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Fennesz - Live In Japan

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Artist: Fennesz

Album: Live In Japan

Label: Headz

Review date: Jul. 28, 2003

See You In September

Endless Summer made a large critical dent, finding a way to popularize an approach to music thought to be solely indicative of a noise-mongering elite. The integration of melody and digital noise, while perhaps not as new of a phenomenon as it seemed, signaled what the noise-mongering elite could deem a "re-democratization of avant-garde" Those of who actually welcomed the change, anyway. Others slung epithets and made claims about Fennesz's lack of computer programming skills.

More importantly, though, Endless Summer was an extremely versatile record for Fennesz, showing his ability to tie together the string of distinctly disparate releases (Instrument, Hotel Paral.lel, Fennesz Plays, Plus Forty Seven Degrees 56' 37" Minus Sixteen Degrees 51' 08", most specifically) and make a cohesive, thematic whole. Everything was held together by a common weary nostalgia, a paradoxically uncertain familiarity. Like the unstated goals of several other Mego labelmates (Pita, most notably), Fennesz had shredded audio fragments to complete incomprehensibility and still managed to retain a certain essence of what the sounds originally meant.

To ascribe meaning to something as seemingly innate as music is certainly debatable, yet when Fennesz mixes the yearning, optimistic sonorities of Pet Sounds, like he does on Fennesz Plays, with his now-trademarked electronic fragmentation (specifically shifting resonant filters, stalling and stuttering audio, wide panning), there's a beautiful and decidedly intentional conflict, a slight distance from the sweet melodies that implies a certain melancholy corrosion. Each successive Fennesz album seems to approach the mixture of noise and melody with different proportions, and when Endless Summer finally was released, it seemed like the book was closed. A perfect, critically acclaimed defining statement, accompanied by the horrible problem of what to do next.

Having said this, it's important to note that the last two years have seen a slew of Fennesz-related releases. Besides inadvertently spawning Carpark records and some of the more "adventurous" releases from Temporary Residence, recent work includes a fantastic document of the laptop trio of Fennesz, Jim O'Rourke and Peter Rehberg on The Return of Fenn'OBerg, a selection of various difficult-to-find tracks on Field Recordings, the wonderful collaboration with Polwechsel on Erstwhile entitled Wrapped Islands, another pairing with his Viennese buddies on Durian's Phonographics: 1-5, a duo with Pan Sonic's Mika Vainio, yet another collaborative album on Grob Dawn, and most recently, several contributions to David Sylvain's stupefyingly abysmal Blemish. While Fennesz has been very busy and has managed to stay in the Endless Summer spotlight (there was an alleged remix offer from Madonna), any fan would be hard-pressed to claim Fennesz has been doing much besides sharpening his patches and honing his ability to do what he's now relatively loved for.

Recorded in February of 2003, the recently released Live in Japan should be the clear-cut insight into Fennesz's working life that his collaborative efforts managed to shield. With a new full-length, Venice on the horizon, at the very least, Live in Japan should hold a glimpse of the eagerly anticipated follow-up. Yet, the 43-minute, "greatest live laptop show in music history" (deemed by "many" and not just a "press release") is a fairly disconcerting prospect.

The first unpleasant surprise is that a good 20 minutes is pretty strictly regurgitated. Fennesz includes decidedly sublime, yet still somehow extraneous version of "Caecilia" in the five-minute encore, an extra-glitchy arrangement of the title track from Endless Summer 14 minutes into the performance, and several reworked fragments from Field Recordings. It’s surprising that people ever tolerated this kind of stuff from rock musicians. Second, for a 40-minute, partially improvised concert, Live In Japan initially seems to have the worst of both worlds, lacking both discernable intuition and effective structural design. Using relative unsurprising audio manipulation to simply segue between bigger thematic motifs, Fennesz seems to simply be killing time until the 22-minute mark. At that point, we see what might be a sampling of future Venice material, intermingled with "Codeine" from Field Recordings, an unfortunate, but not unexciting cross between Endless Summer and Frente's cover of "Bizarre Love Triangle" – at a most crass comparison. On the other hand, it’s certainly more developed and rich than Endless Summer, in regard to both song melody and audio processing, and pleasantly climaxes at about 30 minutes, followed by a five-minute dénouement.

Now, Live In Japan might not, in fact, hold the surprises to come in Venice, but recorded in February 2003, the release cuts a little close to simply exorcising old demons. While its pretty and engaging, there's an overwhelming sense that it's an ephemeral one-off, to keep appetites whet. Considering a good number of the Fennesz-related releases in the past years, its not necessarily surprising to see another 40-minute excerpt of water tread, but it’s still a disappointment from who was and still might be one of the sharpest musicians in electronic music.

By Matt Wellins

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