Heard in just over 30 minutes, Knoxville, the debut release by experimental artists Christian Fennesz, David Daniell, and Tony Buck, is a metallic field of shattered cymbals, chimes, guitars, and droning electronic instrumentation otherwise unrecognizable to the unaesthetic listener. Distinction of its four compositions is irrelevant. Each swath of clatter, nearly patternless upon first listen, is the result of a somewhat impromptu session between the artists, recorded on February 7th, 2009 at the Big Ears Festival in Knoxville, Tennessee.
The trio sound like strange tinkers under power lines, cobbling together these songs under constant drone, wavering dissonance. It’s an interesting experiment that I didn’t like at first. In my car, I heard a minimalist something that kept too clearly of tuneful noise. But, and this I forgot, the general rule of experimental music coupled with electronics seems to be: headphones. Without them, Knoxville rattles too much, sounds awry. Once controlled and funneled sonically as it should be, the three sound like a mercurial storm. Fennesz plays guitar and manipulates the pinches of shortwave hum and synthetic echo, bleary sounds you hear only overtop Tony Buck’s machinations. There is always the clash of metal, sometimes in light taps, rain against a barn roof. David Daniell also plays guitar, echoing his own textural sequences. Like Fennesz’s recent LPs, Knoxville does have a melodic half-light. It’s there, buried. It’s just unfortunate that we’re made to find it.
What Knoxville masters is cohesion. It feels at all times like silver thaw, never breaking its pace or rising too glacially throughout its dynamic range. Each piece ascends and closes as controlled as it began. Everything trickles without discernible rhythm. At times I was reminded of Flying Saucer Attack. Beyond well-formed soundscape, there is the matter of improvisation. The group rambles through these four songs and often succeeds. But after each fades into the next, and after the last ends onto nothing, we want at the least to have something to recall. A smattering of what was heard. Any recollection of the ambiance. There are many Stars of the Lid songs, most of which are drone-based and reliant on sustained chords and dithered noise, that I can identify amid a mix of other, similarly sparse music. I don’t know that Fennesz and co. give us anything to take away. Sure, there are some rain sounds. Some passages build in free-form and crescendo and evolve as post-drone. Knoxville just isn’t as to post-rock as it surely could be.
Which is fine, I say. Fine enough, at least. This is an improvised quartet of light noise, static, and hum. It isn’t a polished piece, composed and meant to be taken in pieces. I accept that and judge it thusly, and I do so with hope that its tradition, live acoustic-electronic experimentation, be carried on and, especially with this trio of artists, developed wholly, much in the way of Fennesz’s other Touch releases with Philip Jeck, Oren Ambarchi, Ryuichi Sakamoto, and so forth.