[11 November 2007]
The road to a masterpiece is long and incremental. To many listeners, Austrian experimental guitarist Christian Fennesz hit the ground running with 2001’s beautiful Beach Boys homage/deconstruction Endless Summer, but for everything there is an antecedent. Fennesz first flirted with Beach Boys melodies (however unrecognizably) on the 1998 EP Plays but even that was only one step of a much broader trajectory beginning with his 1995 EP Instrument and 1997 debut full-length Hotel Paral.lel. In those days, Fennesz was perhaps even more texture-focused than now, twisting the sounds of his guitar into mechanical forms utterly unrecognizable as such with sheets of static, subliminal humming, and scratchy murmurs. Even then, though, amidst the pure abstraction and sound-design exercises, Fennesz was already flirting with traditional rhythm and melody.
Recognizable song elements, however, unlike the constant lurking presence in Endless Summer, are the exception, not the rule, on the new Editions Mego reissue of Hotel Paral.lel. Take twin centerpieces “Santora” and “Dheli Pizza”. The former is a simple exercise in slow, subtle noise variation, opening with arrhythmic clicking resembling radio static cast in steel. The sound begins dry but, as the song progresses it starts to bunch up and scatter unevenly, revealing a low, resonant drone easing in behind. Later, as clicking sputters out, that resonance is more cleanly revealed; a distant alarm bell, perhaps, ringing alone in the echo-traversed space of a cavernous basement. “Dheli Pizza”, on the other hand, spends most of its length as a ghostly presence, a barely tangible hum like that of a TV, on but muted, in the next room of a darkened apartment, while electric insects scurry by unseen. Almost four minutes in, the scenario shifts, the song taking on weight and noisy presence with a full assembly line of rattling machines that eventually clatter off into the dark again. Both tracks are simply arranged but carefully developed: Fennesz’s love of raw sound is clear even in his most austerely minimal moments.
Much of the album operates by a similar template. Opener “Sz”, a carefully filled out study in white noise variation, is followed by “Nebenraum”, which spends three minutes on a barely-tonal hum before allowing trace melodies to break through. “Zeug” sounds like a DJ fumbling to cue a record, and “Traxdata” resembles a polyphony of copying machines, skipping in a manner later reprised on Endless Summer‘s “Before I Leave”. All of this will be of some interest to fellow sound-scientists and minimal noise enthusiasts, but perhaps less so to those drawn in by the richness of the later catalogue.
Fortunately for them, latent song tendencies do not come out of nowhere, and even Hotel Paral.lel has a few striking examples. Most rudimentary is the rhythmic percussive throb underlying the sputtering static of “Szabo”, lending a dub-inflected techno momentum. “Blok M” and “Fa” take this direction much further, pairing steady static beats with repeated melodic twangs virtually recognizable as guitar. The songs roll right along under their own power, sweeps of noise unable to obscure the constant pulse, a trick later used to evoke the speed and thrill of train travel by like-minded guitar experimenter Chessie. In fact, these pieces may be Fennesz’s most recognizably rhythmic, then or now, even as they lean on the dense noise textures. Certainly, they are among the highlights of this album.
Endless Summer may be the most recognized Fennesz release to date, both critically and popularly, but it is clear that even as far back as 1997 he was laying down a template for that album’s skillfully-arranged tension between lovely guitar shimmer and abrasive scraps of feedback and experimental sound-design. Original Hotel Paral.lel closer “Aus”, here followed by the spacious ambience of out-of-print 1996 single “5”, was perhaps the last written. It is also the track that gazes ahead most directly to what followed. Finally, after a whole album of hiding his source material, Fennesz allows his guitar to break through in gentle acoustic strums that remain unfazed and far from being overwhelmed by sporadic percussion and reaching fingers of static. And just when texture threatens to take over, he unveils another trick that worked so well later on Endless Summer, suddenly rolling back the layers of composition and pushing through a new guitar melody. It is the beating heart of Fennesz’s best music. The notes hand-plucked with charm, clarity, and warmth of human feeling that is rare among the ranks of experimental noise.