Review: David Torn – Cloud About Mercury (1987)

Cloud About Mercury is David Torn’s second solo album.

Guitarist David Torn’s (b.1953, New York) career began in the early 70s with the rock bands Special Interest Group and Zobo Funn Band, gradually moving into jazz with trumpet player Don Cherry’s band, and eventually joining ECM’s jazz-rock band Everyman Band (whose other members had previously backed Lou Reed).

As a guitarist, Torn has been very distinctive from the start and has avoided being pigeonholed into any particular genre, although experimental jazz is probably the main field from which he reaches out in different directions.

Textures and sounds are as important to Torn’s guitar playing as the actual notes he plays, but he is also a very technically skilled guitarist. A rough characterisation might be that Torn’s style is something between Robert Fripp and Terje Rypdal with a dash of Pat Metheny.

Torn’s guitar playing is often very intense and energetic, and he often uses the guitar in a very versatile way. He uses a lot of different effects such as delay, reverb, echo and wah-wah pedal to create different sounds and soundscapes. In his playing you can hear avant-garde and experimental elements combined with rock and jazz influences. There is also a hint of Jon Hassel’s ethnic ambient Fourth World aesthetic.

David Torn in 1987.

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Torn’s first solo album Best Laid Plan, recorded for ECM, was a very abstract dialogue between Torn’s guitar and percussionist Geoffrey Gordon. For his next record, Torn wanted to put together a real band.

Torn wanted a drummer for his new band who was not only technically proficient but also at home with the latest electronics. Jack DeJohnette and Michael DiPasqua were Torn’s initial ideas for a drummer, but he eventually settled on Bill Bruford. Torn found Bruford in his band in a rather unusual way: he was visiting his mother who happened to be watching a King Crimson concert on TV in the early 80s (what channel was Torn’s mother watching? The story doesn’t tell). Torn was particularly impressed by Bruford’s drum solo (I presume it was Bruford’s solo on ”Indiscipline”) and wrote to Bruford asking if he would be interested in collaborating. Bruford replied positively. Torn’s ECM connections were apparently also an attraction, as Bruford was very interested in that scene.

Originally Torn’s idea was to make an album as a trio with Bruford and ex-Japan bassist Mick Karn, but Karn was unable to attend the first rehearsals due to a car accident and was eventually prevented from participating in the project anyway. Bruford suggested his old Crimson rhythm buddy Tony Levin as a replacement. Finally, trumpeter Mark Isham was recruited when Torn, after listening to his first practice tapes, found the music too guitar-oriented.

Isham plays trumpet and flugelhorn on Cloud About Mercury. His playing is at times very sensitive and emotive, and he uses a variety of effects and techniques to create a wide range of sounds. Isham’s trumpet playing adds an emotional dimension to the album and reinforces its experimental and ambient musical spirit. Isham’s playing humanises the otherwise slightly chilly and technocratic atmosphere of the album.


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The whole group uses the most modern technology of the early 80’s in such a creative way that it is often difficult to identify which instrument each sound comes from.

Bruford, who plays the electric drums, and Levin, who apparently mainly weaves his bass pattern on the ten-string Chapman Stick, together create a strong musical foundation that gives Torn and Isham the freedom to experiment and improvise. Bruford and Levin’s playing adds dynamics and depth to the album, and their precise and versatile playing perfectly complements Torn’s guitar playing. Levin’s bass, however, is often mixed too much in the background.

Torn’s ability to use space and dynamics is highlighted in the slow and deliberate sections of the album, but his energetic and virtuosic guitar playing also shines through on several tracks.

The sound of the album, produced by ECM head honcho Manfred Eicher, has the typical ECM sound and transparency, but on the other hand the sound is much more synthetic than Eicher’s albums in general, and I suspect that Torn and the rest of the band have had a very significant influence on the sound world.

Stylistically, Cloud About Mercury moves quite eccentrically in the no-man’s land of jazz, avant-garde, ambient and progressive rock. I don’t really know of another album like it.

Cloud About Mercury opens with the 8 minute ”Suyafhu Skin… Snapping the Hollow Reed” which offers very experimental and abstract atmospheric melodies. Torn’s guitar sounds and Isham’s trumpet create an interesting soundscape that hints at something Asian. Torn’s sonorous guitar solo in the middle of the song, with its rich and full sound, is a great listen. Bruford initially plays electronic percussion mixed well into the background, but their role is gradually increased as the song progresses and by the end the drums are already playing hyperactively. Levin’s bass growls low and rather unobtrusively until the very end of the song. ”Suyafhu Skin… Snapping the Hollow Reed” is stylistically a bit in the same direction as David Sylvian’s ambient music on Gone To Earth, but Torn’s composition is much more complex and developed.

After the first song with ambient atmospheres, ”The Mercury Grid” kicks into high gear. Bruford bangs out a fast rhythm with electric drums, Torn strums intricate guitar chords and Isham’s trumpet skates gloriously over everything. At the two and a half minute mark, the pace slows down. Isham blows beautiful patterns from his trumpet until Bruford kicks the song into high gear again. ’The Mercury Grid’ seems to live with a delightful elasticity and organicity despite its synthetic sounds. In the second half of the composition, Torn plays a virtuosic and texturally complex solo and Isham’s trumpet strikes here and there with a more intense edge than before. Despite a certain violence in the music, everything remains quite easy to listen to thanks to its gentle sound world. Perhaps the production is a bit too polite.

