ECM Goes Rock: David Torn’s Cloud About Mercury

Cloud_About_MercuryECM Records, released 1987

8/10

The late ‘80s was a great period for avant-garde guitar playing with the likes of Vernon Reid, Reeves Gabrels, Adrian Belew, Arto Lindsay, Fred Frith, Dave Fiuczynski, Stevie Salas, Sonny Sharrock, Skip McDonald, Robert Quine, Steve Vai and Bill Frisell laying down some seriously mind-bending tones and textures.

Cloud About Mercury, David Torn’s second ECM solo album, definitely put him into the same league. Though just as influential as many of the aforementioned guitarists, he has never really gained as much of a public profile despite occasional solo albums (the latest Only Sky has just come out on ECM) and stellar sideman work with the likes of David Bowie and David Sylvian.

My dad used to get sent a lot of music for his work and I vaguely remember him passing Cloud About Mercury onto me knowing I was a big fan of early-’80s King Crimson. My muso mates and I quickly grew to like the album’s perverse concepts and silly song titles (‘Egg Learns To Walk’ indeed…). With a superstar avant-rock rhythm section of Bill Bruford and Tony Levin on board, the album also came on a bit like the follow-up to Crimson’s Three Of A Perfect Pair, but it also offered a strikingly original take on jazz/rock.

I recall a contemporary review of Cloud About Mercury in Q magazine which said something like: ‘Torn luxuriates in the silence for a bit…and then goes KRAOOOOOOW!’ To be fair, that writer probably hadn’t listened beyond track one (and there is an excellent counterbalancing AllMusic review).

But in its louder moments, CAM is definitely one to annoy the neighbours. Torn can certainly make a racket. His Trans-Trem guitar enables him to create some very novel effects and original lines, with micro-tones and Middle Eastern flavours, and you can really get lost in his ambient loops. As far as I know, he was the first guitarist to use the loop/delay pedal extensively.

CAM is also a very uncharacteristic ECM album, being much more in-your-face and rockist in its mixing and playing than most of the label’s output. In fact, it’s not really fair to judge it as a ‘jazz’ album at all. But sometimes Torn seems much happier playing solo or in duet with Isham; he doesn’t seem to know quite how to best use his superb rhythm section, composing tunes that rely heavily on one-chord sections. Consequently Bruford and Levin sound somewhat muted and can’t quite bring the sort of forward-motion dynamics so crucial to jazz/rock. Bruford’s most successful moments are when he fashions melodic motifs from his Simmons pads.

Torn toured extensively to promote CAM (but presumably not London or I surely would have been there…) with ex-Japan bass player Mick Karn replacing the unavailable Tony Levin. An excellent decision, both musically and commercially. The band sounded fantastic and the tunes really came to life. Torn and Isham then accompanied David Sylvian on the In Praise Of Shamen world tour which I caught at the Hammersmith Odeon in 1988 – good memories.

Two quick questions to end, prompted by a discussion with my brother about Torn: why isn’t there any music like this around these days? Or is there?