2014 seems to be a deceptive year of some sort. Many innovative and long-awaited musicians have released something generally perceived not quite as game-changing as they used todo: Aphex Twin, Scott Walker, Thom Yorke (well, that was already said about Radiohead's autumnal last effort, 2011's The King of limbs), David Sylvian, Christian Fennesz.
But what if you discovered these artists through this new material? What if Fennesz, whose solo albums are considered to be some of the most important melodic-pop/sound-exploration crossovers, especially his acclaimed, debut-of-the-millennium Endless Summer, and who has a bunch of adventurous collaborations with the likes of David Sylvian, Jim O'Rourke, Polwechsel and Ryuichi Sakamoto to his credit, was for me just a name really before I heard Bécs, his latest record? What if we took the object for what it is (here a collection of 7 remarkable tracks) instead of trying to consider it from a historical/contextual perspective? We would certainly lose some comprehension over how much it is or not still innovative today. But at the same time, we would gain an insight on the way music finds its place through the sounds and noises that compose the record, and be able to decide whether it is, or not, an album worth adding to the meaningful disc-collection of our life. Which certainly does not mean that we need to see the album as a closed object only referring to itself, but that we must use our own apperception of the music, to find its own logic and the way it interferes with, if not disrupts, the usual grammar of our tastes.
As I said, I didn't know anything about the Austrian guitarist, apart from what I heard on Manafon (and the first track of Bécs, to come prepared), when I went to watch him play live in Amsterdam last September, as part of the electronic-music festival The Rest is noise. Coming from more (mainstream-)pop territories, I wasn't too sure what I was expecting. I guess a guy juggling between a computer and his guitar would seem to me rather suspect if you asked me. But then, I quite liked the way analogue instruments were played against a backdrop of electronic effects on the YouTube video playing "Static Kings” – and really enjoyed the cover too, so I was rather excited, if ignorant, about the set to come.
First came (as I would instantly find out one week later, at home, feverishly playing the record to check if the music he played was there, hoping for a soundtrack of that incredible night) the title track, "Bécs”. Already after a few bars (if this term is appropriate for something in which only the bass gives some sense of a regular time) I understood something special was happening. This piece (amazingly enough, I read later in an interview that it was the first track to fall into place during the recording process, and to set the tone for the entire record) conjugates a progressively enriching harmonic grandeur, that knocks your head back and lets you look at the ceiling of the concert-hall which seems to get higher and higher, with walls of distorted sounds gradually dominating the otherwise simple melodic keyboard loop, which repetition gives a sense of drama, building it up to a real cathedral of noise. Stunning.
Then (was it actually the second track of the set? anyway, time seemed to flow differently, cyclical, then suddenly up, and back again), "Liminality” was also played. It is probably the most ambitious and at the same time quintessential Fennesz track on the record, and lasts exactly 10 minutes. More narrative than "Bécs”, even if it ends up with the same kind of distorted structure, with noisy strums of guitar, that, coupled with the free drumming of mate Tony Buck, give a feeling of spontaneity that is perfectly matched during the live performance – although on laptop. Following a 45 second synth introduction, the airy melody consists mainly of a repeated guitar pattern that first appeared (but buried behind more layers) under the title "Liminal” on Fennesz previous 2011's EP Seven Stars, and which genesis we can follow on the newly published (but recorded the same year) Malher Remixed, where an early version, much closer to the one on Bécs, is heard at the end of the second track. The melodic guitar starts to shine very much in the foreground, giving the overall pace behind which synth drones continue to stretch, echoing the human scattered playing. The sheen of the atmosphere is intensified when the guitar goes into sharp strums, mainly 7th and 9th chords, before a shoegazing finale of power-chords augmented by the overall harmonies, with distant echoes of the initial melody that come and go, leaving space for the listener to project almost anything he feels like upon the gigantic wall of sound, finally dissolving into one minute of nearly complete silence. No unexpected twists, but a propulsive movement that keeps feeding itself, like sketches of songs used and abandoned before being fixed, but reappearing later, ghostly through the thunderstorm. And that's what makes Fennesz's work so fascinating, the way he mixes real instruments with digital manipulations as much as the way melodies interweave with noise and abstraction, diffracting time into a multitude of segments that cross each other and revolve, making the listener wonder at times if he hasn't already heard that. Which he hasn’t. Well, not as such.
