Fennesz – Bécs (Editions Mego, 2014)


Despite Christian Fennesz’s crucial role in the advancement of Electroacoustic and Drone, he has a surprisingly small solo discography that judders along with painful hiatuses for his fans. His last album, the incredible Black Sea, was released a whole six years ago in 2008, and so we’re long overdue new content from one of the biggest and most influential names in the genre. Said to be a spiritual successor to the seminal powerhouse of 2001 epic Endless Summer, Bécs has the same warm glow of the now 13 year old record but with a maturity and elegance that is thus far unmatched.

Wobbly opener “Static Kings” is perhaps one of the weaker tracks of the album for me, which says a great deal since it’s not bad at all. Arriving on a wash of both clean guitar lines and flanging distortion, it floats along merrily and with an easygoing attitude, in a way that has come to epitomise much of Fennesz’s work. It has a certain laziness and simplicity that is not necessarily matched by the myriad of textures we’re carefully assaulted with, cresting in waves of light noise and careful synth tinkerings as we fall into memory. It’s a far cry from pre-release behemoth “The Liar” that quickly follows it up, arriving on angry bursts of staccato guitars, warped and twisted angrily as they’re smeared into huge, maddened drones. It was a strange choice in retrospect, since much of the album still to come bears no resemblance to its coarse wails and ferocious noise, rising up in an obliterating crescendo of punishing sound, so intoxicating in its all consuming destruction that everything else seems to fall away and melt into obscurity. Its closing moments fall away rapidly and for a brief moment we hear the shining vocal lines of calm in the background before they vanish, a quiet voice of reason amidst the chaos.

“Liminality” arrives as a harsh juxtaposition, its 10 minute span far outstretching the other tracks. Those familiar with his 2012 EP with Touch Radio On Invisible Pause may recognise the riff that forms the centerpiece of the track, and my absolute favourite moment perhaps of anything he’s ever produced, this time slowed down and chilling in its clarity, the guitars just so impassioned it never fails to give me goosebumps. They slowly gain momentum and courage as the rare live percussion thrums out a rapid beat from somewhere deep within the gentle waves of the meandering background drone, growing into a fully formed and fully realised piece that’s overflowing with luminous and foaming syncopated guitar drone, new material slowly being brought in and adding to this overblown beauty of spiritual and emotional evolution. It slides out of view replete and content, pleased with the progress it’s made in its own life as the warm drones dial down and leave us in an extended silence to contemplate the journey just made.

“Pallas Athene” initially remains content to chase up the cerebral atmosphere generated in the final moments of its predecessor, with no hint of any original guitar sound making its way to the fore and instead hovering in an ethereal mass of shimmering, piercing synth that lives up to the mystery and omnipresent nature of the god of its namesake, Athena. The goddess of courage and wisdom is keen to let us simply soak in its golden hues and take things easy in this mid-album interlude, a welcome reprieve from some of the crushing and emotionally challenging music we’ve heard thus far. And rightly so, as the title tracks throws us right back into the deep end on abrasive jabs of some deeply distorted instrument that sounds as much like a piano as it does a guitar. Before long these uncomfortable initial blats have morphed and slipstreamed into something entirely less ominous and daunting, collapsing into those vast walls of dysfunctional but gorgeous melody that just engulf the senses, cycling over and over again as the ethos and feel of the capital of Austria are slowly learnt and impressed upon us. Every city has a specific something about it that is totally indefinable and the same is true of this track; we get a tantalising impression of Fennesz’s endless and repetitive love for Vienna in its cyclical beauty.

“Sav” turns down the excitement factor and turns into something that sounds entirely more like a love story in its jumbled and hazy glitch lines and soft guitar drone. It’s so hard to get a grasp on this piece, it really is; its evolution is practically imperceptible as it turns over and over, the shimmering and glitching miscellania melting into the slowly rising tide of melancholic drone during its main phase before its depressing cascade is ultimately abandoned in favour of dystopic electronic instrumentation once more. Finally, the brief “Paroles” seals the deal and what a closer it is. After the tumult of sounds we’ve experienced across the breadth of the album it’s refreshing to get a piece in which the guitar is almost wholly alone and it’s so romantic and heartfelt as a result. There’s just something so loving and intimate about his solo guitar; it’s a rare and precious thing and as it slowly strums out of view there’s just time for us to glitch and warp back to the real world, our nostalgic interlude done for the day as the floatacious guitars close for the last time.

I’ve grown deeply fond of Fennesz’s wistful music over the years and have dedicated a lot of time to plumbing his texturally intricate and emotionally wrought albums, so to say that in the short time that I’ve owned Bécs I’ve come to see it as one of his best works is saying a lot. I think in many ways it’s probably closer to the sound of similarly geographically-centred Venice as it mirrors the same intangible sensation of time and place resurrected from some Summery but faded memory fragment, but the sound is far bolder and far more evocative rather than transportative, mirroring instead the convoluted emotional maturation of some phase of his life. I love this release, I really do, and it will have a strong spot on the end of year list.