Prezens is the first recording guitarist and producer David Torn has recorded under his own name for ECM Records in the 21 years since his Cloud About Mercury was issued. His sonic explorations have always been at least as much an interest to him as his playing. As a result he has stretched to the limits of what the guitar can, or even perhaps should, do in realms where it sounded like he was playing anything but his chosen instrument. Most recently, Torn has performed in Tim Berne's Science Friction and Hard Cell ensembles and played with Drew Gress and Dave Douglas. Torn enlists Berne and the other members of his Science Friction band: keyboard wizard Craig Taborn and drummer Tom Rainey, minus guitarist Marc Ducret. The end result, while wildly adventurous and full of astonishing improvisations, is also full of some of Torn's most "inside" playing. The opener "AK" begins with a Frippertronics phrase hypnotically asserted by use of a digital delay before giving way to a mutational Delta blues riff, repeated endlessly before opening up to a kind of muted question mark phrase. Rainey's cymbals enter along with an extended line by Berne while Taborn digs into the B-3 with the guitar riff playing under the mix as a guide; the band takes off, exploring the edges of the open chord, never leaving its rhythmic pulse behind for long. Taborn's soloing is deep in the pocket, reminiscent of John Patton, and Berne begins to play all around the blues, his sense of time perfect. Rainey shuffles around them all, stuttering cymbals and snares. When Torn comes back in with the riff, it's a sick distorted mess worthy of a solid heavy metal intro and he layers a screaming minimal solo on top of that. Whoa! The brief "Rest and Unrest" with its spoken word vocal walks the line between Ali Farka Touré's guitar sound and Torn's own mitigated soundscape world once more echoing the blues.
Mutant synth lines and layered and stretched voices become a rhythmic interlude. "Structural Foundations of Prezens" begins with Berne blowing soft and low with a pulsing electronic sound behind him as Torn enters on both electric and acoustic guitars, manipulated of course to accent the atmospheric "ballad" until all hell breaks loose at just under seven minutes. Here Rainey's triple-timed drumming is sampled back as loops playing breaks and Torn and Berne interplaying with one another take the track into uncharted territory. Nothing is what it initially seems here. Each track begins as one thing and ends as quite another. Improvisation is at a premium, though all of it comes out of established heads: blues and other folk forms initiate proceedings and Torn deals out as much atmosphere as he does leadership in the directions he wants to go, which is why most of these cuts (all but four, actually) have co-writing credits. Check out "Sink" and "Neck Deep in the Harrow" for prime examples. The open spaces of "Even More Other" present music as an "other" to sonic manipulation, yet it all comes out structured somehow, tempered into a cohesive whole thanks to Rainey's big tom tom work. The slide acoustic guitar Torn uses on "Miss, Place, The Mist..." is Eastern in mode and both Rainey and Taborn treat it as such with distorted loops, sampled strings, and overdubbed slide lines as Berne enters and winds it all around at the nadir. The set concludes with "Transmit Regardless," which is a kind of anthem for this band in the sense that while Torn is listed as the leader, and there is no doubt about his mark as a creative director, this group plays like a band throughout, no matter how abstract and strange things get. Rock, jazz, electronica, formal sound sculpture and strategy are all woven into a wonderfully expansive collective mind of improvisation. Deep listening, careful attention, and willful abandon to the process of creation are all present in spades. Prezens is one of those recordings where free improvisation and composition find an uneasy but cooperative working relationship making for one compelling listen after another.