There is something utterly beautiful in this music, and a feeling of immensity (while at the same time built up on limited means) that pairs "Bécs” and "Liminality”, which perhaps explains why these are the only two tracks that I've instantly recognized one week after the gig, and can be certain were played. It's very evocative music in some ways, but not open spaces like the sea, rather a cloudy sky cut by the rooftops above a city. Apart from Endless Summer (where the reference is to time), each of his LPs was named after a particular place. Bécs is no exception, being the Hungarian name for Vienna, the Austrian capital where Fennesz has long been located. And looking at the cover, it's very different from the two previous ones for Venice (2004) and Black Sea (2008), landscape photographs (as was the one for the reissue of Endless Summer by Mego in 2006). This rather abstract montage foreshadows what is to come: bright colors, with an urban pattern that seems all the while cut into various slices and embossed into a new, polymorphic, reality. And to some extent, live experimentation, in its bare setting, is a great introduction to this music that never fails to be evocative, but without clear hints of what. We could consider the constant glitches of sounds to be a representation of our digitally driven 21st century, while the guitars and drums playings we can hear along "Liminality”, consisting of first takes thus not as precise as machines, bring a touch of fragile humanity to this futuristic background.
After theses streams of electricity, "Pallas Athene” is a welcome moment of ambient, if unsettling, brilliance. Sonically not unlike what Radiohead did with "Treefingers” on Kid A, it has the same ethereal, organ-like sounds morphing into one another without any kind of break or dynamic change between the notes, as they have strictly no attack, modulating ceaselessly around the same chords sustained to create an elegiac, post-something (pop?) tone. Detached from the physical world after the silence generated by chaos, it quietly floats without pulsation and leads to a sense of dislocated time and space, identifying the ending feeling not with lyricism or pathos, but rather with a minimalist composition resolutely turning down technical demonstration, as if only the backing track of a unsung song. But, like "Treefingers”, it has also a transitory central place, between the dense "Liminality” and "Bécs”, and only releases the tension for its (notwithstanding) 6-minutes existence.
With these three tracks at the core of Bécs, the two directions that always fight for existence in Fennesz's work are unveiled: melodic flashes of immediate brilliance and constantly threatening "after-the-music” dissolved time – the tension of which creates a particular beauty. The aforementioned "Static Kings” might be the most structured thing here (but in a stream-of-consciousness way, where each idea unfolds and generates other ones that survive it), beginning in a sort of sub-aquatic drumming, before strums of acoustic guitar enter, raising up above the digital background, soon switching to another part that blurs the instrumental sources, from the electric guitar until no instrument is recognizable as such. On "The Liar”, the melody is more hidden than ever, yet finding its own path through the washes of atonal noise, before an incredible finale that uses space between the notes much like Talk Talk did on the heavier tracks during the Laughing Stock era. The disjunction of plans comes nowhere as impressive as in "Sav”, a truly sonic sculpture that sounds like a musical representation of the kind of state just before falling asleep. Objects come and go at different levels, creating a physical depth that seems itself slowly falling into nothingness. The album closes with "Paroles”, where delicate guitar playing reminiscent of "Static Kings” seems to randomly generate its own backdrop of drones and blips, loosely subduing time to what is played, always about to disappear behind the glitches of sound, ending the album with the lightest melancholy.
That's already too many words (after all, "Paroles”, merely based it seems on the French 60s song of the same title, where words and promises are impossible to believe) around an album maybe not as unique as it appeared to me at first. It might on the other hand be too abstract and segmented music to bear a long and coherent talk. You could find something depending on whether you are used or not to glitch aesthetic, and Fennesz's work in particular.
Bécs was my entryway to a whole world of experimental/electronic/improvisational/noise music. I wouldn't know if it's the man's best record, and if this is a definitive statement. I'm not even sure that it would be my favorite Fennesz solo record, now that I've discovered the rest of his discography. But at some point of my musical development, the music documented on this album, the tension introduced between "composed musicality” (as we usually see it) and abstract "sound materiality” ; melodic motives and deconstructed canvas, helped me go into a more de-linearized sonic world, and as a record, it was something of a revelation.
And the real surprise came the same weekend, when I discovered that Fennesz actually had covered "Hunting high and low”, a song by my all-time favorite band, Norway's most popular (and critically underrated) a-ha, back in 2008 for the Recovery box-set. It was like the perfect bridge between my love for subtle and crafted songwriting and for sonic experimentalism. And I still can listen, with clear conscience, to more straightforward pop-music, having in mind the kind of experimental implosion that it could have led to, for the years to come.