2010 has been an eventful year for Fennesz collaborative and archival releases, though he’s making us wait for a fresh solo studio album. His Fenn O’Berg trio with Jim O’Rourke and Peter Rehberg released the slow-burning and epic In Stereo in March, and an hour-long cassette called Szampler arrived in the same month, collecting samples used for recordings from 1989-1996. He contributed guitar and electronics to Food’s creepily smooth and summery Quiet Inlet, and a week after the release of Knoxville, his remix of Oneohtrix Point Never’s “Returnal” will appear as the B-side on an Editions Mego 7-inch.
In addition to these releases, his touring schedule is heating up for the end of the year with several upcoming US appearances. Most interesting is the lineup for the Optical 2 - Tactile Immersion showcase at Decibel Fest, which Fennesz headlines after performances by Noveller and Oneohtrix Point Never, two quickly rising experimental artists he has undeniably paved the way for and influenced. The guitarist and synth/electronicist almost represent a bifurcated Fennesz, exploring his tendencies for dark atmospherics, subtle pop tropes, and that thing that sits in between them: existential dread.
While aligning Fennesz with the new kids on the block is clever, this recording captures him working live at Knoxville’s 2009 Big Ears Festival with two established avant veterans. Guitarist and Antiopic label founder David Daniell has appeared on over 30 recordings and worked with artists like Rhys Chatham, Thurston Moore, and Loren Connors, while Australian percussionist Tony Buck has made a name for himself playing over the years with The Necks, Otomo Yoshihide, John Zorn, The Ex, Peter Brötzmann, Han Bennink, and many others. From free jazz to noise to contemporary classical, these three players disrupt simple categorization and approach sound-making from plural subject-positions on the experimental continuum.
Despite this Tennessee live set being the trio’s first musical exchange, their years of improvisational experience allow the process to develop organically and democratically, but all the while as if it were the result of frequent encounters. It’s unknown whether there was any pre-performance discussion and planning or if this 30-minute exploration through colorful labyrinths of oftentimes unsettling and ecstatic sound was the result of that beautiful Machiavellian nemesis, Fortuna.
Daniell’s guitar floats tranquilly on “Unüberwindbare Wände,” and initially it’s difficult to determine if the screeching, metallic swing-set grind is created by Fennesz’ electronics or Buck’s friction-percussion technique. When the latter begins to drop in multiple splatters of cymbal drift, the screech becomes unmistakably Fennesz’. The mood intensifies quickly with Daniell’s heroic phrases extending out over the volcanic rumble (clamp on a good pair of headphones and wait for the six-minute mark).
The dense, white sparkle gradually dissolves into “Heat From Light,” where subtle pulses glide over the residual feedback. Buck’s free-jazz drumming approach is at the forefront throughout this performance, providing a grand sense of movement to the meditative atmospherics produced by Fennesz and Daniell. His sporadic beats and cymbal textures bring the dark drones alive with blooming color. One of the highlights of the album is in the final minutes of this second track, namely the way his military drum roll matches up perfectly with Fennesz’ most crushing noise-blast of the album so that the two become momentarily indistinguishable.
“Antonia,” the penultimate track, sounds like an abandoned cityscape at night with only a contemporary Friedrichean wanderer gazing out across the doom, soaking in the sublime gloom of nowhere-ness. What is the calmest and most beautiful section of the performance slams into the hyper-fury of “Diamond Mind,” where the trio lashes out for the final seven minutes toward unlimited bliss. The only complaint about Knoxville is its length, although it’s not so much a complaint as it is a curiosity about whether there is more of this live performance out there somewhere that didn’t make the final edit. As with almost all Fennesz projects and releases, the listener is left wanting more.