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Stephan Thelen - Fractal Guitar 2 (MoonJune)

5 May 2021

The leader of the marvelous Swiss prog/jazz/somethingorother quartet Sonar, guitarist and composer Stephan Thelen also has a thriving solo career that goes back years. Latest entry Fractal Guitar 2 continues the work begun by its predecessors (Fractal Guitar and the remix version of same), layering Thelen’s minimalist melodies and challenging time signatures with a multitude of guest guitarists from the experimental sphere. The tracks often have as many as five extra string-slingers alongside Thelen himself, including David Torn, Henry Kaiser, Markus Reuter, Jon Durant, Bill Walker, Barry Cleveland, Stefan Huth and Chris Muir on touch guitar, 12-string, various processed, filtered and textural guitars, e-bow and, of course, plain old riffing and soloing. That’s not to mention the keyboards and percussion on top of the rhythm section and Thelen’s own multi-instrumental contributions.

On paper it sounds like an over-frosted three-layer cake about to topple, but in practice it’s far more elegant. Given how many elements each track contains, Thelen proves himself a master arranger as well as composer, never letting any tune sound stuffed to the gills. The space-rocking “Ladder to the Stars,” for example, sets up a circular groove over which Kaiser, Durant, Reuter, Muir and Thelen himself lay down parts. But there’s no locking of horns here – each player contributes his own bit to enhance the overall flow of the piece, rather than compete with his fellow players. That means some of them add in only brief licks, or come in and out as they feel they’re needed, or simply just lay down a texture that persists in the background. That makes “Ladder to the Stars” lush instead of dense, shimmering instead of sludgy, and far lighter on its feet than one might expect.

Thelen keeps that careful balance in effect on every tune, whether it’s the driving “Cosmic Krautrock,” the shapeshifting “Celestial Navigation” or the beautiful “Mercury Transit.” Fractal Guitar 2 isn’t a showcase for untethered guitar slingers, but a way for remarkable musicians to act as painters, each addin the proper light and shade as required by the project’s visionary. Ambitious in scope and almost orchestral in its execution, Fractal Guitar 2 is a triumph of cooperative art.