Album Review: Sonar with David Torn - ‘Vortex’

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Sonar recently released their fourth album, Vortex, on RareNoiseRecords.  The album is available from Amazon and others.

Sonar is comprised of members Stephan Thelen (guitar), Bernhard Wagner (guitar), Christian Kuntner (bass) and Manuel Pasquinelli (drums).  David Torn joins the quartet on electric guitar, live-looping and manipulation.

The band’s previous release, Black Light, was a restrained examination of tritones, polyrhythms and minimalism with few melodic diversions.  Vortex is not so dissimilar as to be unrecognizable, but it is a different beast.  True, interlocking guitars and odd time signatures abound, but this time around the band rocks with a previously unheard emotional intensity.  Torn’s melodic and subversive guitar incursions add a layer of unpredictability that moves the arrangements into new territory.  The result is an album full of rhythmic complexity and sonic adventurism.

Torn produced and mixed the album, and it sounds excellent.  He’s managed to sculpt a compelling drum sound that enhances and defines the tone of the album.  Thanks to judicious abuse of parallel drum buss compression, cymbals explode with shimmering sustain, while the kick, snare and toms remain tight and punchy.  This type of aggressive drum processing would not work in a dense rock arrangement, but here it is the perfect counterpoint to the dry hard-panned staccato guitars and reductionist bass lines.

The album opens strong with “Part 44.”  The dueling arpeggiated guitars recall the 80s incarnation of King Crimson in all the best ways.  Kuntner's bass pulses authoritatively as Pasquinelli’s drum machine-like hi-hat pattern leans heavily into the beat.  Torn’s guitar and live looping adds depth, color and melodic content.  Around the 5 minute mark, with rhythmic squelchy bleeps of guitar feedback, Torn does what he does best and turns something unexpected into a signature theme.  You can feel the excitement building in the studio as Kuntner, Pasquinelli and Torn absolutely let loose while Thelen and Wagner hold steady with metronomic precision.

“Red Shift” is a down tempo song with distinctive chordal ping-ponging guitar stabs, not unlike “Firepower” by David Sylvian and Robert Fripp.  Kuntner’s bass is deep and powerful and Pasquinelli’s drums are open and relaxed.  By the middle section, the arrangement is deconstructed to a sparse landscape of improvisation by Pasquinelli and Torn, while Kuntner and Wagner provide minimal structure.  Thelen’s guitar eventually enters with sweeping and extended arpeggios.

“Wave And Particles” opens with tasteful rhythmic interplay between guitar and hi-hat, but it is Torn’s guitar-work that really stands out.  His tone is fluid and slinky and his melodic use of a Digitech Whammy pedal, or perhaps delay time manipulation of his trusty Lexicon PCM-42, is inventive and fresh.  Thelen and Wagner’s guitars are hypnotic with plenty of movement and harmonic development.

“Monolith” slowly develops from its origin of a burbling guitar loop and simple accented guitars.  Bass and drums eventually join the orbiting rhythmic accents, reminiscent of a meter-bending live version of “Discipline” by King Crimson.  Torn masterfully manipulates the harmonic structure of the song with full transposing chords and wild improvisation.

“Vortex” is propelled forward by a chunky guitar/bass groove which eventually gives way to Pasquinelli’s frenetic breakbeat drumming and Torn’s guitar antics.  Unearthly guitar harmonics and a reverberated guitar melody by Thelen, Torn’s eerie guitar textures, and Pasquinelli’s cymbal rolls and screeches further define this signature piece.

The closing track,“Lookface!,” has a lilting, mysterious feel - as if a Martian reggae band was asked to write music for the title sequence of a James Bond film.  The track eventually gives way to a sparse atmosphere of slapped guitar chords, cymbal flurries, and ambient guitar loops.

While many albums over 50 minutes in length tend to feel long in the tooth, Vortex, at 56:12 minutes, is an engaging listen and passes quickly.  It is difficult to imagine how this album could be any better.  Highly recommended.

Album Review: The Messthetics - 'The Messthetics'

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The Messthetics are billed as an instrumental trio consisting of Fugazi’s rhythm section and experimental jazz guitarist Anthony Pirog.  Their self entitled album was recently released by Discord and is available from the band’s Bandcamp site.

The album was recorded live over multiple sessions in drummer Brendan Canty’s rehearsal space with minimal overdubs.  Accordingly, the album has a familiar jam session vibe, with a general excited looseness, but manages to avoid the pitfalls of structureless jamming.  For the most part, bassist Joe Lally and Canty keep things simple and steady - providing a solid foundation for Pirog’s sonic explorations.  The recording quality is very good with the mixes leaning a bit towards guitar heavy at times.

Let there be no mistake.  Pirog’s playing makes the album.  He easily shifts between varied fuzz tones, guitar loops, textures, and effects.  He’s prone to veer off into left field with a burst of noise or blistering atonal guitar run, but he never ignores his keen sense of melody for long. 

From the punkish rock of “Serpent Tongue;” to the mellow deep bass of “Once Upon A Time,” with guitar amp hiss tastefully blending into the sonic tapestry; the frenetic riffing of “Quantum Path,” with its’ Stone Temple Pilots like B-section; or the acoustic guitar seasoned “The Weaver,” the Messthetics cover a lot of ground musically and sonically. 

The modal opening track, “Mythomania,” had me hooked within the first couple of bars.  Here, Lally’s understated bass groove carries the song while Pirog’s creative and playful use of effects paint a constantly evolving landscape, recalling Adrian Belew and Nils Cline.

“The Inner Ocean” was another favorite, with subtle brush work by Canty and lush arpeggiated chordal melodies by Pirog.  Least you forget the album was largely recorded live, Pirog tips his hand with an audible click of a stomp box, before launching into full bodied fuzz tones.

Crowds and Power” is the heaviest song of the bunch with punishing guitar and pounding bass and drums.  Yet still, the band breaks down the onslaught to provide a middle section full of space and texture.  This might well be the trio’s trademark…and it certainly provides interest and diversity within the arrangements.

At just over 33 minutes, the album’s length is perfect for the material at hand, and left me looking forward to their next release.  Well done!

Album Review: Anthony Pirog - 'Palo Colorado Dream'

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I recently became aware of experimental guitarist, Anthony Pirog, thanks to the excellent blog, Guitar Moderne

Pirog released his solo album, Palo Colorado Dream, in October 2014.  It is available for purchase via Bandcamp.  The album features Pirog on electric guitar with Michael Formanek on acoustic bass and Ches Smith on drums.

While much of the album ventures a little too far into the realm of jazz noodling for my tastes, there are some beautiful moments interspersed among the songs.

That being said, I bought the album for just one song.  Simply put, "The New Electric" is a modern guitar masterpiece firmly rooted in the rock aesthetic.  When Pirog lets loose during the guitar solo, playing masterfully with tension and release, it becomes clear he has some serious chops.  Such a wonderful track!

I’ll be on the lookout for future projects from Pirog, especially if he continues to dabble in the rock genre.