The ironically titled seven-minute ”3 Minutes of Pure Entertainment” begins with trumpet blasts reminiscent of Miles Davis. The rhythm track is a strange and fascinating fast patter that makes it a little difficult to make out what is played on Bruford’s electric drums and what is from Levin’s Stick. Going through several different irregular time signatures, the track finally introduces some more traditional sounding drum kit playing towards the end. The Levin in the background is again mixed too quietly, but the fierce dialogue between Torn’s electric guitar and Isham’s trumpet is great to hear.

The fourth song ”Previous Man” brings Bruford’s drums to a more prominent role. They pop in a very unpredictable and intermittent way. Isham is still in Miles Davis mode, alternating between long sonorous chords and quick zig zagging runs. The song is credited to the whole band and has a clearer jamming feel to it. It’s a very exotic jam session, though, which still sounds quite futuristic almost 40 years later!

The album ends with ”Networks of Sparks”, which is split into two parts and lasts almost 15 minutes in total. Its five-minute first part, ”The Delicate Code”, begins with a bell-like section reminiscent of Steve Reich, based on minimalist repetition. However, the Reichian tones soon give way to a more ethereal ethno-ambient atmosphere.

Lasting over ten minutes, the b-movement ”Egg Learns to Walk… Suyafhu Seal” returns to the band sound, with plenty of improvisations and some of the most intense and intricate moments on the album. In particular, Isham’s soloing on the track is great to hear as he moves smoothly from lyrical sections to frenetic tones. At the very end, we return, somewhat disjointedly, to the abstract moods of the first song.



Cloud About Mercury sold about 50 thousand copies when it was released, which is probably quite a reasonable number for an experimental jazz album in the second half of the 80s. The popularity of the album was probably boosted by the presence of Bruford and Levin. The album was also promoted by a successful tour in which Mick Karn took over the originally intended role of bassist from Levin. Karn and Torn became important partners for each other in the future.

Cloud About Mercury boosted David Torn’s stock considerably and he became a sought-after name not only in avant-garde jazz but also among pop stars who wanted a touch of experimentalism on their records. In the years and decades to come, Torn worked with David Bowie, k.d. lang, David Sylvian and Tori Amos, among others. Torn became something of a wild card for ambitious pop artists’ records, as Robert Fripp had long been. Interestingly, some of the employers of both guitarists were even the same!

Thanks to Cloud About Mercury, 15 years later Torn’s name also ended up on Madonna’s album credits. Madonna’s producer Sigsworth sampled Cloud About Mercury’s song ”Network of Sparks: The Delicate Code” very loudly on the Music album’s song ”What It Feels Like For A Girl”. Torn contested the case and was subsequently awarded a composition credit and the relevant royalties. It’s quite possible that Torn made more money from Sigsworth’s screw-up on Madonna’s song than on many of his own albums combined!

From the late 90s onwards, Torn also started to write music for films. His compositions and/or guitar playing can be heard on the soundtracks of films such as California, No Country For Old Men, Traffic, The Order and Lars And The Real Girl.

David Torn’s own music became increasingly experimental and abstract after Cloud About Mercury. Alongside his own solo albums, his most interesting band projects have been Prezens and Sun Of Goldfinger (both with wind player Tim Berne) and his collaboration with Swiss band Sonar. The album Bruford Levin Upper Extremities (1998), a collaboration between Bruford and Levin, is also a rewarding listening experience and in a way can be heard as a sort of continuation of Cloud About Mercury.

Torn is one of the most important masters of experimental guitar in recent decades who has made music uncompromisingly on his own terms. It says a lot about Cloud About Mercury that for all Torn’s achievements, it’s still one of his most impressive recordings.

Best songs. Snapping the Hollow Reed”, ”The Mercury Grid” and ”3 Minutes Of Pure Entertainment”, ”Networks of Sparks: b) Egg Learns to Walk… Suyafhu Seal”

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.
Author: JANNE YLIRUUSI

Tracks

  1. ”Suyafhu Skin… Snapping the Hollow Reed” – 8:21
  2. ”The Mercury Grid” – 6:33
  3. ”3 Minutes of Pure Entertainment” – 7:10
  4. ”Previous Man” (Bill Bruford, Mark Isham, Tony Levin, David Torn) – 7:55
  5. ”Networks of Sparks: a) The Delicate Code” – 4:52
  6. ”Networks of Sparks: b) Egg Learns to Walk… Suyafhu Seal” (Bruford, Isham, Levin, Torn/Torn) – 10:25

Musicians

David Torn: electric guitar, acoustic guitar Mark Isham: trumpet, piccolo trumpet, flugelhorn, synthesizer. Tony Levin: Chapman Stick, synthesizer bass Bill Bruford: Simmons electronic drums, synthesizer drums, percussion

Producer: Manfred Eicher

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