Seven Stars EP
, August 11th, 2011 10:40
The arrival of a new solo record by Christian Fennesz is always a joy; they're few and far between (he's only released two albums since 2001's seminal Endless Summer) and his live shows tend to act as teasers, involving drawn out and frequently gorgeous new material. That his latest, Seven Stars, is only a four track EP is cause for a tiny glimmer of sadness. It's worth hoping it's a prelude to something of greater length and depth, especially considering that what is present here certainly whets the appetite for more.
Sonically, Seven Stars finds Fennesz in fairly familiar territory, though its overall mood is far warmer and more welcoming than his last full-length, 2008's Black Sea. That album matched its title and the stark seascape that adorned its front cover - it was mostly a flat and chilly expanse, its grainy surface broken occasionally by fits of choppy turbulence and the odd glimmer of heavily delayed guitar. It was his best solo effort since Endless Summer - while 2004's Venice was involving in a mellow, dusty way, it lacked its predecessor's very visceral sense of mapping largely uncharted territory, passing guitar through so many effects units that any distinct timbre began to dissolve entirely. Black Sea was something different again, less a collection of shorter tracks than a single, longform piece, complete with thirty seconds' silence dividing the first half from the second (a nice little hark back to the days of flipping a vinyl record halfway through, perhaps).
Seven Stars, interestingly, is closest to Venice than any of his other records, in that it avoids dramatic dynamics in favour of gradual evolution. That's both a blessing and a curse. Part of the thrill of Fennesz's best records is that they don't sound quite like anyone else. Though it's been hugely influential over the last decade, no-one's yet come close to replicating Endless Summer's blissful meld of pop and glitchy experimentalism. But many have tried, and that's perhaps one of the main problems with listening to Seven Stars; while no-one can do Fennesz quite like Fennesz can, that his sound has often been attempted means it now lacks something of the alien quality that gave Endless Summer and Black Sea such an edge.
But then it's also ridiculous to hang the former album especially as an albatross around Fennesz's neck for his entire solo career (I'm not going to go into his collaborative material here, of which there is a great deal, much of which is fantastic and worthy of immediate investigation). The material on Seven Stars still stands head and shoulders above most of the competition in his particular guitar-and-laptop niche, and is haunted by memories of some of his recent live shows, where similar sounding material stretched outward into glistening choral drones (akin to the EP's sepulchral third track 'Shift'). It's especially impressive in terms of its sonic depth. Opener 'Liminal' sounds ostensibly simple in terms of composition - little other than a three-minute drift of lightly strummed guitar and digital hiss - but close listening reveals a wealth of detail, ripples streaming out from behind his guitar catching hold of the surrounding ambient sound and causing slight turbulence below the surface.
And there's also a great deal of difference between Seven Stars and its predecessor albums - while 'Liminal' harks most obviously backward, the following 'July' isn't quite like anything he's done before. Although it remains of a piece with the rest of the EP in terms of atmosphere, it toys with dissonance more directly, and if it wasn't buried beneath a wash of neutralising melodic interference could easily be quite unsettling. And the closing title track even trickles away above brushed drums, unusually for Fennesz, whose compositions usually rely on implied rather than actual rhythm. Both tracks offer clues as to potential future directions; but even if those spaces remain largely unexplored beyond this EP, it's a lovely little listen in its own right. Hardly unexpected, given Fennesz's general level of consistency, but a pleasure nonetheless.