Fennesz - Biography
After the arrival of The Beatles and the British Invasion, the marketplace was flooded with affordable electric guitars, like Sears’ infamous and beloved Silvertone brand. Technology in hand, just about any teenager could now start a band. That most did so while unable to actually play said instrument spawned an entirely new genre, garage rock. Even today, the stuff from compilation series like Pebbles sounds fresh and invigorated, because it was born of enthusiasm as much as prowess.
Three decades later, Apple’s PowerBook facilitated a similar shift, and “laptop” became both an instrument and a genre (while sending the rarified, academic, and somewhat exclusive genres of musique concret and electro-acoustic music in the direction of magnetic tape and the dodo). And more than anyone else, the man who most confidently deploys both of these instruments — guitar and laptop, past and present — is Austrian musician, composer, and improvisor, Christian Fennesz.
Fennesz, as he bills himself, represents the zenith of the 1990s cry-core episode, and has his antecedents in a number of that decade’s most lovelorn mopes, including Kevin Shields and My Bloody Valentine, and Robin Guthrie and the Cocteau Twins. Fennesz can gaze at his shoes with the best of them. When asked about this aspect of his music, Fennesz concurs:
“I've always loved [My Bloody Valentine’s] records. Same with Sonic Youth. I was really a big fan of Loveless. At [the time it came out], I made music that was not too far away from [what they were doing], but we were stuck in Austria. There was no way to get attention from the outside world. Maybe it's a generational thing. My Bloody Valentine was also using guitars and samplers, and they were fascinated by the power of a good pop song. Sonic Youth and MBV were definitely big influences for me.”
You can also hear prominent shades of Brian Eno, and his 1982 classic, Ambient 4/On Land. On Land is the best of all of Eno’s ambient LPs, in part because it is the densest, and the most opaque, which was a deliberate move on the part of its author. Over the course of nearly four years, Eno sculpted, adding natural and environmental sounds, mechanical effects, tape manipulations, and even recordings from his rock-based back catalog. Yet, at the end, in its final form, On Land is a remarkable seamless recording with a unique, melancholic character and a distinct sense of place; the boundary between source material and creative manipulation are impossibly blurred. It’s this transformative process at which Fennesz truly excels.
Fennesz’s debut, Instrument EP (1995 Mego) sets the standard, as roiling waves of guitar are poured into the computer, then released in a dense spray of sound. Percussive elements are simultaneously frenetic/glitchy (a word that many in the genre would come to loathe), and steady. Instrument is experimental electronica on the surface, but underneath, it retains a stealthy rock vibe.
Next came his full-length debut, Hotel Paral,lel (1997 Mego). It’s noisier than much of his work, somewhat cold and brittle; icy, even. While cuts like “Traxdata” and “GR500” have a touch of breathable atmosphere, mostly it’s full of material like “Tzabo” and “Dheli Plaza,” which are inhospitable, industrial-tinged minimalism.
However, Fennesz’s next record received scads of attention and helped put him on the map. Using recordings by Paul Anka and the Stones, Fennesz created Plays (1998 Mego) a buzzing, post-rock classic. Using “Paint it Black” and “Don’t Cry (Put Your Head on My Shoulder,” he completely obliterates the source material, reducing it to sheer mood: menace for the former; melancholy for the latter; he then adds strained, distorted layers of his own instrumentation. The final result is pop as geologic process, as recognizable, familiar forms are subducted, liquefied, forced to the surface and spewed out, molten, to eventually solidify in a wholly new form. Of course, Plays was released in the only appropriate format: as a seven-inch vinyl single.
The next few years included Plus Forty Seven Degrees 56' 37" Minus Sixteen Degrees 51' 08" (1999 Touch) and the Live at Revolver, Melbourne EP (2000 Touch), as well as documentation of his live laptop/improv ensemble with Jim O’Rourke and Peter Rehberg. Dubbed Fenn O’Berg, the trio released two outstanding records: The Magic Sound of Fenn O'Berg (1999 Mego) and The Return of Fenn O'Berg (2000 Mego). It was also during this period, of the course of three years that Fennesz was assembling what is now considered his greatest work.
Endless Summer (2001 Mego) was a sensation. It starts with “Made in Hong Kong,” which introduces the standards of 2000-era laptop electronica: glitch, buzz, static, noise. But Fennesz cycles them around, in simple, repetitive melodies, in plaintive aural pirouettes. In the title track he introduces acoustic guitar, strengthening the juxtaposition of abrasive surface and attractive, rounded form. “Shisheido” features lightly amplified, strummed electric guitar and piano, sonically pinched and squished at the edges.
“A Year in the Minute” sculpts its particular, lithe melody with white noise; “Before I Leave” utilizes a warm, “Tubular Bells” skipping tone to lovely effect. The album closes with “Happy Audio”; a simple glissando on organ, with a pronounced Terry Riley vibe, loops again and again and again, increasing caked in sonic grit, like warm beach sand on a wet body.
Much was made of the title — taken from a Beach Boys song — as well as the Ocean Pacific, 70s-graphics laden cover art. And while Endless Summer is not, as many suggested, sourced from Beach Boys material, it does, in its own, odd, unique fashion, recline comfortably next to their summertime sounds, sunbathing, carefree and content. Endless Summer transformed people’s perception of laptop composition, its potential, and its direction.
Fennesz was busy for much of the subsequent decade. While his solo releases are infrequent, he has pursued and number of collaborative projects, including Live at the LU (2004 Erstwhile) with AMM co-founder Keith Rowe, and Cloud with Rowe, Toshimaru Nakamura and Oren Ambarchi (2005 Erstwhile). With Ryuichi Sakamoto he released a live EP, Sala Santa Cecilia (2005 Touch) and the full-length Cendre (2007 Touch).
Additional projects include some prominent remixes, as well as a few film soundtracks. The former include: "Tomorrow Never Knows" by Ulver on 1993-2003: A Decade In The Machines (2003 Jester); "Weight" by Isis on Oceanic Remixes Vol. 4 (2005 Ipecac); and, most significantly, "In This Twilight" by Nine Inch Nails on Year Zero Remixed (2007 Interscope). The soundtracks include: Beyond the Ocean (1999 USA); Gelbe Kirschen (2000 Austria), directed by Leopold Lummerstorfer; and Blue Moon (2002 Austria), written and directed by Andrea Maria Dusl.
Fennesz continues to lead the laptop pack. In October of 2008 he released a digital-only version of “Saffron Revolution" from his forthcoming CD/LP, Black Sea (2008 Touch). The tastemakers at Pitchfork gushed accordingly: “This lead track certainly keeps expectations very high. Beginning with some of Fennesz' trademark neo-industrial gurgles, it folds in bits of guitar and strings rather beautifully, creating a cluster of sound that trembles, seeming to wait for something. And that something moves in gradually in the form of a massive cloud of distortion, a fine white mist of harmonics mixed with a dark undercurrent of rumbling bass. The tension between these elements is so well balanced, each individual element remaining in the mix even as the sound field becomes impossibly dense, that it's no surprise that it takes a while to get it just right. And as it begins to draw down about five minutes in, you can't help but wish that another full Fennesz album was following behind it. Soon."
As Fennesz himself summarizes: “I hate the idea of repeating myself. I need new perspectives and challenges for each project, and I'm very happy that many people are able to follow me without any problem. That's really great.”