Foxy Digitalis

Taking risks is something to admire not only in music, but also in all other art. With “Space”, Portuguese guitarist Rafael Toral takes many risks and departs on a journey, the end of which maybe not even he can foresee. For the last 15 years, Toral has been one of the most influential experimental guitarists around, playing with Sonic Youth, Keith Rowe and in the improv-supergroup MIMEO among others. With “Space” he leaves his past behind, exploring new and uncharted terrains.

According to the liner notes, “Space” will be the starting point for Toral´s “Space Program”, which will comprise more than ten solo and collaborative releases in the next years. The guitar and effect pedals will stay in their cases because the Space Program is based predominantly on custom-built or modified analogue electronic instruments. “Space” itself is a stand-alone work according to Toral, “launching the Space Program and establishing the ground for it to unfold in the course of several years”. Since Toral expressly puts an ending point to his guitar work for now and plans to focus on the Space Program, naturally expectations are high. Fortunately, “Space” manages to fulfill those expectations.

The musical inspirational sources for the album are electronic music of the 1950s and 1960s as well as jazz music. Despite the album title, there are more reference points to John Cage, Karl-Heinz Stockhausen and Otto Luening than to Sun Ra, the master of space jazz. Still, one could call Rafael Toral´s new album a jazz album because of two aspects. First, all three tracks feature an electronic instrument that vaguely sounds like an alto-sax, played by Toral in a free-jazz way. On the third track, Toral actually plays a real alto-sax. Second, jazz music is fed by improvisation and so is Toral´s album.

Equally strong are the influences of early electronic music. Just like Erkki Kureniemi, Toral focuses on actually playing his electronics like you would play a regular acoustic instrument. When Stockhausen or Luening started recording pieces just with electronics in the 1950s, the space references were at hand because electronics equalled the future, just like exploring the space equalled the future. These days, walking on the moon even being possible for regular tourists, space references in electronic music are less obvious. Still, the theme matches Rafael Toral´s music perfectly. The background hiss present here and there as well as various beeps reminiscent of spaceship controls go well with the improvised “main instrument” parts. Over the course of three lengthy tracks, Toral leaves the sounds enough room to settle in and leave a lasting impression. His use of silence inforces that effect.

After all, “Space” is more than just a teaser for the “Space Program”, it´s a magnificent work of improvised electronic music that makes curious of what´s to come. If Toral´s self-built instruments and his sound approach hold enough potential for a whole ten releases does not need to be predicted here. The starting point is set at least.
Stephan Bauer