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Sonar with David Torn and J. Peter Schwalm - Three Movements (7d)

30 June 2023

Switzerland’s Sonar has an unusual SOP: guitarists Stephan Thelen and Bernhard Wagner and bassist Christian Kuntner tune their instruments to fifths (AKA tritones) and use clean tones exclusively, while drummer Manuel Pasquinelli plays in every time signature BUT 4/4. While that may sound restrictive, the instrumental band has gotten surprisingly wide mileage out of that vision with a handful of mesmerizing albums. Even so, the group eventually altered their approach in 2018 by inviting experimental guitarist and noted chaos agent David Torn to adorn their tight arrangements and grooves with his signature brand of effects-laden magic, kicking Sonar’s work up another notch.

Now the band takes yet another step in their evolution with Three Movements. With Torn still on board and the addition of keyboardist/electronics guru J. Peter Schwalm, with whom composer Thelen has worked on his Fractal Guitar projects and last year’s duo album Transneptunian Planets, Sonar takes on another of Thelen’s side hustles: composing for classical ensembles. Three Movements takes precisely that form, with three extended pieces that lean toward the group’s influence from minimalist classical music as never before. That’s not to say that the tracks sound like electrified string quartet pieces, though they could have gotten away with that. (Thelen has composed for the notoriously open-minded Kronos Quartet.) Instead, the six musicians create a thick tapestry of rock, jazz, and genre-free sounds and rhythms. Kuntner, Pasquinelli, and Thelen nail down the foundations, while Wagner adds fills and accents. Torn veers between menacing ambient textures and swooping electric scythes, using his distinctive power riffing and live looping in cutting through the structures like a windstorm through a field. Schwalm fills in whatever space is left, with both soothing synth pads and unexpected noises and filigrees.

There’s a lot going on, but the players keep the focus tight and uncluttered, allowing musical density to support a single purpose: to create spellbinding waves of musical beguilement, the kind that’s melodic and appealing enough for casual heads, but complex and finely honed enough for musos to lose themselves inside it. A tricky balance for anyone, but Sonar and their pals pull it off with taste, skill, and good old-fashioned musicality. Sensually gratifying and absolutely riveting, Three Movements may well be Sonar’s masterpiece.