Fennesz: “Black Sea”

Driving home from the Leonard Cohen show on Friday night, I looked in my bag for something suitable to put on the car stereo, and settled fairly quickly on the new Fennesz album, “Black Sea”.

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Driving home from the Leonard Cohen show on Friday night, I looked in my bag for something suitable to put on the car stereo, and settled fairly quickly on the new Fennesz album, “Black Sea”.

The start, distant field recordings of seagulls and waves, wasn’t really audible above the engine noise. But as we dipped into the Blackwall Tunnel, the billowing noisescape of “Black Sea” itself reared up. I thought I had chosen something soothing and ethereal. Instead, speeding beneath the Thames, assailed by striplights, it was mildly terrifying.

Good, though. I’ve been playing all of “Black Sea”, in many different situations, for the best part of a week now. And in the wake of Animal Collective’s “Merriweather Post Pavilion”, I’m fairly confident that Christian Fennesz’s new album is the second great record of 2009.

I first came across Fennesz about a decade ago, when I heard his seven-inch version of The Beach Boys’ “Don’t Cry (Put Your Head On My Shoulder)”. The tune was barely there, almost totally unrecognisable. But in his meticulously organised electronic glitches, his digital choir of sighs, the Austrian had perfectly simulated the original’s melancholy atmosphere. His music – as a subsequent album, “Endless Summer”, confirmed – was a kind of sentimental avant-garde.

I suspect I’ve written before, more than once, about how most bands who seem to be influenced by My Bloody Valentine feel rather wan, mundane and undaventurous to me, stuck in a foursquare indie environment. I’ve always felt that electronic musicians understood Kevin Shields’ imperative much more intuitively; not bland electro-shoegazers like Ulrich Schnauss who are usually referenced, but people like Third Eye Foundation (on his/their early records like “Semtex”, at least) and Boards Of Canada circa “Geogaddi”.

Fennesz is very much on the same page, and the likes of “The Colour Of Three” and “Glide” here on “Black Sea” have that sort of gaseous, unstable feel akin to “To Here Knows When”. Like Shields, too, he has an extraordinarily artful way of layering noise, so that lovely melodies slowly emerge, as if implied rather than explicit.

Like Shields, too, Fennesz is ostensibly a guitarist, though one who works intensely hard to make his instrument sound like anything but a guitar a lot of the time. I can’t pretend to understand technically what he does, but much of his playing is processed through a computer, diced up and assailed by interference, creating a dislocated but still aesthetically pleasing sound, most obviously evident here on “Perfume For Winter”, which feels very much in the tradition of “Endless Summer”.

Elsewhere on “Black Sea”, however, more so than I recall him doing in the past, Fennesz strips back some of the effects to reveal a more organic guitar sound. So “Grey Scale”, although still subtly altered and processed, has a delicacy which is curiously reminiscent of someone like James Blackshaw.

It all adds up to a tremendous album, right up there with “Endless Summer” and “Venice”, which often sounds like the culmination of a strand of aesthetically-heightened music which you could trace through the Cocteau Twins and David Sylvian’s solo work (Sylvian guested on “Venice”, if memory serves) and on past MBV into those Boards Of Canada records (“Vacuum”, with its sombre orchestral textures, is especially reminiscent of them, or even of the Aphex Twin’s “Selected Ambient Works Volume Two”).

It’s also one of those records, as I wrote about “In Rainbows” this time last year, that seems to poeticise the world outside as you listen to it: never has a man with a leaf blower, of all things, looked so obscurely moving as they did this morning.


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