Click! Take a snapshot of early ‘90s Vienna. In a rock club, there is a familiar sight to the natives in the know. On stage is a lean, guitar-wielding ectomorph, singing and craning over his instrument for blissful sparks of dissonance, even as the rest of his band wails along to the joyful noise. Back to the future, 2004: the digital music scene is in full stream. That same Austrian musician, Christian Fennesz, once attempted his first trials with electric guitar in Maische, a band quite fond of the ideal being used at the time of heavy effects and splintering the sounds of the guitar itself. He quickly became disillusioned with being in a rock band, and moved on to using his computer as scalpel; plucking bits of chords produced from his Fender, and expanding them into long form instrumentals of staggering depth. This became his first EP, appropriately titled Instrument. Fennesz formed a new template then, and many people have followed his directive since. Since so many have discovered the ease of becoming a self-proclaimed computer musician, as if getting the right software can allow one the same talents, his work stands out from many of his contemporaries. He has carefully chosen to restrain the frequency of records he releases, with three years between his newest, Venice, and his last proper full length, Endless Summer. Thankfully, it is well worth the wait.
Venice touches on many of the areas often associated with computer-based composition. In various spots, one might find the soothing nature inherent in most ambient-styled music, the now-famous glitch sound of tweaked sound files and broken CDs, and the abstract nature of something disassembled, as if a base sound is being refracted into a thousand pieces of colorful tone. Where Fennesz rises above is in his use of melody and that absorbing warmth he applies to his pieces. He is part of a select few of the current digital dilettantes who successfully fix their crosshairs so intently on mood and emotion. The result is computer music not reserved to the cold harshness so often associated with it, but that breathes, ebbs, and flows. Fennesz has a well-documented fixation on one of his early heroes, My Bloody Valentine’s Kevin Shields. Some of the most engrossing work here plays like that band’s between-song moments. His use of digital signal processing (DSP) and synthesizer drones creates such density, such sheer tonal mass, on tracks like the shifting liquidity of “Rivers of Sand” and the absorbing “The Stone of Impermanence”, that they work both as minimal background music and deep listening headphone excursions. The digital beehive buzzing here isn’t abrasive as in some his earlier work, and doesn’t nod to another of his influences, noise artist Merzbow, but instead creates a fecund atmosphere for dream-state and entering inner space.
Fennesz still loves the guitar, however. Two of the most moving pieces that really qualify as songs, “Laguna”, and “Circassian”, feature guest guitarist Burkhard Stangl. In “Laguna”, Stangl throws out some bluesy riffs that nod towards Loren Mazzacane Connors, while Fennesz hovers just below the surface with that sometimes-ominous hum heard in those American films from the ‘50s when a flying saucer is nearly touching the Earth, but not quite. The monster track, “Circassian” (a Circassian is a Sunni Muslim of non-Arab descent), takes things to a whole new level, with a guitar thread that rips like a Eno-Fripp collaboration: part synthetic environment, part axe-wielding on a Hendrix-ian stature. On “Transit”, Fennesz invited friend David Sylvian, he of the art-rock band Japan, for a vocal contribution. The song is a dual work, with Sylvian’s voice interacting as another instrument would in an improvisation. “Transit” is foreboding, hinting at the end days, and coupled with Fennesz’s insertion of some minor digital explosions, it ultimately spells out a dark tale.
While his roster of collaborators over the years reads like a laundry list of envelope-pushers in experimental and electronic circles, Fennesz is at his best when at the helm. Venice gives a peek at his enduring penchant for pop, shows him breaking out into other areas of digital territory, and allowing his listeners to see the guitar anew, with its most glimmering elements shining like sunlight through cracks in a wall, sharp as diamonds.