Christian Fennesz is one of a handful of people from experimental electronic music's late-1990s halcyon days still kicking around. Where others have disappeared (Oval), taken on a curatorial role (Gas), or resigned themselves to arms-length abstraction (Autechre), Fennesz has evolved his aesthetic and found new avenues of expression. In the last few years he's released two albums with Ryuichi Sakamoto, collaborated with Mike Patton and guitarist Burkhard Stangl, knocked out some remixes, and created music for dance and films. He's been busy, but people who don't follow this music closely probably haven't noticed. They've been waiting for a new solo album, preferably something that might cross over from the "electronic music" racks in the way that 2001's monumental Endless Summer did. But Fennesz's unhurried approach to his solo work has yielded dividends. Since he takes so long between proper Fennesz records, the release of a new one still feels like an event.
Black Sea, which again finds Fennesz working primarily with guitar and computer, is his first solo album since 2004's Venice, the follow-up to Endless Summer. It's tempting to compare this record with its predecessor based on the characteristically striking cover art, once again by Touch label founder Jon Wozencroft. Where the Venice sleeve featured a lone rowboat bobbing in rich and impossibly blue water, Black Sea sports a shot of an industrial skyline across a filthy-bottomed straight at low tide. The image and title suggest that we're in for something colder and comparatively grim, and even though that's only partly true, such subtle shading via imagery has always been important with Fennesz albums. What is apparent right off the bat is that Black Sea finds Fennesz painting on an especially large canvas. While some may hope for a partial return to the pop-like miniatures of Endless Summer, tracks that could be thought of as "songs," these feel more like classical pieces-- sweeping and symphonic and patiently unfolding.
It's not just that several tracks are longer, with three running over eight minutes. Fennesz has also sequenced the record to give parts of it a suite-like feel. Opener "Black Sea" bleeds into "The Colour of Three" without a pause, joining the tracks with the sort of howling, finely granulated drone he specializes in. Together the cuts add up to an 18-minute epic, one that moves from stirring rumbles of low static to a buzzing assault that sounds like it was recorded inside a helicopter's engine to a resigned acoustic guitar figure that feels like wind brushing past an abandoned building. In other words it feels like a ride, like the music transports you bodily from one place to the next rather than creating an "environment." And it's best heard loud when given lots of attention.
Indeed, Black Sea is an intensely physical album, even for Fennesz, which is ironic considering that he's always put digital signifiers-- glitches, pops, crackles-- in the foreground. The guitar, a common thread throughout, offers an anchor of familiarity. But it's the relentless experiments with the emotional possibilities of texture-- experiments only possible with a computer-- that give the album its weight. So the physicality is focused in very precise and specific ways. Where Fennesz's more abstract early material could be wild and chaotic-- you pictured an unsteady hand on the lever, struggling to control the torrent of sound-- he's at a place now where everything is extremely careful and ordered, with nothing left to chance.
This cerebral approach doesn't diminish the impact of the raw, enveloping moments on Black Sea's second half. "Glide", a standout that ranks with anything Fennesz has created, gets over primarily on carefully sculpted volume as it builds to a hair-raising peak. An edit of a live collaboration with fellow Touch artist Rosy Parlane, "Glide" proceeds along a single line for nine minutes, as a tense held chord is obscured by a cloud of white noise. Both the prickly wash of sound and the underlying drone gather steadily until the piece pivots on a bass tone and then finally bursts open like an overfilled balloon, allowing a gleaming synth, almost shocking in its tenderness, to come pouring out. It's here that Fennesz's mastery of pacing and structure, honed over the last decade, is so apparent. The following "Vacuum", a melodic soundscape piece that sounds like it could have come from Venice, is pleasant but comparatively slight, while "Glass Ceiling" combines thin, piercing tones, bell-like figures, and processed guitar in an appealingly disorienting way. The closing "Saffron Revolution" feels like a summing up of the record's best moments, as it gradually moves from cavernous gurgles, dissonant, sawing chords, and spidery bits of guitar into an immense drone that completely dominates whatever space its heard in.
In a sense Black Sea feels like a more self-consciously "sophisticated" version of Fennesz, as if his time playing concert halls and opera houses inspired him to compose music suitable for such grand settings. But he's a composer up to the task and Black Sea ultimately proves to be worth the long wait. And in the end, the wider scope suits him. In 1995, Fennesz debuted on Mego with an EP called Instrument, which found him probing the musical properties of the guitar/computer interface. Each of its four pieces sounded like the work of a guy tinkering with a single idea, seeing how vibrating strings and feedback might be bent and twisted to create a particular effect. Despite the thick force of these tracks, Instrument is small-scale music, a scribbled note passed from one insider to the next. Heard next to it, Black Sea is positively huge while also being much more accessible. You get a sense here of how far Fennesz has come, how far his music reaches, and the unexplored possibilities that still exist.
- Mark Richardson, December 3, 2008
Combined Rating: 75%
Christian Fennesz’s compositions marry the romantic sentimentality of the Beach Boys with the musical transcendentalism of Karlheinz Stockhausen. And while Fennesz’s electroacoustic phantasmagoria has taken many forms—heavily distorted grumbling overlaid with angelic synths, planes of oscillating fuzz, even a couple bizarrely straightforward singer-songwriter tracks—water served as a consistent theme in his 2001 masterpiece Endless Summer and equally as masterful 2004 follow-up, Venice. For its part, Fennesz’s follow-up to those records most resembles the element of water. Vaguely melodious, embedded with overtones, sometimes placid and sometimes stormy, Black Sea is like a wave in that its diverse parts meld together to form a powerful, all-encompassing entity.
Fennesz’s compositional process makes songwriting and sound engineering a singular act. With his electric guitars, a laptop, and a variety of waveforms and effects, Fennesz creates ribbons of guitar plucking, chunks of white noise, and fragments of synth sounds, then mutates them and finally patches it all together into something implausibly fluid. Listening to Black Sea, you will probably feel like you’re drifting. In the opener, gasps of a heavenly chorus dissipate under a wave of squiggling electronics. In “Glide,” gentle hums embedded in distorted clouds gradually form a wandering chord progression and stabs of subsonic bass. (Unfortunately, the vinyl edition does not include “Vacuum” or “The Colour of Three.”) The white noise-tinged electronics, plinking guitar, and groaning bass in closer “Saffron Revolution” gestate like a thick fog that floats along and eventually fades away. Even the silence between the tracks seems integral to the album, serving as a bit of respite before the next miasma.
For its occasional forays into tiresome mid-level fuzz, some listeners might dismiss Black Sea as sonic wallpaper. Not only would that overlook all of the record’s incredible details—like the buzzing electronic yawns in “The Colour of Three” and the cathartic blasts of mutated splashes in “Perfume For Winter”—it would miss the point entirely. Black Sea‘s impressionistic strands do not play specific roles so much as melt into their corresponding elements, much like the phased motifs of minimalist composer Steve Reich, to subsume all of music’s parts into a unique sonic form. The subtle and savory contour of the texture, working as melody, harmony and rhythm, is an end in itself.
The uninitiated listener might compare Black Sea to being lost in deep sea, where there are no pathways, no buoys, and plenty of hungry creatures below. On the other hand, Fennesz fans might compare Black Sea to the arrival of a long-awaited vacation—one that might just take them to the unique resort city of Odessa, Ukraine, where they can splash around in the Black Sea’s beaches. Either way, Fennesz’s latest album needs a patient and curious listener who is willing to rethink the very things they listen for in music.
1 December 2008