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.