In Stereo? That’s nothing. When Christian Fennesz, Peter Rehberg and Jim O’Rourke hit Chicago’s Empty Bottle a dozen years ago, they quite literally delivered surround sound. They had the audience surrounded, with one guy’s laptop at the bar, another across the room at the lighting desk, and the third seated at a little table in the shadows. Baffled punters looked at the empty stage for a while, then clustered around one or the other of the key-clicking musicians hunched over his then-novel instrument, and finally took to wandering about in zombie-like slow motion. The music, an amalgam of abused voltage, subverted loops, and chopped and screwed samples, smacked at you from every which way like freaked-out Asian carp. It was messy, it was new, and it was fun.
While there’s no clear documentation of the ill will that ensued when Fennesz left Rehberg’s Mego label for Touch in 2002, it says something that In Stereo comes nearly eight years after Fenn O’Berg’s second and, until now, most recent album. During that time, laptops have shed their exotic mystique to become as common on stage as drum kits. So what to expect from the trio? Certainly not more of the same; never inclined to stand still, each of these guys has moved on, whether by recording with David Sylvian, embracing doom metal atmospherics, or leaving Sonic Youth to move to Japan. They certainly haven’t tried to revisit the old magic they enjoyed whilst barnstorming around the world with laptops under their arms, when they pasted records together from live recordings; this album is the result of a week in the studio with evident access to “real” instruments like piano, guitar, and drums.
The 2010 version of Fenn O’Berg is a rather dour affair. On “Part 1,” which is the record’s fourth track, the music hovers like a smoggy inversion, and sullen electronic blasts wear down the audio fabric like a drizzling acid rain on “Part IV,” which comes second. The action, as you might expect from the album’s name, comes more from shifts across the stereo spectrum than changes over time. In Stereo is elusive. Instead of throwing shit at you, the trio lay their sounds out and let you approach or not as you choose. Each track is like a secret uttered right in front of you in some obscure code, leaving only questions, confusion and tantalizing mystery. But it would have been nice to have a bit of the old impish glee.