Ten years ago, on a night not unlike tonight, three electronic musicians set forth on an experiment. It was an experiment that would take them across the world and introduce them to things they had never heard, or heard of, before. Among the musicians within this caravan was a grisly old American sonic veteran named Jim O’Rourke, known for a temperament that could range from the sweetly acoustic to the self-indulgently academic to the just downright weird. O’Rourke was joined by a London-born recording artist by the name of Peter Rehberg, who dabbled in the black arts under the name Pita and ran a young label of wily digital concatenations called Mego. Rounding out this motley crew was a little-known upstart called Christian Fennesz, recognized for being able to codify textures and simple harmonies into the transcendent and sublime.
When the three of these rogue travelers synched together, they combined to form an unspeakably hideous frankenbeast, a scaly hydra with battery packs and plug-ins dripping out of its orifices, the stench of an unholy artificiality emanating for miles. They called this hybrid creature Fenn O’Berg and across Tokyo, Vienna, Hamburg, Paris, and Berlin shrieks of horror and disbelief sounded. It wasn’t what was on stage that bothered people, but rather what wasn’t. Where were the guitars? Where were the synthesizers? Where were the instruments? Where was the body contortion and feigned adolescent carnality? Where was the movement? Fenn O’Berg was a monster of stillness, three coprophiliac guys standing at rest making clangorous rackets while clicking mouses and staring dead-eyed into the blue void of Powerbook screens.
Fenn O’Berg spread like a virus, leaving us with the unfortunate burden of not only a million laptop artists calling their piddles and twiddles art, but also the elongated bitch of myriad rock critics, dilettantes of all non-verse-chorus-verse genres, decrying the death of performance and instrumental virtuosity. Perhaps even worse, the Fenn O’Berg fiend spawned a multitude of other amalgamations of talent in the experimental electronic field, usually taking form as one-off performances whose scarce moments of brilliance often got lost in a landfill of middling crap product. Every moment of synergy was off-set by a plethora of mis-communion, dispassionate hesitancy, or jarring loudness rivalries.
Fenn O’Berg’s first incursions were documented by audiologists at Rehberg’s Mego holdings as The Magic Sound of Fenn O’Berg. On these recordings, edited down from larger live sessions, the Fenn O’Berg monster seems to still be a misshapen bric-a-brac assemblage. In fact, there’s so much clink-clank that much of the album seems to waltz about in the trash compactor. Its pieces have been fissured together in a way that is scattershot, if not haphazard. The bits are intriguing enough that they do not solicit the skipping ahead of tracks. Finding out what happens next becomes fun, even the entire experience isn’t, and each song is more of a pastiche of ideas than a singular vision. Yet segments of the recording can be trying, such as when sound patches get trapped and glitch out in batches of unlikely and unwelcome dissonance (the shrieks of “Gürtel Eins”). In fact, the best moments are when the talents of the individual magicians become noticeable and stand out amidst the clatter—like the Lynchian Pita nightmare at the end of “Gürtel Zwei”, for example.
The rest is much like the real experience of LSD, dissociative and slightly bewildering, but with no inherent purpose save for the one the user circumscribes. Unfamiliar patterns and shapes weave and bow, only to be replaced by others.
“Shinjuku Baby Pt 1” has twinkling xylophone sparsely recorded over a motoric feedback hum that sounds like it came from Eraserhead’s radiator. “Steam Powered Oscillation” delivers a robotic-voiced punchline about Hamburg being the site of the “first marine electronic concert” using a “steam-powered oscillating machine” and then continues to play out the line noise following this gimmick for about 30 long seconds of practically dead, but nevertheless pretentious air.
Critics have tended to favor the “Fenn O’Berg Theme” from this release, which plays like march music for the behemoth hydra’s city-crushing adventures. Its ominous strings, supposedly chopped ‘n’ screwed from John Barry’s lush score to Moonraker, are indeed captivating, but it’s also the least Fenn O’Berg thing they’ve ever done, the lone accessible slab within the intangible unknowables of the rest of their catalogue. It also can essentially be boiled down to the aforementioned James Bond score with a noise tantrum and, later, some wookie cries, atop it. It’s the same formula prescribed on the track preceding it, “Gürtel Zwei”, ethereal new pop with spasms of decay and flanged ruination. It reminds me of a Merzbow split album I once heard where there was electropop panned hard to the left channel and Masami Akita’s mercurial hemorrhages in the right. The texture is extrasensory, not an intrinsic element essentially to the song’s survival.
It wasn’t until 2002’s The Return of Fenn O’Berg that the monster would truly sound united and not like three personalities trying to escape a shared body. Easily the superior album, it starts with a smokescreen that suggests rapid-fire house music, but quickly settles into a warm fuzzbox tone that rapidly accelerates like someone is holding down the fast forward button, and then metamorphoses into a backwards-masked loop, before crackling into minimalist snaps, crackles, and pops, finally escalating in some paradisiacal strings that sound a bit like the opening strands of Neil Young’s “Expecting to Fly”.
This kind of object synthesis recurs throughout. “A Viennese Tragedy” works with a similar sample-based arrangement as the “Fenn O’Berg Theme”. The cinematic strings sound like they’re struggling to come through a transistor radio, but the song’s bent is skewered to allow room for panoramic typing finger pad clicks, flitting bees, skipping beatbox gasps, and gentle ambience which makes the other cartoon noises seem like a natural systemic outreach of a quantum mechanical Rube Goldberg device. What differentiates Return from Magic is mainly the fact that the members of the band now seem to be working together rather just in tandem or on top of one another. As a result, the contours and reformations of the music sound guided rather than strained.
Both of these out-of-print discs have been combined onto a two-disc set appropriately called Magic & Return. A bonus track is included at the tail end of each album, as if the breadth of noise encompassed wasn’t enough. As it may be easy to ascertain, it’s an exhausting listen, but so should be a run-in with a beast of this caliber. Rumor has it that Fenn O’Berg has plans to return ‘round this time next year. Be prepared.
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