(Touch; 2004)

By Amir Nezar | 4 October 2007

Every reviewer will be faced with a similar dilemma at more than one point in his or her career: the great release from an artist whom you love, but for whom writing a review is, at best, a cause for anxiety. Usually these artists’ accessibility is, euphemistically, limited, and understanding, much less describing, their work, seems a herculean task. I have in mind more than a couple artists: Iran, Lightning Bolt, The Microphones – reviewing these bands has scared me.

But Fennesz? Fennesz fucking terrifies me.

If you knew Fennesz, if you loved Fennesz, and if you were advising your friend on when the appropriate time would be to introduce himself to Fennesz, the answer would always be: “his latest album.” For, Fennesz seems to grow only more accessible as time goes on. If, two years ago, an uninitiated listener expressed interested in starting out with, for instance, the Plays EP, I would’ve laughingly replied, “Forget it. Try out Endless Summer first, and then we’ll see if you can even begin to handle Plays.” Were that same listener to express interest in Endless Summer now, I’d reply, “Try out Venice first, and then you’ll be equipped for Endless Summer.”

Of course, putting the words “try out” alongside “Fennesz” is immensely absurd. You don’t try out Fennesz albums. You worm your way into them, you inhabit them for days, and then you come out musically reborn. It took me at least a dozen close, uninterrupted listens, and twice that many cursory listens, to understand and appreciate, and eventually, love Endless Summer when that was Fennesz’s most approachable album. Venice has now taken over that title – but thankfully Fennesz’s (infinitesimally) growing “accessibility” has not taken away from the beauty of his works.

In fact, Venice is easily the most gorgeous album I’ve heard all year. That’s the easy part. The hard part is conveying to newcomers exactly what the nature, the texture, of this beauty is. The old hats already know full well. The moment the pulsing tones of “Rivers of Sand,” ripple between your headphones (don’t you DARE listen to this album on your shitty home stereo), those who have followed Fennesz will light up and get ready for yet another revelation, and those who are new to him will simply look confounded and washed-over. The deep bass tones that throb between gentle swoons of feedback and occasional glitching feedback cut-ups immediately signal Fennesz’s signature sound. With its occasional sustained vibratos of feedback wandering in a swelling panning effect between ears, and its emotive, beautiful, immense serenity, the journey into Venice commences. And when that journey is done, you may wish to God that you didn’t have a life outside of your headphones.

And when “Chateau Rouge” follows the entrancing opener, you realize, further, why Fennesz, unlike so many electronic composers, will never have his music fade out into harmless background fodder; it demands attention. Onrushes of layered feedback and aquatic glitches bleed out into upper range sampled organ lovely-noise, and at the two minute mark a burning heat-wave of white noise lilts on and off before transitioning effortlessly into tightly controlled organizations of transcendent feedback and glitch accents.

This kind of control, and almost invisible structure, is what makes Fennesz so fascinating; he doesn’t masturbate himself into electronic formlessness, but constructs something like a pop song with each one of his precise, stunning arrangements. And the variation of his electronic techniques helps to make Venice endlessly engaging – similar aural themes run through, but they’re manipulated and toyed with so deftly that multiple listens aren’t just a good idea, they’re essential. There’s feedback everywhere, but in “City of Light,” its alternatively melded and juxtaposed with cool, lush organ tones, creating a winding and then unwinding emotional tension of closeness and then distance. Meanwhile, on (and I never thought I’d say this about Fennesz) the absolutely ferociously beautiful “The Stone of Impermanence,” these feedback lines are stretched taut with bursting life, pretty anguish, and underlaid with steady bass flushes. Or in the majestic swells of “The Point of It All,” where it hovers on the edges of the tracks central canyon-and-sky-invoking tones, with something approaching percussion encroaching on the background.

The album’s most remarkable pieces are “Circassian” and “Transit,” and for vastly different reasons. The emotionally massive “Circassian” is a monumental build of feedback and looped noise, towering like a weeping giant as it wades through glittering oceans of deep, melodic tones, occasionally reaching through the golden clouds as though to seize the sun. One of the most flooring tracks I’ve heard all year, it reaches and even exceeds even the highest points of “Endless Summer,” though it’s structurally and texturally so different as to be almost incomparable to Fennesz’s previous masterwork (though Endless SummerI does echo in a couple of the more pop-oriented tracks here, “The Other Face,” or “Laguna” being good examples). “Transit,” meanwhile, opening with a panning, fluttering, almost atonal sound, shifts into a lovely melody, but, for the only time on the album, to the sound of vocals, David Sylvian’s (formerly of Japan) vocals. The lyrics, of “goodbyes to Europe,” and “follow me, won’t you?” are so strange because it’s an unexpected vocalization of a storyline that the album has seemed to be carrying through anyway, sans vocals. It speaks to the amazing skill that Fennesz has in his thematic development and construction of each individual part of this enveloping whole.

When Venice is over, and your headphones are out of your ears, the entire world looks different, takes on different colors, speaks in different tones. Its kinship to a religious experience is almost haunting, and if you ever doubted IDM’s ability to nail you emotionally, this is the document for the unconverted. If you immerse yourself in it, submit to it, journey with it, Sylvian’s words “Do you feel what I feel?” will cause in you the same reaction it did in me: Fennesz, you terrifying, awesome bastard, you didn’t even have to ask.