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27 October 2014

Fennesz - 'Endless Summer' (Mego)

This felt like a groundbreaking record when it came out, and probably represents my peak interest in whatever this genre was. I see it's been reissued since as a deluxe double LP edition so clearly it has some sort of place in history. By 2001 I had seen Christian Fennesz live a few times, and for a guy bent over a laptop he had the most performative presence I've still probably ever seen in, well, whatever this genre was. Endless Summer, as its title indicates, has a warmth and organic quality that doesn't jar with the 'glitches' and electronic crackle, but rather works with the qualities of that sound to complement the language of laptop-experimentalism. From the get-go, 'Made in Hongkong', Fennesz throws the listener into wet, warm tonalities with a burning digital ebb and flow. The achievement of Endless Summer is not the fact that it's trying to capture the same feeling as the Beach Boys or surf music, but rather that it is such a cohesive, expressive statement. The acoustic guitar strums on 'A Year in a Minute' have the languid quality of some of the Jeweled Antler pop bands or Dylan's more stoned moments, and it's remarkable that they achieve such a harmony with the gargling, folding-in-upon-itself undertow that is constantly fighting for air here. This type of wet electronic comfort (which I often associate with the Leaf label -- see the Eardrum review) can easily create a bath of thick mid-rangey tones, which can feel easy at times, like ear candy This doesn't hide it's digital manipulations - the pulsing of 'Before I Leave' is relentless, even annoying at times, and maybe the one track that feels out of place. But Fennesz is seeking new feelings, combining the familiar with the other, and this occasionally produces an exotica vibe ('Shisheido'), as if Les Baxter was being updated for the digital age. Repetition is present, nearly to the point of insanity on the lengthy closer 'Happy Audio', and this type of minimalism feels strangely maximal. Around the turn of the millennium we were lucky to find a lot of (mostly European) electronic artists trying to move away from the beats that characterise dance tracks, instead finding an affinity with post-rock by focusing on textures, colour, etc. I don't know how people more knowledgeable about this genre would feel about me lumping Fennesz in with Pole, Gas, or Oval, but to a young rocker seeking new musical languages, this stuff was magical. It's faded from my memory even though there's no shortage of great music being made today that picks up from where this left off. These descendants may be the proof of the eternity promised by the title of Endless Summer.

Felt - 'Crumbling the Antiseptic Beauty' (Cherry Red)

Before I ever heard Felt, I read a review of this record and decided they would get points for the title alone. Here's the establishment of the beta-male guitar-god; where jangle climbs the throne and the clean channel rules supreme. It starts with an instrumental, the lengthy 'Evergreen Dazed', which introduces the Felt sound - two tinny guitars, lots of reverb, and a plodding drummer. The lead parts are moody, built around descending melodies and never too flashy. Here, the instruments ring and ring and ring, and when the voice is present (all songs sung by Felt mastermind Lawrence, who I assume is the guy pictured on the front), it's breathy and minus any rock and roll histrionics. This is about as far from Led Zeppelin as rock music can possibly be, and is in alignment with the other plans for the genre established by their brethren of the early 80s - the Cure, Durutti Column, etc. I admit that even though the point of this project is to give these records the solid decent listen they deserve, I found myself tuning out the vocals entirely, letting the guitars carry me into some sort of somnambulistic state. Thus, I'm not sure if the poem 'Crumbling the Antiseptic Beauty' printed on the sleeve contains actual lyrics (since there is no song by this name) or is merely a poem; it does contain the line 'Dazed like evergreen' at the end, but that song is an instrumental. So Lawrence writes and sings lyrics but then only prints entirely different ones on the sleeve - that's something Michael Stipe hadn't even thought of. But back to the music - six long songs, a half-hour total, and it melts into something that feels like a 'statement'. When there's rhythm guitar, it might have a little distortion but from the natural fuzz of an amplifier, as opposed to anything more grungy. The opening chugga-chug of 'Cathedral' feels like something solid you can dig your feet into, planting like roots, and the whole record ends with 'Templeroy', petering out rather than exploding or burning or whatever impulse rock music often tends to produce. This is their debut and I don't really know anything else by them, figuring I'd always find more Felt LPs lying around during my years in the UK (I didn't).