Its music Jim but not as we know it: Sonar at the Vortex Jazz Club, London on Tuesday 30th April

Sonar are from Switzerland and their first album, ‘A Flaw of Nature’  was released last year . I liked it so much it entered my Top 12 Progressive Rock albums of 2102 at number 6.

and this is what I said:

“Experimental, minimalist, instrumental post/math rock. Simply hypnotic. Specially tuned guitars produce an unusual harmonic sound. The more I listen, the more I like this album. Pretty awesome actually.”

The 4 tracks that could not make it onto the album were released on an EP recently called “Skeleton Groove” . This EP saw the band start moving away from  a strictly minimalist slower ‘groove’ to a faster tempo and slightly rockier sound, particularly in the tracks  ‘Broken Symmetry’ and ‘String Geometry’.

Sonar (short for Sonic Architecture) like mathematical/technical references in their song titles. Their first album includes track titles such ‘Mobius Loop’; ‘Structure 3.7’ and ‘Tritone Harmonics’. This is not surprising when one considers their lead guitarist Stefan Thelen has a PHD in Mathematics and the band’s sound is based upon tuning their guitars to tritones (‘diabolus in musica’). This creates a somewhat unusual and unique sound, described by the band itself as tritone harmonics.

I had messaged the band to encourage them to visit London as I was intrigued to hear what the band would sound like live.  Stefan had said ‘watch this space’ and sure enough after returning from Norway following the recording of new material for their forthcoming sophomore album, they had arranged a short European tour that included a gig at the Vortex Jazz Club in Dalston, North London. This was a venue new to me.

Arriving somewhat early, before 8pm, we found the club closed (well it was a bit early for a Jazz club!). Standing around the post-modern looking Square upon which the club faced, I was lucky enough to bump into the band itself and had a chat with Christian Kuntner, bassist and a Facebook friend. Christian is instantly recognizable with his tall, gaunt and shaven headed Germanic looks. We talked about how the recording had gone in Norway (very successful) but he made no commitment about a release date and assured me that releasing the new album on vinyl was just too expensive !

Finally getting into the club we ascended some stairs that opened up into a very small cosy room with a small stage at one end and bar at the other. In between were about 25 small round tables with marble tops and wrought iron legs. Each table was candlelit and could fit a cosy threesome at best. With a small amount of extra standing room, the venue could fit no more than 100 people at a push….we were the first in and tables had name tags on them ! So a far cry from most venues I frequent but not unusual for a Jazz club. It had the necessary Jazz ambience,  a French ‘look and feel’, dark and intimate. Beers in hand, Stephan Thelen introduced himself and we talked about his influences, he is a major Robert Fripp/early King Crimson fan and his views on the new album (in his words ‘more playful’)…more about that later. The set would consist of old and new tracks.

However, first up were a band called MooV and they entered stage left (well through the audience actually) and we (now about 30 people) were treated to an intriguing mix of piano sequencer ; cello; bass and vocals for about 45 minutes.

A five piece band, billed as a three piece, but performed as a four piece !…rather confusing but that’s what we got.  Colin Riley, pianist and main composer, explained that MooV’s music was malleable and open-ended and this allowed them to perform with a varied number of band members. So tonight there was no percussion but equally on some occasions there maybe no cello. MooV have been around since 2005 and made only two albums and had only performed 16 gigs…that’s only about 2 per year so not a vast output. However, as I found out afterwards, the band members are involved in numerous projects. We were told all this after the first track but, if we were concerned that this might affect their live performance, then we need not have worried. To describe their music is challenging as it appears to have may influences without any one dominating. So I enlisted some support by accessing the band’s web page and got:

‘The final product is absolutely unclassifiable’ (London Jazz Blog) .

