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Swiss composer and guitarist Stephan Thelen has been a busy man over the past couple of years, putting out an album of string quartet music, a duo album with electronicist J. Peter Schwalm, the debut album by the Fractal Sextet, and, of course, the pair of Tranceportation albums he made with his regular band Sonar and his pal David Torn. It’s safe to say that all of his projects have things in common – unusual tunings, cinematic compositions, odd metered time signatures – and even more fair to say they feed off of each other. Which brings us to Fractal Guitar 3, the third in his series of records exploring the sonic reaches of six (or more) strings alongside a gang of like-minded friends.
Though not as focused as the Sonar records or as risky as the string quartet album, in some ways Thelen’s Fractal Guitar series represents his aesthetic at its most pure. The compositions on 3 feel open-ended, leaving plenty of room for improvisation and additional material, which guitar-slinging friends like Eivind Aarset, Bill Walker, Markus Reuter, Jon Durant, Stefan Huth and Barry Cleveland happily provide. Like Thelen, all of those players avoid conventional performance, altering their instrumental work through electronics, unusual gear (like Huth and Reuter’s touch guitars) or simply their own distinctive techniques. Thus while the tracks contain familiar touchstones, like space rock, progressive rock, jazz fusion and experimental electronica, it all comes together into a unique sonic signature that could come only from the vision put forth by Thelen himself.
All of which is to say that, as on the two other Fractal Guitar albums, what’s here is mesmerizing. “Ascension” lives up to its name with a slow build and an interactive weave of guitar work from Aarset, Reuter, Durant and Thelen, plus soundscaping from Schwalm and roiling polyrhythms from drummer Manuel Pasquinelli (also of Sonar), percussionist Andi Pupato and Huth on touch bass. Aarset also gives “Glitch” its titular effect, giving the melodies asserted by himself and the “Ascension” gang an unpredictable twist. Adding Walker to the mix, “Black on Maroon” and “Through the Stargate” (which comes in two versions, one a remix by Schwalm) throw in some aggressive distortion and menacing atmosphere alongside the rhythm changes and swirling psychedelics, making the latter in particular a magnificent beast of a track.
It would be unfair to say that Fractal Guitar 3 is the culmination of Thelen’s efforts of the last couple of years, as all of his music falls on a continuum, none more important than the others. But it certainly caps off an astonishingly productive period from a remarkable musician whose breadth of vision never fails and consistency never falters.