David Torn: Prezens (ECM 1877)


David Torn

David Torn guitars, live-sampling and manipulation
Tim Berne alto saxophone
Craig Taborn Fender Rhodes, Hammond B3, mellotron, bent circuits
Tom Rainey drums
Matt Chamberlain drums
Recorded March 2005 at Clubhouse Studios, Rhinebeck, New York
Engineer: Hector Castillo
Produced by David Torn

Prezens marks David Torn’s return to ECM after a long hiatus since cloud about mercury. Here the guitarist joins altoist Tim Berne, keyboardist Craig Taborn, and drummer Tom Rainey for a combustible tangle of music making. The band, goes the backstory, recorded a dozen hours of free improvisation, from which were culled and refashioned an album’s worth of material, surgeried by Torn post factum. Finding one’s way through the end product may be no small task, but reaps its rewards in proportion to the openness of the ears receiving them.

At sound center is Torn himself, who, if not picking his glyphs across six amplified strings, is deepening them at the mixing board. Indeed, his presence (the album’s title under another name?) echoes far beyond the chord that stretches its yawn across “ak” in a swirling electronic haze. If the appearance of drums, organ, and saxophone seems out of place in this opening track, it is because they belong there so needfully. Ambient constructions flit in and out of aural purview, foiling the physicality of the acoustic here and now. Trailing the footfalls of Berne’s ghostly doppelganger, they trip over grungy riffs from Torn, who invites satirically blissful finish. Ganglion to ganglion, each instrumental element touches the third eye of something cerebral yet instantly accessible. Accessible, yes, because of the music’s inability to clothe itself. This isn’t meant to make your head nod, but to implode.

Spoken words hide like poison in “rest & unrest,” an exploration of the illusory nature of reality, a musical testimony led astray by its own shadow. It reveals the album’s variety of diction and leads into the evolved patterning of “structural functions of prezens.” As Torn’s electric keens distantly yet with the bleed-through of a Venn diagram, cells of machine-gun drumming turn this forlorn jam session into an exercise in self-destruction. Berne’s alto weaves its legato path across a landscape that is equal parts Jon Hassell and Steve Tibbetts, as if smuggling genomes across the border between consciousness and unconsciousness. So begins a chain of possible references one might connect. The electrical charge of Elliott Sharp activates the filaments of “bulbs,” while Bill Frisell’s weeds tumble through the ghost town of “them buried standing,” the latter further notable for its angelic resolution.

The album’s latter half mines decidedly urban sites of sonic production. The mélange of beat and grunge that is “sink” pulses with the muffled wisdom of an underworld nightclub. Berne’s hard-hitting altoism here gives the sheen of dislocation that comes with dreams. Yet grooves are rare on Prezens, because this project is less about the hook than about the catch dangling and writhing on its barb. Despite the metallurgy of “ever more other” and “ring for endless travel,” two further rhythmic outliers, warped atmospheres prevail. By those atmospheres the music is always connected, whether in the jangly slide acoustic of “miss place, the mist…” or in the mock shredding of “transmit regardless,” so that by album’s end we find ourselves wrapped in a swan song to impetuous youth by way of looking into the maturity of an artist who with his cohorts has unearthed a timeworn stone to contemplate for decades more.

Prezens is an album of inbound escapism—that is, one which enjoys getting lost in itself. Its codes come to us broken, for they speak only of that which was never whole.

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