Guitarist David Torn’s awkward blend of ambience and loops can make even fellow guitar iconoclasts like Reeves Gabrels and Adrian Belew sound normal by comparison. Prezens comes 20 years after Torn’s previous full-band effort for ECM, Cloud About Mercury, and features a similarly uneven ride. Yet the new disc is also occasionally reminiscent of his masterfully acidic, one-man-band disc from 1995, Tripping Over God.
Within the full-band context, the flavorful sideman on recordings by David Bowie, Tori Amos, and Bill Bruford (as well as several soundtracks) leans toward overly long epics like the 10-minute-plus “Structural Functions of Prezens” and “Neck-Deep in the Harrow...” that, if anything, shift in too many different directions. Each was co-composed with alto saxophonist Tim Berne, keyboardist Craig Taborn and drummer Tom Rainey.
Torn’s shorter compositions tally the other half, but they make up only one quarter of the CD’s minutes. “Rest & Unrest” and “Miss Place, The Mist...” have the dream-sequence capacities of Tripping Over God. The unorthodox, bass-free, full-band lineup lacks the star power of Cloud About Mercury (with Bruford, trumpeter Mark Isham and bassist Tony Levin), but not the firepower. The mercurial “Ak” shifts between ambience and Torn’s power chords; Berne and Taborn create orchestral harmony amid Rainey’s cymbal washes on “Bulbs,” and “Sink” is one-half funk-metal and one-half noisy John Cage update.
The split-personality pieces are symbolic of the full-band work released under Torn’s name. The guitarist’s best ensemble recording came as a sideman, along with trumpeter Chris Botti, on the enjoyably unpredictable 1998 Bruford-Levin CD Upper Extremities. On Prezens, Torn crosses the fine line between unpredictability and inconsistency.