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Fennesz - Venice

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Artist: Fennesz

Album: Venice

Label: Touch

Review date: Apr. 18, 2004

In 1893, Thaddeus Cahill invented the Telharmonium, one of the first electronic instruments. (There is an intricately woven history of also-rans, but the Telharmonium is such a romantic place to start.) Essentially a synthesizer operated through telephone lines, it could be a metaphor for electronic music as a communicative force in the 20th century; the kind delivered straight to your door, faceless, and speaking through utilitarian technology.

Of course, Thomas Edison’s Talking Tin Foil was invented 20 years earlier, and god knows he probably stole most of that from Leon Scott, the Frenchman responsible for the phonautograph (so maybe those musique concrete composers had a right to take their work with a grain of nationalist entitlement). It wouldn’t take long to make a case that electronic music is ultimately of European descent, despite both America’s beloved brilliant burglar Edison and its concordant industrial revolutions. In fact, mankind might as well accept Europeans as the inventors of music as we know it, if for no other reason than the fact that they coined the terminology.

Christian Fennesz presents Venice, an ambitious, ambiguous record focusing both on technology and European identity. In theory, Venice deals with the danger of a global, industrial railroading (no pun intended) of the beloved European provinces towards an apocalyptic, or at least regrettable, future. Or, more specifically, perhaps the record could be interpreted as a subtle missive aimed against America’s presiding tyrant. Venice could be an eloquent, crafted statement against a world in the aftermath of globalized interests, in the form of contrived American patriotism.

Venice never resorts to irony or shock tactics. It is an utterly heartfelt plea into the homes of Fennesz’s recently discovered fan base. After all, as the invention of the Telharmonium suggests, this is what electronic music could be all about, that unprecedented ability to disseminate information through the same media as the governing forces of injustice. In any case, Venice had the potential to be one of the most directly political musical statements from the avant-garde since the cultural disorder resultant from the Bush administration, and yet that ultimately speaks poorly of the avant-garde more than it speaks well of Venice.

Fennesz, unfortunately, only grazes his target. The latent theme of Venice can only be deduced on the basis of two fundamental elements on the album. The first, of course, is the title and its accompanying (excellent) photography by Jon Wozencroft, which fall somewhere between tranquil and portentous with relative ease. The second, a decidedly more obvious thematic statement appears in the lone vocal track, “Transit.” Although seemingly an isolated event on the album, all of the disparate, floating threads of Venice seem to materialize in “Transit.” “asusu,” a short musical interlude that comes later in the album, seems to reiterate the melodic motif. The song is at least partially hinted at in preceding pieces “The other face” and “City of light,” among others. “Transit” is a lucid manifestation of themes that seem to be merely toyed with elsewhere. The lyrics by David Sylvian are reproduced here, borrowed from davidsylvian.com:

I have listened repeatedly
I have listened very well
No one interrupts the harmful
When they’re speaking

To wonder why of Europe
Say your goodbyes to Europe
Swallow the lie of Europe
Our shared history dies with Europe

(follow me, won’t you follow me?)

A future’s hinting at itself
Do you fear what I fear?
All those names of ancestry
Too gentle for the stones they bear

Someone somewhere wants to see you
Someone’s traveling towards us all

To wonder why of Europe
To live, love, and cry in Europe
Say your goodbyes to Europe
Our history dies with Europe

(follow me, won’t you follow me?)

The lights are dimming
The lounge is dark
The best cigarette is saved for last
We drink alone
We drink alone

© 2003 by David Sylvian/Opium (Arts) Ltd

So, of course, here is the aforementioned political unrest, that question of European instability, concluded with a seemingly out-of-place personalized stanza about drinking and smoking. The city of Venice is in actuality a perfect locus for this political uncertainty, a scene of direct conflict between the Bush-supporting, business tycoon presidential incumbent Silvio Berlusconi and what seems to be dissent among the majority of the residing constituency, who notably hung flags advocating peace and freely opposed a number of points in Bush’s regime.

The problem with this content, however, is similar to the most criticized aspect of Fennesz’s last solo full-length, Endless Summer: there is little besides the design and title that shows the music to be intrinsically related to the thematic grounds that Fennesz seems to have in mind. Endless Summer’s nostalgic Bruce Brown tint often bowed out in deference to electronic abstraction more concerned with Fennesz’s attempts at furthering the digital palette than a clear conceptual statement. Venice shows Fennesz to be grappling with the same problem. There is an apparent theme, it just often takes a backseat to Fennesz’s more musically-minded agenda.

The pieces are slower and more atmospheric, more sullen than prior Fennesz records, a balance between the peaceful and dark aspects presented in the packaging. There is a heightened awareness to resonances on Venice: Sounds are rarely outright sharp and seem to accumulate into sluggish cloudiness, giving the album a strangely impressionistic feel. The compositions are subtle, filled with scores of small fragmentary nuances, crackles and counterpoint. This is one of the most exciting aspects of Fennesz – while he is often praised for combining strains of melody and noise, on Venice, more than on prior albums, there seems to simply be no distinction between the two. The compositions are imbued with a great, overwhelming density; they are weighted with a certain physical presence and, more than anything else, sound distinctly natural.

This aspect of Fennesz's work also has some negative aspects. The most pressing problem is that Venice is rarely a challenging release. Touch Records has seemed to encounter a certain problem as of late. Many of their releases, while essentially representing fringe artists, seem to avoid the experimentation and uncertainty of avant-garde music, falling into more comfortable territory. Recent releases on Touch by Oren Ambarchi, Philip Jeck, Ken Ikeda, and Biosphere, among others, present inviting, satisfying droning albums, yet often, there is very little else to consider. There is no distinguishing concept, no outright progressiveness, nothing that seems particularly dangerous about these works. They are pleasant pieces of music and often seem all too willing to become relegated to background noise. Venice is another victim of this non-agenda, even as it often grasps to be more.

By Matt Wellins

Other Reviews of Fennesz

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Live In Japan

Black Sea

Seven Stars

AUN: The Beginning and the End of All Things

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