Review Summary: I can only wish that future releases will reach for an integration of his musical bona fides, a return to melodic luxuries that coexist with an assortment of jagged defects.
For me there might as well be a huge monolith demonstratively presiding over Christian Fennesz's body of work, one which points prospective listeners in the direction of 2001's Endless Summer
and 2004's Venice
and away from the rest. On 2008's Black Sea
and 2014's Bécs
, Fennesz's formal strategies remained much the same as on those earlier masterpieces, so that I have come to doubt whether the dropoff in quality inheres in the actual sonic elements of the music or is simply a matter of my temperament. Yet I can't help the feeling that Fennesz used to harness his guitar-and-laptop performing forces, looping structures, and unnatural-sounding compression effects toward an expression of complex emotional states, and that these days he has simplified those baseline emotions, slowly pushing his sonic motifs into the realm of hackneyed pathos. ("'Liminality'  is post-rock," asserts a Rateyourmusic.com user, and I say Amen.)
This year's Agora
represents something of a 180 for Fennesz--the tracklist itself tells you the album is structured differently than those previous, and my ears tell me that he's interested in different sonic effects this time around. This is the most different
Fennesz project out of his seven-call-it studio albums. Where earlier tracks like the aforementioned (and, to be clear, far from beloved) "Liminality" and Endless Summer
's (to be clear, unforgettable) title track tinkered in the interstices of unremitting glitchiness and conventionally pretty guitar chords, Agora
sees Fennesz dip into the reserves of long-form drone, a bit like the leap fellow resident genius Grouper made from 2008's strummy Dragging A Dead Deer Up a Hill
and 2011's gauzy double-mini-LP A I A
. But whereas the wide-eyed emotions of A I A
acted as a counterpoint to the obfuscating distance instantiated by the hastily recorded droning guitar, and whereas A I A
was therefore and for other reasons a stroke of genius, Agora
is a step in the opposite direction--Fennesz has abandoned pathos for a sort of emotional neutrality, and the results are not so thrilling.
I recently listened to Endless Summer
for the first time in years and found I remembered every song; I've listened to Agora
four or five times and find I can barely remember a single structural element, much less the entirety of any of the 10-plus-minute tracks. Each track here possesses nary a definite shape--listen to random fifteen-second snippets or to an entire song, and you'll receive mostly the same listening experience, as songs drone on without specific narrative purpose. This approach has been par for the course ever since Brian Eno's Ambient 1: Music for Airports
(1978) set the stage for future ambient music, but the sonics whereby that structural nowhere-ness was composed were intoxicating in themselves. Agora
, meanwhile, on occasion indulges moments of the kind of distorted intensity which made Endless Summer
so special, especially on Hecker-esque final track "We Trigger The Sun," but the album fails to provide a sufficient holding context for these flare-ups. The trouble is two-pronged, both structural and purely sonic: everything bleeds together, and the sounds themselves don't elicit pleasure.
In one sense, I have to hand it to Fennesz: he has without a doubt solved the problems posed by releases in his immediate past, wherein his mastery of guitar glitches and pop pleasures were marred by a straightforward emotionality--dare I call it corniness? Agora
is a lot of things, but one thing it is not is corny. But in the process he has sacrificed a whole lot of virtues. Where Fennesz once generated productive frisson
in the mind-body continuum of his listeners, now his music stares blankly at them, as if hoping that their and not his affective dispositions will create the passion that sustains worthwhile musical practice. I can only wish that future releases will reach for an integration of his musical bona fides, a return to melodic luxuries that coexist with an assortment of jagged defects, defects which ultimately serve to ground those luxuries in a complex yet relatable emotional context.