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eRikm & Fennesz - Complementary Contrasts - Donaueschingen 2003

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Artist: eRikm & Fennesz

Album: Complementary Contrasts - Donaueschingen 2003

Label: Hatology

Review date: Jan. 18, 2005

Ever since the release of his influential solo recording Hotel Paral.lel in 1997, Fennesz has become one of the most improbable musical celebrities. Though many debate the extent of his radicalism – some dismissing him as too close to easy listening, others claiming that his very popularity underscores how effective his unique brand of laptop and guitar experimentation can be – he has left an indelible mark on contemporary music. Though eRikm is far less known, not having played with David Sylvian for example, his role in electroacoustic improvisation is equally important, cemented in his collaborations with poire_z, Jerôme Noetinger and others.

Fennesz has been rehashing and mangling a stable core of source materials since Endless Summer, giving his discography the partial feel of a working journal of methods and approaches. He, along with eRikm, still considers himself something of a guitarist (albeit a highly abstracted or deconstructed one). But I think a bit too much has been made of the duo’s rock roots, and the ways in which the warmth of electric guitar distortion has made its way into their electronic improvisation. (A much more convincing case could be made of Anthony Guerra’s wonderful Spool #2, though I’m not sure even that disc fits the bill.) There are elements of guitar, and elements of melody, but not all uses of distortion connect instantly with “rock music” (as if it were monolithic), and for proof just let the dark waters of the first track’s concluding minutes wash over you.

Longtime mutual fans, the two met in October 2003 for a day in the studio – from which two 15-minute tracks are reproduced here – and a subsequent day’s live performance at the venerable Donaueschingen Festival in Germany. The first studio take begins with a pair of rude sonic slashes, rends in a fabric we sense has been a work in progress long before we got our first look or listen. They play with pulse, with bitstreams of repetition, and with long cavernous wails. I immediately appreciated the duo’s feel for contrast – close-set metallic scrapings peek out from a backdrop of vast echo-laden drones – and, perhaps more significantly, I gladly noted Fennesz’s restraint in not exploring some of his more familiar themes and materials. The second studio improvisation is much more of a testing-ground for ideas, and has the feel of many first-time improvisers’ meetings, with relatively conventional exchanges, responses and formal gestures.

The 36-minute live track crackles to life but spends an awfully long time warming up under low heat. Fennesz’s patented shimmering washes are spread on thick (they reappear frequently throughout this particular performance), with occasionally provocative contrast sharing the bill with tedium. Against a low thrumming backdrop, the two spend a very long time trading jabs of various sorts – zaps, claps, sizzles, hisses – all the while steadily increasing the density of the overall template. There is a lovely, seamless transition to an open horizon of what sounds like wave after wave of fast-moving clouds.

So there are obviously good moments on these pieces, and the disc as a whole is both pleasant and a valuable document of this first-time meeting. But one of the disc’s (relative) drawbacks is the familiarity, even predictability, of the structure of the pieces: soft beginning, thickening of voices, elaboration, crescendo. The second studio track here is guiltiest of this kind of general meandering. What’s more, the long live track is quite touch and go, with tension and release upon tension and release. There are many lovely moments, and many dull ones too. The final 10 minutes is the most gripping, as it seems to pull against the preceding gestures (eRikm sounds as if he’s making a concerted assault on the inertia of certain ideas).

Despite these reservations, what works here works very well and the two musicians clearly play well together. Though this isn’t an essential recording, it’s certainly something that should be heard by fans of either artist or of electronic improvisation, in general.

By Jason Bivins

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