he declines reverbs and effects on this recording. Still every musicians is keen to dedicate to a reflective moment: everyone contributes to a brooding exploration of where each pattern is leading the music to. At around the six minutes mark, the soaring soundscape reinforces the emergence on surface of a cyclic theme, almost a dance. David Torn answers with sparse notes with his lead guitar, alternating vibrant blues phrases to fraying scratches, until an amazing glissando rests for many seconds to a single reverberated note. In Red Sky the five chop up their music in smallest slices, sifting through multiple scenarios and showing the most perfect picture of what’s to come and what’s still to unravel in their conception of music. 

Stephan Thelen, in addition to his guitar-centered Fractal Guitarwhich can be easily considered a highest level rendition of the status of avantgarde guitar at today- also dedicates at writing for ensembles. Kronos Quartet gave the deserved visibility to his work including Circular Lines in their collection of emerging composers, 50 For The Future. When I had the pleasure to speak with him later this year, he mentioned he was writing for chamber ensembles again, this time a piece for marimba and vibraphones: this might come up in a record next year by Solaire Records, together with pieces by Nik Bärtsch, Markus Reuter and Dennis Kuhn -see here for supporting the crowdfunding. He is able to write in the same way, whether it comes to his solo albums of Sonar‘s music, focusing on how to develop complex nets of patterns: the seven new tracks comprising the two volumes of Tranceportation are based on simple harmonic structures with few repeated notes, with small changes, throughout the whole work -Thelen indicates. This evidently brings the ‘trance’ element in. However, making use of isorhythmic, polyrhythmic and odd meter patterns, those structures create complex structures and twisted illusions. Even though you listen to just a few notes, sometimes it takes much time until the whole pattern beneath is repeated.

What initially started as a follow-up of Vortex, eventually sprawled to more than 80 minutes of music and became a double album, whose second volume will be released in May 2020. In a move equal parts bold and conservative, Tranceportation Vol. 1 is moving the music of Sonar and their collaboration with David Torn ahead. Staying faithful to one of the rules that lies underneath the music of many Swiss postmininal musicians, that which says that minimal structures do not cage the music, instead unleash a new world of possibilities, Sonar and David Torn are now delving into new depths. 

Sonar with David Torn
Tranceportation Vol.1

1) Labyrinth (14:26)
2) Partitions (5:37)
3) Red Sky (11:14)
4) Tunnel Drive (7:42)

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

All compositions by Stephan Thelen with contributions by Bernhard Wagner, Christian Kuntner, Manuel Pasquinelli and David Torn.

Published by RareNoisePublishing (PRS)
Produced by Sonar with David Torn.
Recorded „live in the studio“ April 29 – May 3, 2019, at Mazzivesound Studio in Bellmund, Switzerland (
Engineer: Chris Diggelmann
Edited & Mixed by Stephan Thelen between May and July 2019.
Mastered by Serge Christen at Mazzivesound.
All tracks arranged by Sonar. Sonar’s guitar parts arranged by Stephan Thelen and Bernhard Wagner.
Artwork and Design by Ian Anderson for The Designers’ Republic
Executive Producer for RareNoiseRecords: Giacomo Bruzzo
David Torn appears courtesy of ECM Records.
Thanks to Sara and Serge Christen, Alexander Vatagin and Markus Reuter.
Thanks to Kanton Zürich Fachstelle Kultur for financial support.