LABEL PROFILE The Ritual Grooves of Ronin Rhythm Records By George Grella · January 18, 2024

The internet may have connected the planet, but it hasn’t globalized much of anything. Local cultures are more accessible to the world, but instead of being absorbed into a homogenous mass, they thrive. Scenes are still scenes, and there’s a singular one in Switzerland, based around the Ronin Rhythm Records label.

The label was founded by musician Nik Bärtsch in 2006 and has an aesthetic and philosophy that comes out of his own music making. As a pianist and composer, Bärtsch is a solo artist and also leads two ensembles, Ronin and Mobile. The music he makes is something he’s called “ritual groove music,” an elegant and somatically compelling mix of minimalist repetition, polyrhythmic layering, and a sensual, hypnotic vibe that strives for Zen states and ritual connections; art music for dancing, meditating, tapping your foot—anything.

Like leader, like label: Ronin Rhythm is about the values of rhythm and ritual feel. Those qualities cross genres and styles, so the label can release anything from chamber music to jazz to heavy metal, and everything still feels of a piece and part of an extended family. Here are some recordings that outline the deep pleasures of Ronin rhythms.

Nik Bärtsch
Hishiryo (Solo Piano)

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Bärtsch is a seriously fine pianist who came up playing Beethoven and jazz before finding his unique path. His composition places individual lines against each other in complex syncopation and synchronization, often sounding like there’s not just several rhythms but several tempos going on simultaneously. The units fit together, so it makes sense to call every piece a “Modul” as he does, differentiating them with numbers. On paper, that may seem abstract, even cold, but then you hear all these grooves…


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Mobile is Bärtsch’s acoustic group with label mainstay Sha playing reeds, drummer Kasper Rast, and here percussionist Mats Eser. Everything Bärtsch does is rhythm-based, but with two percussionists and piano (a percussion instrument), this is his mostly heavily rhythmic project—Sha mostly adds rhythmic inflections—and the acoustic instrumentation pushes the ritual feeling to the forefront, hands and breath working directly against wood and metal. It sounds like choreography turned into music.


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Bärtsch’s electric band Ronin basically trades woodwinds for the electric bass (Björn Meyer on this album). The sound is more muscular, and the instrument itself highlights all the possible funk in the music. Where there’s groove, there’s going to be funk, and there’s no reason a ritual or any kind of Zen can’t involve getting down. As this band shows, rhythm can carry an incredible amount of drama.

A Flaw of Nature

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The fantastic rock quartet Sonar is at one extreme edge of the Ronin Rhythms scene, a showcase for the flexibility of the label’s concept. This is a heavy metal band but their sound is skeletal compared to almost everyone else in the genre. They play with weight and space, placing the former precisely inside the latter, and leave a lot of room for each pattern to present itself clearly. When things lock together, the slightest accent or change in timing is like a revelation, and they become one of the most gripping bands on the planet.


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The voices of Stefanie Suhner and Andreas Lareida are the lead instruments for drummer Ramón Oliveras’s pieces. Their syllables (there’s no lyrics) combined with the bright grooves make for one of the jazzier bands on Ronin Rhythm, with a global flavor, albeit one that often sounds like it’s distilled from Steve Reich’s ensembles rather than any band in jazz history. Call it Ronin Rhythms as an international style, at home everywhere.


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Pure is an example of the label’s chamber music side, with some of the feeling of what the Bang on a Can All-Stars might play. Here, as always, rhythm is the crux, leader and pianist Maja Nydegger’s compositions are like gears in a watch, each line growing teeth and meshing with and propelling the others. The feeling of things coming together is powerful, and Nydegger shapes the music to peaks of emotion.


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With all due respect to Pure, this may be the purest expression of the Ronin Rhythm scene in the label’s current catalog. Hely is the duo of pianist Lucca Fries (also in Ikarus) and drummer Jonas Ruther, and the music reflects this slender instrumentation. Fries’s melodic lines and Ruther’s rhythms are fundamentally spare and simple, and so is the sense of repetition, which has an even, carbon-copy post-minimal quality. But as with everything on Ronin Rhythm, simple means produce captivating complexity.

Jeremias Keller

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This is a one-man-band album from Keller, the current bassist in Ronin. For Alloy, he “reinvents” several of Bärtsch’s Moduls, which is another way of saying he takes pieces of musical material and incorporates them into his own original contexts—in other words, the practice of composing that’s been going on for millennia. Working in vocals, shimmering textures out of Reich, and a wall-of-sound approach to processing and mixing, these have a proud personal stamp, colored with hints from Bärtsch, like “Modul 35” on this track.

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