Album Review: Stephan Thelen - 'Fractal Guitar'

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Three years in the making, guitarist and composer Stephan Thelen recently released his debut solo album, Fractal Guitar, on MoonJune Records. The album is available from Bandcamp and other retailers.

Fractal Guitar is billed as an instrumental, post-progressive album and it sits comfortably at the intersection of rock, jazz, and experimental music.  Obvious comparisons to Thelen’s band Sonar will be made, but this work largely eschews the taut, sparse compositions and dry guitar tones of the former, for a more relaxed and emotive, albeit focused, jam session vibe. Thelen’s distinctive guitar tone and harmonic sensibilities remain focal points, but he also branches out, expanding his sonic pallet with delay and reverb.  The fiery and atmospheric guitar work of guests David Torn, Markus Reuter, Henry Kaiser, Jon Durant, Bill Walker, and/or Barry Cleveland grace every track and help define the overall tone of the album — frenzied and soaring guitar leads abound.  Touch guitarist Matt Tate provides deep and steady Chapman Stick-like bass lines while drummers Benno Kaiser and, Sonar alum, Manuel Pasquinelli provide a varied backbeat.  Percussionist Andi Pupato adds subtle percussion work to one track, which is a nice addition.

Benjamin Schäfer and Markus Reuter are credited with mixing the album, and they have done an admirable job.  The mixes are full and spacious with plenty of dynamics and excellent balance.  The drums are mixed prominently, like a proper rock album, but are never overpowering.  A lot is going on in the midrange thanks to the guitar heavy arrangements, but Schäfer and Reuter have managed to carve out space for each instrument. Alexander Vatagin’s mastering complements and enhances the mixes with no audible degradation or heavy-handed limiting. Thankfully, 24-bit source files were uploaded to Bandcamp, so any lossless file downloads (ALAC and FLAC) are rendered in full bandwidth.  Hooray for high-resolution audio!

The opening track and longest of the bunch, “Briefing For A Descent Into Hell,” would not have seemed out of place on Sonar’s latest studio album with David Torn (reviewed here).  Thelen’s singular guitar work and Pasquinelli’s deft cymbal flourishes are immediately recognizable.  A pulsing bass and drum groove on one and three propel the composition forward as various melodic themes and elements are added and subtracted.  Torn makes an unmistakable entrance with his on-the-verge of exploding guitar antics as the track begins to develop.  Recalling King Crimson and his work with Sonar, Thelen’s guitar riffs, arpeggios, and ping-ponging stabs become a reoccurring high point.  Durant and Reuter add plenty of ambient and noisy guitar textures throughout the track, adding plenty of exciting tones.  The piece ends with some beautiful, haunting ambient loops and glitchy textures.

“Road Movie” opens with an appealing surfy guitar riff which serves as the central groove and backbone of the jam.  Thelen’s clean, reverb-drenched guitar delivers the primary melodic theme while Reuter, Walker and H. Kaiser alternate solos (at times it’s difficult to pinpoint who’s doing what).  I’m not thrilled by the direct-sounding guitar tone on the guitar solo around the 11:25 minute mark, but thankfully the playing is tasteful.  The piece wraps up with a cacophony of noise which oddly seems more befitting of a descent into Hell than a road movie.

“Fractal Guitar” finds Thelan playing with, and playing off of, long delay lines to create engaging and evolving guitar melodies and themes.  B. Kaiser and Tate provide a deep, complex, and emotionally varied bass and drum groove.  Pupato’s percussion adds a gentle organic dimension to the mix as Reuter, Cleveland, and Thelen’s soundscapes intermittently drop-in for introductions.

“Radiant Day” builds slowly on a heavy and lumbering bass/drum groove.  Here again, Thelen’s reverb-drenched guitar delivers the central theme while cascading delays add additional texture.   Standout elements are the creative use of of distorted and ping-ponged chordal guitar accents, horizon-expanding synthy guitar textures, and fiery lead work.

Inter-locking guitar arpeggios, recalling The League Of Crafty Guitarists and the California Guitar Trio, grace the introduction of “Urban Nightscape.”  Torn’s unique guitar work is featured prominently throughout the track, but it is B. Kaiser’s aggressive break-beat like drumming that steals the show.  The song eventually fades to a quiet finale of cascading delays, noisy ambiance and looped drones.

Despite clocking in at over 67 minutes, Fractal Guitar is an engaging listen and a strong solo debut by Thelen.  Highly recommended for fans of Sonar, King Crimson, Stick Men, echotest, any of the contributors, and listeners of prog-influenced or adventurous music. 

Special thanks to MoonJune Records for sending an advance copy of the album for review.

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