Oh well that wasn’t much help !…so let’s have a go anyway:

Arty but not Art Rock

Jazzy but not Jazz

progressive but certainly not Prog Rock

poppy but not pop

electronic but not electronica

a sense of chamber music but not chamber music

does that help ?…probably not

Experimental and avant garde and certainly creative and stimulating; unpredictable, even random; with enigmatic, intimate lyrics with a dark edge. The use of sequencing effects and constant changes in pitch (musical and vocal) and rhythm create the backbone of the music.  At times angular and unsettling but at other times ethereal and beautifully soft.  Sparse and minimalistic. I cannot think of comparisons but perhaps think of Sigur Ros’s simpler tracks unplugged with a folksy edge with Bjork’s vocals (not sure that makes sense!). There is certainly a Scandinavian ‘feel’ at times. The vocalist, Elisabeth Nygard has Scandinavian roots, being from Norway. She has a hypnotic, breathy and fragile voice in the delivery of both word and sound (e.g. wailing/sighing etc.) She appears totally immersed and connected to the music.

Having bought their latest album and in view of Colin Riley’s words, it is also fair to say that listening to their music on cd compared to a live setting  is a very different experience. Only live do you truly feel the power and emotional intensity; the darkness; the light. Whether this music has a wide audience I doubt it as, at times, it is almost inaccessible. But to listen is to experience and whether the feelings and emotions produced are good or bad,  it is still worth experiencing. Thanks to Colin, Elisabeth, Natalie (cello) and Pete (bass).

Afterwards I managed to speak with the lead singer Elisabeth Nygard and discovered that her major influences were classical, chamber music and folk. She recommended their latest album ‘Here’ but we could speak no longer as we were both in respective toilet queues !

Here’s a link to their website:

So after 45 minutes of hearing something I was not expecting and, at the time, felt was almost impossible to describe,  we grabbed another beer before the main attraction..

By the time Sonar arrived on stage the club was nearly full and there was a healthy buzz about the place. To be honest I was a little apprehensive as to whether the music would come across as too sparse for a live setting. Known for their minimalist style, their set was also minimalist in nature with each guitar having a small miked up amp. No frills here.

No 'movin' but plenty of 'groovin'
No ‘movin’ but plenty of ‘groovin’

They commenced with probably their most well-known track, Tromso, from their first album. At over 11 minutes long it is typical of their style. Complex interwoven polyrhythmic guitar motifs, superbly played throughout,  supported by staccato bass lines and varied percussion. One clear characteristic of their musical style is how the percussion (just a basic drum kit) drives the tempo of each track. The drum is more than a single instrument. Accenting; snare comping; rim shots(?); cross sticking; the effective use of cymbals and a variety of drumsticks,  added an extra dynamic that was/is critical to the delivery of each track. Manuel Pasquinelli is indeed a top class drummer with exceptional timing. However the diversity of bass playing techniques and unusual effects was also noticeable and from the top draw.

The use of crescendo and decrescendos is equally noticeable as is the constant use of complex and layered polyrhythms.

After playing a couple of tracks from their first album, the rest of the set focussed on new material. Track 3 titled ‘Static Motion’ was a standout for me. Generally I felt the new output  is less minimalistic; has more complexity;  is driven along at a faster tempo; has more groove and at times has a rocky and very occasionally a funky edge. I personally like this subtle change in direction and really look forward to the release of the new album later this year.

As the set continued one could sense the developing satisfaction and enjoyment amongst the band members as their confidence increased. This was appreciated by an audience who increasingly warmed to the set. After an hour the set closed but demands for more were accepted. At the end of the first encore we were in danger of missing the last train home, so we not only missed the end of the set but also a beer with the band afterwards. Maybe next time Stefan.

Take a bow
Take a bow

Sonar are a group of accomplished musicians carving out a unique furrow in the prog jazz scene. An essential live experience. Thank you Stefan, Christian,  Bernhard and Manuel.

Check out the bands website:

and here’s a video of Tromso:

and it’s all free to air on Bandcamp.

2 thoughts on “Its music Jim but not as we know it: Sonar at the Vortex Jazz Club, London on Tuesday 30th April

  1. eheter

    Fantastic review, Ian. I haven’t heard these guys yet, but looks like I’m going to have to check them out, especially with their sound being so difficult to describe (which means it’s unique). Well, that and the fact that during my navy days I was a sonar tech, so any time I see the word I get curious lol!


  2. thanks Eric…started reading the Tool review late last night and didn’t realise how long it was and didn’t finish coz I was too tired. It’s an epic !…will read tonight and comment later 🙂



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