SEEDBANK is a sporadic review series highlighting recent history’s most influential, cultified and all-around masterfully crafted documents of experimental music, ranging from pioneering works to modern day classics.
Christian Fennesz, the Austrian glitch and electronic guru, is perhaps one of music’s most unsuccessfully emulated artists. When Endless Summer was released, it did as much for a cheery paradigm shift in electronic music as GAS’ Pop did a year before it. Actually, it did more, as a retrospective comparison of the two albums makes Pop sound damn near clinical. And then, as history repeatedly proves, nothing this good can simply be. Endless Summer‘s release saw an open invitation for electronic artists from all walks of life to offer up their own lukewarm interpretations—the more lucid of the bunch likely met with the glaring realization that maybe this shit’s a little harder than it looks.
For all of Endless Summer’s praise, it’s 2004’s Venice that found that impeccable balance between style and execution, a halfway point between Endless Summer’s sunny disposition and Black Sea’s more inward focus on headier composition. One spin of “City of Light” is enough to hear Fennesz’s growth from previous efforts, not by way of an expanding repertoire of sound, but just the opposite, a honing in on the simplicity that makes the best ambient music feel like it’s made of air. Or “Circassian,” a track often likened to My Bloody Valentine’s massive guitar sound. The comparison can be taken a step further: MVB as if rewritten by Bowery Electric, or, MBV as fed through the Frippertronics machine. Either way, “Circassian” is downright gorgeous, flirting with but never indulging in the melodrama that would have weakened its emotional impact.
Even the David Sylvan vocal treatment on “Transit” somehow keeps the album within scope, in no small part due to Fennesz’s more amped up presence. In order to make the song work the electronic elements had to match the energy of the very present vocals, and they do. For fear of overemphasizing any one of Venice’s songs, we’ll steer away from further analysis of “Transit,” except to say that including only one song with vocals on an otherwise purely instrumental album is not unheard of. Mogwai did it even better on Young Team’s “R U Still in 2 it?” featuring lead vocals from Arab Strap’s Aidan Moffat. Unlike the Mogwai track, however—that sees the band provide backup vocals—Fennesz hardly graces us with a whisper.
Fennesz will long be remembered for his achievements in electronica, and it’s his organic approach to the music that has set him apart from the pack. In 2010, when he played at The Western Front in Vancouver, he opted for a set-up that segregated the laptop from the guitar—his guitar patched through a daisy chain of pedals that fed into an entirely separate amp, while the mixer / laptop arrangement patched into the house monitors. This deliberate choice to not fully integrate his live setup—to not, for simplicity’s sake, run everything through a laptop—provides some insight into what makes Fennesz’s music feel so personal, despite being lumped into the “electronic” camp. It shows that his music is not all laptop wizardry, that beneath the veil of glistening electronics lies a structure of more traditional song forms, even if skeletal at times. It doesn’t take seeing him live to get it either (though it doesn’t hurt), a few spins of any of his albums should provide a neat little window into his process.
If anything, Venice is a hard egg to crack. The album’s sonic elements are woven tighter than what came before, and thus, pinpointing the source of a specific sound becomes a fool’s errand. It isn’t until well into the album that fans get their fix of the signature Fenneszian guitar sound that was all over Endless Summer—and would again permeate Bécs. The one-two of “The Point of It All” and “Laguna” are like a joint reprise of the album’s opening statements, a sure-footed return to form after the bulk of Venice showcases a small but assured step forward. Although it will never be regarded in the same light as it’s breakthrough predecessor, Fennesz’s discography would feel all-too empty without Venice. Luckily, this is one hypothetical omission no one has to take too seriously.