For me, listening to music used to be highly interactive. I say this because in my younger days, when I sought out music that gave me the adrenaline rush I constantly craved, I played a lot of air guitar. I played it when Jimi Hendrix performed “The Star-Spangled Banner,” when Eric Clapton launched into the madcap improvisation following the opening verses of “N.S.U.” on Live Cream, and when Mountain’s “Mississippi Queen” blew a tweeter on my first pair of speakers, an experience that saddened me although I took comfort in assuming Leslie West would have approved of that experience.
My tastes have since broadened, and I sometimes go weeks without listening to a rip-roaring guitar solo. Recently, though, I have found myself playing records where the electric git bursts out of my speakers with fire and passion. The musicians who recently grabbed my attention are all innovators, but in their own unorthodox ways all of them give me that same adrenaline rush. (No air guitar, though. And no blown tweeters.)
Sonar is a Swiss band whose core lineup consists of Christian Kuntner on bass, Manual Pasquinelli on drums, and Stephan Thelen and Bernhard Wagner on guitar. The group’s brand of minimalist groove music has parallels in Nik Bärtsch and Adrian Belew-era King Crimson. The ensemble makes extensive use of tritones, or “the devil’s interval,” with antecedents that include Black Sabbath and Holst’s “Mars, The Bringer of War,” and that interval makes for an ominous sound. For 2018’s Vortex, David Torn was hired to produce a Sonar album, and he ended up adding a third guitar to the group’s sonic tapestry. The results were so satisfying that the fivesome has already released two more records. For Sonar: The Bill Laswell Mix Translations, Bill Laswell remixed and reconstructed songs from Vortex while adding electronics and bass lines. A 7D Media release, the two-song EP is available as a download (FLAC) or on 12-inch vinyl. If transportive music combined with immersive soundscapes containing more detail than human beings can possibly absorb appeals to you, Translations will not leave you wanting.
Recorded live in the studio, Sonar’s Tranceportation (Volume 1), a 2019 release, reaffirms the chemistry Torn shares with Sonar. Playing with Swiss-clock precision, the core band delivers the aural equivalent of pointillism, while Torn uses broad, messy brushstrokes. This is trance music with a dash of menace. Technically the music is demanding, but you’ll find yourself focusing not on virtuosity but the interplay between the musicians. This RareNoise release is available on CD and vinyl.
Another successful collaboration occurs on Testament, a 2019 Clean Feed release by the Avram Fefer Quartet. An alto and tenor saxophonist, Fefer has worked extensively with an ensemble featuring Eric Revis on double bass and Chad Taylor on drums. For Testament the trio added Marc Ribot, whose work with the Lounge Lizards and Tom Waits in the 1980s earned him a reputation as one of the most distinctive guitarists in contemporary music. Waits once praised Ribot for his “compulsory distortion, rude chords, and gypsy phraseology.” You’ll hear those things on Testament, where Ribot’s gritty approach fits in perfectly with an ensemble that puts across the spirit and energy of 1960s “New Thing” jazz. With Revis and Taylor pushing hard underneath, Fefer and Ribot solo with an exuberance that would be refreshing in any genre. You’ll hear shades of Ornette Coleman, and you’ll hear Middle Eastern scales that blend right in with the group’s NYC downtown vibe. Play it for your friends who think jazz is too cerebral.
When I first played Five Times Surprise, I knew nothing about it except that two band members, Henry Kaiser and Anthony Pirog, were over-achievers on the guitar. During the first two cuts, I thought I caught a whiff of the Mahavishnu Orchestra. On the third track the band launched into a spirited reading of “You Know You Know” from The Inner Mounting Flame, and it turns out Henry Kaiser launched the project as a tribute to John McLaughlin. Matching the veteran Kaiser with the wunderkind Pirog, this cross-generational project finds unity in the way both soloists display lightning-fast virtuosity without devolving into soulless shredding. Instead the musicians are not only expressive, they’re hyper-expressive in the same spirit as the Mahavishnu Orchestra, and six-string violinist Tracy Silverman plays with equal passion. Continually driving the soloists to new heights, six-string bassist Andy West and drummer Jeff Sipe lay down complex time signatures with verve and vitality. Five Times Surprise is on Cuneiform, a label that tried to fold a couple years ago. Fortunately forward-thinking musicians and fans talked them out of it.