It's my guess that when the votes are tallied at the end of this decade, Fennesz's 2001 opus Endless Summer will go down as one of the top five or so albums of the preceding ten years. In fact, it’s likely you’ll see the album vying for the coveted number one spot much the same way My Bloody Valentine's Loveless was lauded as the musical vanguard for the 1990s. Both Loveless and Endless Summer's staggering beauty and inspired vision are like touchstones for their respective contexts, acting as both a culmination of the musical past and a portent of things to come -- in MBV's case, breaking down the modes of the centuries’ preceding progressions by blasting them into the stratosphere, or in Fennesz's case, smashing them apart into their subatomic particles and watching them float off into the aether.
When an artist is blessed with this kind of divine inspiration and attainment of artistic perfection, there is often an inverse curse festering on its underbelly. Take for instance the Mangums and Shields who have undergone long periods of self-exiles that only now seem to be coming to a close. Although Christian Fennesz has never completely cut himself off from the music community, he has kept his profile relatively low, with sizable lulls of inactivity passing between albums (though, he does make a point to collaborate often). Admittedly, Fennesz prefers not to force his artistic hand or “manufacture inspirado”; rather, he waits for it to come, which may account for the relative rarity of his presence.
With Endless Summer, Fennesz took Brian Wilson's vision of infinite beach days and masterfully whittled it down to just a distant memory in the shattered debris of those sublime Beach Boys pop harmonies. Later, in 2004, Venice was released, and though successful in evoking the gently rowing gondolas and innate romanticism of the ancient Italian city, it clearly lacked the subsuming bliss of Endless Summer, leaving this listener feeling like its ideas didn't gestate long enough. Now, Fennesz's latest Black Sea continues his Cousteau-level aquatic obsession -- in some ways, it's a sea change; in others, it's a return to form.
That’s not to say that Black Sea is another Endless Summer. In fact, it may be beneficial for all of us to stop hoping for another Endless Summer, as it is unlikely to ever come again (sorry). What does bind the two albums though is their inescapable ability to ensconce their listeners in such wide swaths of digital warmth. Take for instance eponymous opener "The Black Sea," which after commencing in powerful currents of sound, sucks the listener into an aural undertow before a breakout of daylight is smothered in its own wake. After the initial deluge, we get the very recognizable, processed guitars and bubbling electronics that seem to pick up right where Endless Summer left off.
We see this aggressive side of Fennesz again in "Glide," (featuring a collaboration with New Zealand labtop wiz Rosy Parlane), with slow-burning nebulas of sound turning into a galaxy of shifting sands and ebbing tides. But just like the calming, gentle sway that follows Black Sea’s initial maelstrom, Fennesz counterbalances these preternatural and dark forces with the ethereal, which is also evident on "Perfume For Winter," a whimsical suite that feels like several songs within a greater structure, like many other tracks on the album. And while the song revels in its highly digital Macintosh-generated ebullience, it also mixes in some real acoustic cranking of some old rusty machinery that seems to throw both my speakers and tympanic membrane out of whack. Segueing seamlessly from "The Black Sea," "The Colour of Three" is another track that dabbles in this territory. Featuring the Cage-inspired prepared piano, designed and performed here by Anthony Pateras, it converges around one long glancing retina scan beam of sound (that I’m convinced has healing abilities) to make for one of the most effective tracks on the album.
There is a lot to hear on Black Sea, and it’s likely you won’t be able to take it all in on one listen. Repeated listening is suggested, as many of the jewels of this work can only be discovered in Zen-like periods of rapt attention. In an echo of almost every other review out there, you will get the most out of Black Sea by listening to it on headphones, turned all the way up, in the dark, by yourself, in the lotus position, and perhaps in an anechoic chamber. Amidst the chaos and noise of the modern, one may never find a peaceful enough environment to fully appreciate Black Sea, but if you do, you will be duly rewarded with epic streams of sound and Cage-ian introspection on the nature of what exactly is music. And while it’s not as compelling as Endless Summer, it’s the closest Fennesz has come to returning to that plateau.
1. The Black Sea
2. The Colour of Three
3. Perfume for Winter
4. Grey Scale
7. Glass Ceiling
8. Saffron Revolution