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.