SEEDBANK 2: When Summer Ends | A Return to Fennesz’s Venice

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. 

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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.

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SEEDBANK 1: An Envisioned Arctic in Biosphere’s Substrata

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. 


Substrata1Substrata (All Saints cover art, 1997)

Geir Jenssen’s long standing Biosphere project has changed directions a few times over the years, most notably from his second to third full-length proper, Substrata (originally released in 1997). Before its existence, Jenssen had already made a name for himself as a go-to artist of ambient-house and techno. While there is a notable move toward subtlety from Microgravity (1991) to Patashnik (1994)–namely, a dampening of the beat–it wasn’t until the release of Substrata that Jenssen fully embraced the minimalist ethos that he would bring to his most accomplished albums.

Jenssen is from Tromsø, a city contained within the Arctic circle that also happens to be the Northernmost point of Norway. Jenssen’s place of origin has played a considerable factor in his music, lending his particular minimalism an added edge, a coldness that would be different–if not entirely absent–had he lived anywhere else. Substrata‘s success is at least partly due to how unabashedly Jenssen channels the arctic through it, whether by use of field recordings or stark loops. Even the various album covers, and the album’s title, Sub-Strata, meaning below ground (likely in reference to permafrost), not only act part and parcel to the album’s central theme, but help guide the listener into the necessary headspace required to enjoy this music.

Calming yet frigid, desolate yet inviting, Substrata is all about balance. Opener, “As the Sun Kissed the Horizon,” sets the tone with a field recording of a distant plane flying somewhere far above. The recording itself is not particularly impressive, but as an introduction it gives us a sense of the music’s space, tells us that what we are about to hear is not confined within human-made walls. As a predominantly electronic album, Substrata is remarkably cognizant of the natural world, and this is perhaps the album’s greatest property.

From here the music eases into a number of unhurried pieces that blend nature recordings with looped instrumental phrases, stark drones, and various television samples. Two tracks even sample the show Twin Peaks, which feels especially relevant now that the series has been rebooted. It’s done to greater affect on “Hyperborea,” where you hear the voice of the Major recounting a ‘vision’ he had to his son, Bobby Briggs. The sample is buried beneath a brooding, murky veil of electronics. The sample then fades away and is replaced by a short loop of synthesized tones, that, despite the loop’s obvious presence, acts more as textural compliment than anything more overt. And if it starts to feel like nothing on Substrata necessarily “stands out,” it’s because nothing is meant to. That is what makes this music so mysterious, so enticing for those who want to figure it out and become lost within its depths.

If there is a transcending moment then it comes on the album’s second to last track, “Sphere Of No-Form,” whose focus is a stream of reverberant, billowing horns. If the end of days have a soundtrack, this could very well be it. Simply put, the sound here is massive, leaving one in a state of awe that only the best music is capable of doing. On the 2011 vinyl reissue of Substrata, “Sphere Of No-Form” falls in the middle of side C, followed by the album’s brilliant closer, “Silene,” an undulating work for raw electronics and celestial drones, reminiscent of the type of balance struck on Aphex’s Ambient II. Side D is made up of the bonus track, “Laika,” a surprisingly potent late addition that seamlessly tacks on to the album’s end.

I am hard-pressed to think of another artist that has been able to pull off an album quite like Substrata (Labradford’s Prazision LP perhaps?), especially with its heavy use of sampling that can so easily be mistreated in lesser hands. In a certain light, Substrata breaks a cardinal rule that good ambient music has taught us: that less is more. Don’t get me wrong, the music here is certainly minimal, but it’s scope is huge, reigning in source material from all possible directions. I don’t think Jenssen was out to break any rules, but he certainly bent perceptions. For this, Substrata will not soon be forgotten.

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Substrata² (Touch reissue cover art, includes Man with a Movie Camera, 2001)

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Substrata (Biophone 2xLP Reissue cover art, 2011)