(Touch; 2007)

By Joel Elliott | 22 January 2008

Sala Santa Cecilia (2005), the first collaboration between electronic artist Christian Fennesz and former Yellow Magic Orchestra leader Ryuichi Sakamoto, was a single-track, 19-minute improvisation for which both artists employed heavily manipulated electronics; consequently, their individual contributions tended to blur. This is not the case on the duo's new full-length: Fennesz's trademark aquatic guitar-based ambience -- here subtler and less abrasive than anything he's done before -- is always clearly distinct from Sakamoto's (mostly) untreated piano. The album recalls Sakamoto's multiple recordings with Alva.Noto, but with Fennesz's sustained sounds replacing Noto's micro-beats and Sakamoto's fluid playing, Cendre almost completely lacks an identifiable rhythmic structure. If there are set patterns to these tracks they're almost impossible to discern, apart from a handful of moments.

Cendre could score a million films during moments of quiet uncertainty, the album's dramatic release always remaining just over the horizon. That it manages to consistently achieve this mood points to a certain amount of success, but the album still feels trapped beneath its single-minded listlessness; inevitably, about half way through, the music stops pointing towards some great dramatic relevance and merely becomes the sum of its pretty -- but vacant -- arrangements.

For his part, Fennesz seems to be refining his sound even more from Endless Summer (2001) and Venice (2004) -- his two classics -- the former of which seems to be dangerously close to becoming the Loveless (1991) of this decade. As far as experimental ambient music is concerned, Cendre is as polar opposite from his earlier records like Plus Forty-Seven Degrees 56' 37" Minus Sixteen Degrees 51' 08" (2000) as it gets, as if he's gradually eliminating all the harsh sounds and leaving only the subtle background tweaks behind. And in and of itself that seems like a logical step; unfortunately the details tend to get lost amid Sakamoto's playing, which tends to take precedence in melody and therefore takes a hold of the listener's attention.

The artists are trying to create a similar effect as the collaborations between Harold Budd and Brian Eno, but while Eno was often willing to stand back and make minimal contributions to enhance Budd's piano, Fennesz is still too intrusive to be relegated to producer status. As a result, it feels like the two artists are competing for space, a dynamic which itself could be interesting were the artists to let some of that ensuing chaos inform the structure of the music. However, Cendre feels as if they are straining towards something calm and measured. As a result, the album fails when it forages into avant-garde terrain: namely on "Trace," which finds Sakamoto dancing around various atonal chord progressions. Here the two artists seem most like they are playing in two different rooms; Fennesz doesn't alter his sound in any significant way to suit Sakamoto's more experimental leaps. The track, like most of the album, is admirable in its attempt to defy conventional structure; however, the mood is too restrained to really push any boundaries.

Nevertheless, a couple of tracks work quite well when Sakamoto restricts himself to something simpler. The title track finds his contributions limited to single notes way down in the bass register of the piano, Fennesz's delicate oscillations just barely rising to an audible level before dipping below the surface again. Likewise, "Abyss" relies mainly on a simple progression that allows Fennesz to build up his sound and even anchor some of his own melodies. The album as a whole isn't really a failure, it just doesn't quite add up to the sum of each artist's potential.