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Fennesz
Bécs Tristan Bath , June 4th, 2014 17:50

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Six years is a hell of a long time for any musician to stay silent. While it's indeed been as long since Fennesz's last "proper" solo album release under the name (Tapeworm also put out a collagic set of Fennesz archival material in 2010, excellently named Szampler) the man's hardly been silent. First there was his In The Fishtank collaboration with Sparklehorse (the latest release by the band before Mark Linkous' tragic suicide in 2010), followed by the fantastic Knoxville album made in collaboration with Necks drummer Tony Buck and American guitarist Drew Daniell. We were also treated to the final (and perhaps best) installments in the immense and indefinable Fenn O'Berg trio with Jim O'Rourke and Mego/Editions Mego runner, Peter Rehberg. However, Fennesz's highest profile work since 2008's Black Sea (the last solo Fennesz album) has undoubtedly been his continuing ambient duets with Ryuichi Sakamoto, which in turn coalesced with some new music to form the man's soundtrack for AUN, a 2011 drama directed film by fellow Austrian, Edgar Honetschläger.

While undoubtedly in a state of constant motion, constant evolution isn't really at the core of Christian Fennesz's modus operandi. Hidden within the Szampler album - the contents of which were all made way back between 1989 and 1996 - are many snippets that could easily slip unnoticed alongside much of his post-millennial output, and that includes his latest opus, Bécs. The comparative musical conservatism of his solo work sets Christian Fennesz out from his contemporaries, choosing to focus and refine his unique voice rather than abandon and move on. Both Jim O'Rourke and Peter Rehberg are expats, now living in Japan and Austria respectively, while Fennesz was born, raised and remains in Vienna. Even the exotic sounding title of Bécs is merely the Hungarian name for Fennesz's home city; utterly alien-sounding on its surface, and yet utterly familiar at its core - much like the music therein.

The opening 'Static Kings' set the wheels in motion with washes of fuzz triggered by the densely cloaked drums and bass of Werner Dafeldecker and Martin Brandlmayr of Autistic Daughters (an Austrian/New Zealand trio formerly on Kranky) before Fennesz's own acoustic strums out a few chords very a la the title track from his Endless Summer album (released in 2001). That song's own aesthetic of twisted drum-less chillout is quickly eschewed by the emergence of an electric guitar, and eventually the whole thing gets consumed by cascading synth notes - perhaps embodying the pervasive abstract electronica of the post-Oneohtrix climate. 'Static Kings' contains everything that makes Fennesz great - from the deceptively simple allure in his guitar chords, to his old school approach to superimposing processed versions of source material over the mix to headspinning effect, all the while mired deep in the impenetrable shell of seemingly stream-of-consciousness structures. That having been said, Fennesz is in fact at his most "musical" and least abstract on Bécs (something that's perhaps lead to it being thought of as the thematic sequel to Endless Summer, certainly the last time he was quite so easily listenable). The frankly phenomenal album centrepiece - the ten minute 'Liminality' - is almost entirely built around a plucked electric guitar figure that never quite disappears entirely in to the sea of listless reverb on the track, continually pumping round after round of melody into the massing noise.

Time freezes, and it never quite reaches the cadence that always seems round the corner. Tony Buck from the Necks makes an appearance too, providing the same busy free drumming that helped the aforementioned Knoxville to reach such dreamy heights (or rather, depths), and eventually disappears beneath the anarchic hiss and static that engulfs and destroys the melancholy jam in its final heart-wrenching moments.

Although finding traditional semblances of "meaning" in Fennesz's bafflingly opaque, noisy music can seem like a fool's errand, the title track on Bécs hints at something far beyond the hefty synthetic anarchy it comprises. As the Hungarians' own name for the city of their former subjugators, the title itself is already heavy with political weight and assertion. The track's use of a cheap MIDI piano - while discussing the city so proudly home to Mahler, Mozart, Schubert and Strauss - is almost a sly insult. A limply dotted MIDI piano melody gets amped and distorted way out of control, cranked way up beyond 11, and seemingly buried so deep in the red as to open up a new plane of existence. The ghost of orchestral melodies haunt in-between the white noise, and the listener projects any instrument he or she can imagine into the impenetrable mix. Fennesz gets his home city's cultural vice of choice - the acoustic western classical melody - and distorts it beyond recognition. Perhaps this is what the likes of Bruckner and Mahler sounded like to sorely forgotten Budapesters.

By the time Bécs reaches its harrowing finale - the anti-titled 'Paroles' - the fact Fennesz is playing almost solely acoustic guitar no longer seems the surprise it would have been at Bécs' start. A few synth washes encroach over the top, and a few farts of static flitter across the foreground, but the piece is basically a solo acoustic guitar postscript, and in the world of Fennesz, that fits alongside walls of cavernous static, or mashed up distorted MIDI keyboards. Musically, it's painfully simple; sonically, it's painfully complex. The sea of connotations abound, and the enigma of meaning (or perhaps meaningful lack thereof) haunt with more power than any record Fennesz has made. It may be no grand departure, but its a refinement, and potentially even the man's masterpiece, traversing the Alpine mountainous gap from utter anarchic noise to utter tranquility without batting an eyelid. One thing's clear, when it comes to sonic expressionism, there are few who can squeeze quite so much from quite so little as Christian Fennesz.

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scooper
Jun 4, 2014 8:40pm

I was pleasantly surprised by Bécs. I've been listening to Fennesz long enough to have the Instrument 12-inch, bought when it came out, but the past few solo releases have left me cold. Too safe and same-y. This one shifts about enough to hold my attention for the duration. The opener, in particular, is incredible.

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Jun 4, 2014 10:12pm

Tristan, it seems that the Seven Stars EP slipped by you. It's lovely. There was also the dance score he did that available on here: http://www.touchradio.org.uk/touch_radio_73_fennesz.html.
One of the songs on Becs, I think it's called Liminality (I'm bad with titles) came from the end of that piece. It's essentially another album, being 49 minutes long.

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Jun 5, 2014 12:09am

A very good piece of writing which drums up enthusiasm for this current work rather than it just being Endless Summer II. Just because it's also on Editions Mego

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