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Swiss quartet Sonar takes a unique approach to its music by tuning all of its guitars and bass to tritones, also known as augmented fourths. A tritone has a reputation as the so-called “devil’s interval,” useful in heavy metal chord patterns for discordant melodies that don’t resolve in a way your ear may expect (cf. early Black Sabbath). Sonar, however, are not metal musicians. Instead the band’s style swirls together a distinctive miasma of art rock, jazz and minimalism, with stark, clean riffs from guitarists Stephan Thelen and Bernhard Wagner and deep, mantra-like grooves from bassist Christian Kuntner and drummer Manuel Pasquinelli that come together as a sonic wave unlike anyone’s on the planet.
For Tranceportation (Volume 1), the band once again adds maverick guitar slinger David Torn to the mix. Originally employed as a producer on last year’s Vortex, the axeman and soundscaper ended up as a high-profile sideman, adding his unique auditory slash, burn and shimmer to the group’s music after its initial genesis. As rewarding as that mash-up was on Vortex (and its live addendum Live at Moods), it was more a matter of irresistible force meets immovable object and producing uncommon beauty than a carefully considered attack. For Tranceportation (Volume 1) (note: the second volume arrives next spring), Thelen composed the pieces with Torn’s participation in mind from the beginning, resulting in a more integrated sound.
In “Red Sky,” for example, Sonar sets up a circular melody with minor variations as the piece progresses, conjuring up clouds moving across the sky, framed by a setting sun. Instead of flying in with a shrieking dive-bomb of guitar sound, Torn adds electronically manipulated squeals and feedback iridescence, more like peals of thunder as the barometric pressure changes than an unexpected missile breaking the calm. Torn also adds scintillating solos when appropriate, with the band churning its groove behind him. The effect is hypnotic, as it is on “Labyrinth,” the mammoth opening track. Here Sonar carefully entangles its lines for an intricate web of sonorousness, Torn filling the space with his distorted tone and psychedelic wash like a painter finishing off a detailed pencil sketch. “Partitions” and “Tunnel Drive” stick to the vision in shorter, more concise form, but are no less arresting for that.
Not everyone will fall under the spell of Tranceportation (Volume 1) – no doubt some listeners will find the sonic cycles maddening instead of mesmerizing. But adventurous music fans would do well to give these grooves a go – there’s truly no one else in rock (or jazz, or whatever you call this rare flavor) doing what Sonar does, and with Torn on board, the band truly inhabits its own self-created universe.
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