Album Review: Fennesz—”Bécs”

By James Li

It’s difficult to pin down Austrian producer Christian Fennesz’s musical style in one word, but “hybrid” is a good start. In an unusual twist for electronic musicians, Fennesz chooses the guitar as the base for his compositions. However, with extensive use of digital signals processing (DSP), Fennesz strips the guitar of any familiarity or cliché. Fennesz’s use of DSP techniques can transform something as mundane as a strummed guitar chord into an impenetrable cloud of static. Take his cover of The Rolling Stones’ “Paint It Black” for example, as it was so processed and pared down that it was ruled an original work for royalty purposes.

Bécs is Fennesz’s first full-length album since 2008 and his first with label Editions Mego since 2001’s Endless Summer. Fennesz looked to the shore for inspiration on his previous projects; Endless Summer evokes sun-kissed beaches, and Venice and Black Sea have fairly self-explanatory titles. Bécs, on the other hand, takes its title from the Hungarian name for Vienna, a tribute to Christian Fennesz’s Hungarian roots and his hometown. Fennesz returns to the “florid pop” structures he perfected on Endless Summer, but Fennesz’s idea of pop songwriting differs from most. Endless Summer sounds more like a disintegrated Beach Boys record than conventional electropop.

Bécs opens with “Static Kings,” the most florid pop song on the album. But it sounds more like a pop song caught in a whirlpool, with its oscillating synths and watery acoustic guitars. The title track approaches pop as well, but buries its melody under cold piano chords and crackling distortion. “The Liar” opens with shards of guitar distortion before bursting into a roaring drone, draped in an ethereal layer of synth. It may be one of Fennesz’s darkest and most abrasive tracks yet, but it demonstrates his mastery of balancing noise and melody beautifully. The ten-minute guitar epic “Liminality” is the centerpiece of the album – a crescendo restrained and cathartic in a way most post-rock bands can only dream of. Melody and progression are nearly absent on some tracks, such as “Pallas Athene” and “Sav,” which focus on repetition and atmosphere instead.

It is difficult whether to regard Bécs as a return to or a departure from the sounds of Endless Summer. He tones down the drones that characterized his previous album, Black Sea, in favour of the heavily processed guitars that characterized Endless Summer. There is less emphasis on melody and acoustic instruments on Bécs, and consequently, it sounds colder and more artificial, but just as expressive, in a similar vein of James Blake’s clinical but emotive pop. Bécs should please any long-time fan of Fennesz, but it is also accessible enough for those new to his work. Fans of experimental guitar music, such as Sonic Youth and My Bloody Valentine, or the drone soundscapes of Tim Hecker and Ben Frost, will find something to enjoy on this record as well. It’s an album that is subtle enough to play as minimal ambient music, but layered enough to demand a close listen with headphones. (Editions Mego)

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3 Responses to “Album Review: Fennesz—”Bécs””
  1. fuzzy guitar, fuzzy math. this is no “endless summer” as a commercially viable release but does jump through to connect several consecutive wormholes so the sonic math of E = mc2 played out to the 10th power is “oh so that’s what the universe is listening too”. it’s so simple even a child or new born nebulous could relate. strum on journeyman. the path is infinite. you can becs on it.

  2. Great article! We are linking to this great article on our website.
    Keep up the great writing.

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