David Torn is a New York-based guitarist and producer, a noted innovator of looping and processing effects, and a composer with extensive top-flight session experience and numerous movie soundtracks and solo recordings to his credit; but Only Sky is his first album of solo guitar music.
Most recording took place in a space with acoustics that Torn describes as: “pillowy but pithy at the same time…(producing) a dream guitar sound.” These tapes were then mixed with “more tune-oriented pieces” recorded in Torn’s own studio. “All of the music is just my instrument and multiple looping devices, with some favorite fuzzboxes,” Torn notes. “The guitar and the looping devices were amplified separately, enabling (a) sense of both spaciousness and clarity.”
Of his three previous ECM albums, the second, Cloud About Mercury (1987), which featured trumpeter Mark Isham and ex-King Crimson rhythm players Tony Levin and Bill Bruford, is still a remarkable work. It is, nonetheless distinctly of its time, thanks to the deployment of 80s synths, Simmons drums, Chapman Stick, and so on. The much more recent Prezens (2007) still sounds cutting edge. On that album, Torn’s guitar is augmented by Tim Berne’s Hard Cell, a unit he’d produced previously (he also produced and mixed both of Berne’s recent Snakeoil albums, Shadow Man (2013) and You’ve Been Watching Me (2015)).
Open Sky and Prezens both bear the stamp of Torn’s current production aesthetic, but the stripping back of inputs on this new album has perhaps produced something more timeless.
Its lead track, “at least there was nothing”, seeps ominously into the listening space as a shifting, blanketing miasma of sound. Layers loom then quickly recede, as does a brief figure played on electric oud, a hint of Araby giving no more purchase than subsequent striations of raspy bow sounds.
“spoke with folks” is, by complete contrast, direct and economical. An American country pastoral, it is steadily picked, then reverb’d and refracted through processing. “ok, shorty” stays with the same mood. Either tune could be a folksong derivation, though neither is as folksy as, for example, Bill Frisell’s take on “Shenandoah”.
The first of only two tracks to run over ten minutes, “was a cave, there…” is disjointed, and heavily tweaked and processed, shucking off melody in favour of disorientation: loops abraded by metallic darts and plinks, and the odd rumble of subterranean bass, over which Torn eventually layers peals of hazy and abrasive abstraction. Fans of Prezens should check this.
But the album’s centrepiece “reaching barely, sparely fraught”, is the one destined for the mixtapes. Torn plays echoic variations on a burnished blues riff over insistently strummed repetitions, perhaps loops, and a groundswell of ambient noise, all suggesting a more robust take on Christian Fennesz’ sound. Excepting, that is, the tautly-drawn solo Torn draws out at the end, which is pure post-Fripp power-play.
The 13-minutes-plus “I could almost see the room” builds on a steady, brooding motorik that sparks jarring irruptions of riffs in varied states of abstraction. But it ends in a slow-fade wind-down, effectively segueing into the title piece, which is a limpid, refractive oasis of sitar-like melodic formulas. This almost-calm is tempered by an underlying volatility, as even here layers are built up, looped and glitch-infected beneath bent notes and sustains. Torn’s music sometimes seems Zen lucid, but it is far from ambient.
Even the most transparent number, “so much what”, which is founded on an etherial decoction of arpeggiation, turns opaquely symphonic before a brief coda of naked melodicism. The first half of “a goddamned specific unbalance” is similarly, disarmingly light on processing, beyond reverb and vibrato. It induces a reverie on sonic beauty, which the intrusion of a forbidding electronic pulse and textural sonic appliqué only serves to unsettle.
There’s just enough homage to known soundscapes here for the album appeal to abroad and inclusive audience, but it’s as edgily original and confounding as it is seductive. Torn refers to “different planes of sound existing simultaneously (which, at times) interact, making for strange occurrences of polytonality that lead you to places you might not otherwise end up.” He’s talking about his own experience, as originator, but could well be describing our own, as consumers.
David Torn: guitar, electric oud.