Recorded in February 2014 in an arts centre in Troy, New York state, Torn is found starkly contemplative and expansive on opener ‘At Least There Was Nothing.’

Playing just guitar or electric oud the nine pieces, all Torn’s own compositions, have a filmic highly abstract mysterious quality to them that tantalise throughout.

It’s eight years since we heard from the guitarist on an ECM release of his own. And this latest album, while not a retreat, pares down to the purest of musical ingredients and provides a much more broodily intimate indication of the raw materials at Torn’s disposal, a step away from the exuberantly sinuous intensity of prezens.

The record makes use of “real time mechanical and electronic modifications”, as the label a little grandly puts in, but actually a sense of grandeur is never far away certainly in the expansive musical vistas Torn creates at will. Torn, as known for his work with rock musicians like David Sylvian as he is on the jazz side with Jan Garbarek and in more recent years producing Tim Berne records, is very difficult to pin down to one particular stylistic trait. Clues are provided here to some of his basic concerns. Take ‘Spoke With Folks‘ for instance with its homespun almost confessional Americana feel to it. Yet in contradiction the spaciness of many of the tracks, ‘OK Shorty’, for instance, seems a world away yet rather than sitting uneasily together Torn manages to find unity in his experimentations.

The album gets deeper into noisier more dystopian territory with the help of some electronic trickery on ‘Was A Cave, There...’ (the titles often exhibiting a Beckettian ring to them) but never far away is an apparent desire to warp and multiply simple forms that thrive on a directness with the listener and certainly that aspect of the record is emphasised on ‘A Goddamned Specific Unbalance’ at the end, the most confessional part of the album, suffocatingly intimate in one sense but somehow surrounded by a sea of sound. The earlier bluesiness of ‘Reaching Barely, Sparely Fraught’ may be a distraction but in this aspect of Only Sky you’ll get a strong sense of Torn’s magical ability to break away from the essential abstraction of his style to communicate directly in his channelling of raw emotion. A successful exercise in experimentation then, Torn’s vision as an improviser clearer perhaps than it’s ever been. 

Stephen Graham

David Torn, above. Photo: ECM