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Stephan Thelen

Fractal Guitar

Review by Gary Hill

Stephan Thelen is a member of the band Sonar, who we've covered before at Music Street Journal. This new solo album features a number of extended instrumental pieces that fit reasonably well under the "space rock" banner. I'm definitely reminded of Oresund Space Collective to a large degree. Joining Thelen on this album are a number of well-known musicians including Markus Reuter and Barry Cleveland. While the type of sounds on this album aren't the easiest to describe in detail, the set is a bit of a masterpiece. In fact, I wouldn't be at all surprised if it makes my "best of 2019" list.

This review is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2019  Volume 2 at lulu.com/strangesound.

Track by Track Review
Briefing for a Descent into Hell
The opening piece is a full epic, weighing it at over 18-and-a-half minutes of music. It rises up gradually with a bit of a trippy psychedelic element at its core. References to early Pink Floyd are not out of the question. Eventually the guitar rises upward with a noisier kind of element, bringing more rocking modes to the fore. This keeps driving forward and evolving gradually with a bit of a space rock aesthetic. While the changes are not overly dramatic, there is a lot of change. Then, after the ten minute mark, it drops out to more of a mellower prog rock guitar section. The song is reborn by a building process on that texture as it continues. After the twelve minute mark there is some smoking hot guitar work that brings a much more rocking element to the fore. The piece continues changing from there with some smoking hot hard rock jamming that is still very decidedly space rock. As it approaches the closing movement it makes its way back down to ambient textures to carry it forward. It almost serves as a bookend type process, bringing it back close to the place where it began.
Road Movie
At almost thirteen-and-a-half minutes long, this would be the epic of a lot of albums. Here there are two longer songs, though. This comes in with a bit of that early Pink Floyd vibe, but there is more of an Americana rock and roll thing at play, too. While this is still decidedly space rock, it lands a bit more on the rock end of the equation than the opener did. There are some awesome soundscapes and moods here. The piece has some intriguing peaks and valleys, satisfyingly dropping back and building back upward at times. While this makes a lot of changes, it's a pretty straightforward journey, but it works to some space weirdness around the 12-and-a-half minute mark.
Fractal Guitar
A chimey, echoey, guitar swirls around as this opens. It makes me think of California Guitar trio in a lot of ways. It's quite telling that this is the second shortest piece of the whole set and still weighs in at almost nine-and-a-half minutes. The space rock elements emerge as other layers come over the top and the composition begins driving forward. As this continues to build upward there is a section after the four-and-a-half minute mark that features some powerhouse rocking guitar interplay. I am definitely reminded to a large degree of modern King Crimson a lot of times on this number.
Radiant Day
These days finding an album where the shortest song is over eight-and-a-half minutes long is a bit unusual, but this is such a set. This is no huge change, but another cool slab of trippy sort of space rocking sound. There is some more rocking guitar work built into this powerhouse number as it marches forward and climbs upward. I really dig some of the rocking parts of this. They bring an intriguing angle and motif to the whole set.
Urban Nightscape
The closer is another epic, at over 17-and-a-half minutes of music. The opening movement again calls to mind both California Guitar Trio and King Crimson. It's dramatic and suitably odd as it grows forward. There is almost a menacing sort of feeling to it. As that opening movement drops downward, the rhythm section takes control and brings a different texture to it. The cut builds upward with more of that King Crimson kind of thing from there. This number shifts and grows, working through all kinds of different territory as it continues. It's a real powerhouse piece that's among the most dynamic and diverse rides of the whole album. Around the 12-minute mark it drops way down for some atmospherics to continue. This becomes quite ambient and spacey as it goes on along that road. By around the 15-minute mark, it has dropped down so far that at points if feels like it might have ended. A droning kind of sound-effect rises up as this continues, but that seems to fade away, leaving an almost symphonic kind of building process in place. It never really rises back up, though. Instead that mellower segment eventually takes the disc to its closing.
 
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