David Torn Only Sky. Very much a solo rock/free jazz guitar effort, this has atmosphere, but also a level of self-indulgence that put prog on a life-support system for twenty years.

Label: ECM
Time:  7 tracks / 76 mins

Conveying the nuances in Torn’s guitar music is a bit like a wine writer trying to put into words something that you taste.

With wine, we can all easily tell whether it’s red, white or rosé. Those more knowledgeable can appreciate the differences between, say, Shiraz and Merlot. So far, so objective. But then we reach scents, noses and aftertastes.

For an objective description, Torn produces solo guitar music, often put through effects pedals. What ‘grape’? It is strongly ambient, rarely offering riffs or tunes.

But then we come down to the more subjective musical equivalents of scents and noses...

Opener “At Least There was Nothing” is very cinematic with a faint sense of foreboding, the sort of sounds that a film director would add to seascapes or bleak moors. Some oud playing later on adds an eastern touch.

“Spoke with Folks” has a very simple Caledonian melody and is like David Gilmour playing Mark Knopfler’s Local Hero.

But when we reach “Ok, Shorty,” Torn hits the level of self-indulgent ambient noodling that put prog on a life-support system for twenty years. And it gets worse on the thirteen-minute “Was a Cave, There,” which is like the threat and menace of Genesis’s “The Waiting Room,” but without the dramatic rhythm that propels it.

As the disc continues, either you get used to the lack of melody or Torn regains a sense of proportion. The thirteen minute “I Could Almost See the Moon” again pushes the boundaries of acceptable self-interest, but it does have the tones that Jeff Beck uses on tracks like "Pork Pie Hat," and does have a rhythmic root. The title track is a fine piece of ambient guitar work, reflecting the bright emptiness of its name, and similarly, “So Much What” makes you think that there is a very decent ambient mini-album lurking inside this set.

Regular readers will know that I love the ECM label for its exploration, pristine sounds and jazzy atmospheres, so it’s not that I don’t get it. For me, this falls between two stools: it is not nearly melodic enough to maintain interest, but neither does it have the emotional connection and restrained sensitivity that makes a disc like the wonderful Souvenance so effective as an atmospheric work.  

It’s more like a man playing with his effects pedals in a garden shed.

Derek Walker