Fennesz: Black Sea

Mike Newmark
Photo: Maria Ziegelboeck

Fennesz's first solo record in quite some time is quieter, more amorphous and less accessible than his most definitive work. Spend some time with it, however, and it begins to open up.


Black Sea

Label: Touch
US Release Date: 2008-11-24
UK Release Date: 2008-12-08

I get the feeling that Christian Fennesz's image has been forever defined by Endless Summer. Never mind that the wide release preceding it, Plus Forty-Seven Degrees 56' 37" Minus Sixteen Degrees 51' 08", was a headache in a handbasket, and nearly everything he's done since feels right at home with the 'ambient' tag attached to it. Endless Summer seemed as close to a guitar pop record as experimental electronica could be -- one thickly veiled by scrambled processing and song structures that don't make themselves terribly obvious, but whose title, cover art, sun-kissed aura, and surprising humanity paid homage to a tradition of amiable pop music from the Beach Boys onward. I also get the feeling, though, that some of us may have inflated Endless Summer's popness, that we might have molded it into the record we wished it to be, instead of letting it exist as it was. Talking to enough music nerds has revealed that the "best" records challenge us while satisfying our need for simplicity and order, and do so in a way that feels balanced and unforced. Between what Fennesz gave us and what we wanted from him, we ended up with a pop album by meeting him halfway.

Maybe that's why Fennesz's post-Endless Summer output has carried the slight air of diminishing returns, no matter how meticulously conceived or impeccably rendered. The first time I heard Black Sea, I wasn't even sure I liked it. The intense melodicism of his previous solo full-length, Venice, was a gimme in comparison to this set -- a continuous suite that ebbs and flows in wavelets over the course of each track. This sea is a calm one, with long stretches of quietude and no one tidal wave to knock us on our butts. Even the bold regal sweep of "The Colour of Three" isn't enough to break the overall placidity, becoming submerged in the aqueous body that surrounds it. Coming off the endless high of Endless Summer, as well as the recency effect of Venice and Fennesz's collaboration with Ryuichi Sakamoto (the slightly overbearing tearjerker Cendre), Black Sea can feel like a sudden about-face, amorphous and quite difficult to grasp.

However, if you shelve it after a few cursory listens, you'll miss one of Fennesz's superior records. To reap Black Sea's treasures, two prerequisites need to be met -- one a no-brainer, the other not so much. The first is a human trait that seems necessary to enjoy ambient music at all, but which may have been compromised by Fennesz's more pop proclivities: patience. Spend some quality time with Black Sea, and it begins to open up. The title track at the start of the album -- initially just a really long song -- reveals itself to be an epic preview of what follows, and a catalogue of Fennesz's apparent inspirations, analogous to Tortoise's side-length survey "Djed". In fact, both "Djed" and "Black Sea" kick off with the same guttural noises of tape destruction like thunderclaps in William Basinski's recording studio. "Black Sea" contains several movements: first, clanging industrial buzzes over aquatic ambience that imagines the meeting of Tangerine Dream's Phaedra and Experimental Audio Research's Data Rape; next, a plaintive acoustic guitar ringing in a cavernous sound field; then, a static-flecked lull eventually joined by light chimes; and finally, when the static becomes more pronounced, the semblance of a heavy melody running along frayed wires that effortlessly freefalls into "The Colour of Three"'s full-bodied gush.

We hear echoes and permutations of these movements all throughout Black Sea. "Grey Scale" combines misty, mournful guitar with violins chopped up and digitized -- tears from flying, crying robotic insects dropping into a well. "Perfume for Winter" poises itself to pounce as "Black Sea" and "The Colour of Three" (almost) do, but the whoosh of noise thins out quickly, leaving some sweetly organic instrumentation in its place. Patience is quite the virtue on "Glide", where static and a barely-there drone span across four minutes before the sparks emerge and settle again into an experimental ambient murmur. We don't get climactic moments or eight clearly delineated pieces to correspond to Black Sea's eight tracks. Rather, we get the just-as-good inverse: spaciousness over density, and numerous plate-tectonic budges over predictable narrative arcs. When we don't expect to hit instant pay dirt and approach the record on its own terms, the qualities that once made Black Sea seem so inaccessible transform into its most refreshing positives.

Similarly, Black Sea rarely ventures toward extreme poles of emotionality, as on Venice and Cendre, where the music attempted to jimmy feelings out of us with a crowbar. The emotions Black Sea evokes are far more subtle and complex, reflecting how we would normally feel during a given moment. The finale, "Saffron Revolution", exemplifies how Fennesz has mastered the far more difficult task of creating normative human emotion rather than using charged music to hijack our spirits. I have no idea how many layers and instruments Fennesz included in "Saffron Revolution"'s five-minute drone, but in it we can hear dashes of fear, strength, anxiety, equanimity, fullness, emptiness, anger, pensiveness, longing, and resignation. In other words, a stirring of small, disparate inklings that together become something all-encompassing and emotionally recognizable -- probably how you're feeling while you read this, and how I felt when I wrote it. Black Sea's emotional plausibility is a wonderful counter to its lack of immediacy, but once again it requires a patient ear to hear it, an open mind to accept it.

And yet, strangely, patience alone wasn't nearly enough to bring Black Sea to its full potential, at least in my own experience. The first time I felt I understood Black Sea, and the first time it truly moved me, I was aboard a cruise ship leaning over the deck, listening to the record through headphones and looking straight down into the waves of a pitch black sea under a starless night sky. I concentrated on the music as I stared at the ocean surface, liquefied obsidian, the visual and aural components shifting in tandem inside my brain. I thought about how deep the water might have been and acknowledged, for the first time, the incredible vastness of "Glass Ceiling" -- a track consisting mostly of metallic pinpricks that I once wrote off as uneventful.

I haven't been able to create this experience without my own black sea at hand (bad posture at the laptop, the banality of the iTunes interface, who knows why), and sadly, this would be the second prerequisite. Black Sea calls for external imagery, rather than evoking its own. The thread that runs through the entirety of the record isn't even related to water -- it's static. But I wonder if Black Sea couldn't be similarly satisfying by coming to know it ever more intimately, the way a coastal fisherman knows his own sea to the letter. It's a proposition that I hope listeners will take on as Black Sea ages in Fennesz's discography. It would be a little heartbreaking if those who bow at the shrine of Endless Summer turned their backs on this fresh side of Fennesz, one that hands out little and asks a lot, but can blossom into something beautiful if we let it.


The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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