By Peter Holslin | 1 December 2008
Christian Fennesz’s compositions marry the romantic sentimentality of the Beach Boys with the musical transcendentalism of Karlheinz Stockhausen. And while Fennesz’s electroacoustic phantasmagoria has taken many forms—heavily distorted grumbling overlaid with angelic synths, planes of oscillating fuzz, even a couple bizarrely straightforward singer-songwriter tracks—water served as a consistent theme in his 2001 masterpiece Endless Summer and equally as masterful 2004 follow-up, Venice. For its part, Fennesz’s follow-up to those records most resembles the element of water. Vaguely melodious, embedded with overtones, sometimes placid and sometimes stormy, Black Sea is like a wave in that its diverse parts meld together to form a powerful, all-encompassing entity.
Fennesz’s compositional process makes songwriting and sound engineering a singular act. With his electric guitars, a laptop, and a variety of waveforms and effects, Fennesz creates ribbons of guitar plucking, chunks of white noise, and fragments of synth sounds, then mutates them and finally patches it all together into something implausibly fluid. Listening to Black Sea, you will probably feel like you’re drifting. In the opener, gasps of a heavenly chorus dissipate under a wave of squiggling electronics. In “Glide,” gentle hums embedded in distorted clouds gradually form a wandering chord progression and stabs of subsonic bass. (Unfortunately, the vinyl edition does not include “Vacuum” or “The Colour of Three.”) The white noise-tinged electronics, plinking guitar, and groaning bass in closer “Saffron Revolution” gestate like a thick fog that floats along and eventually fades away. Even the silence between the tracks seems integral to the album, serving as a bit of respite before the next miasma.
For its occasional forays into tiresome mid-level fuzz, some listeners might dismiss Black Sea as sonic wallpaper. Not only would that overlook all of the record’s incredible details—like the buzzing electronic yawns in “The Colour of Three” and the cathartic blasts of mutated splashes in “Perfume For Winter”—it would miss the point entirely. Black Sea‘s impressionistic strands do not play specific roles so much as melt into their corresponding elements, much like the phased motifs of minimalist composer Steve Reich, to subsume all of music’s parts into a unique sonic form. The subtle and savory contour of the texture, working as melody, harmony and rhythm, is an end in itself.
The uninitiated listener might compare Black Sea to being lost in deep sea, where there are no pathways, no buoys, and plenty of hungry creatures below. On the other hand, Fennesz fans might compare Black Sea to the arrival of a long-awaited vacation—one that might just take them to the unique resort city of Odessa, Ukraine, where they can splash around in the Black Sea’s beaches. Either way, Fennesz’s latest album needs a patient and curious listener who is willing to rethink the very things they listen for in music.