This should really be far higher up on the list but I've been enjoying it so much recently that I decided it was best to strike while the iron's hot. For those not in the know, Christian Fennesz is an Austrian electronica artist that masterfully meshes glitch, noise and ambience to create collages of sound that are as wonderful as they are difficult to pigeonhole. His highly lauded 2001 effort Endless Summer incorporated a subdued but evident pop sensibility into his work, the album's playful, glitchy and initially abrasive exterior eventually giving way to an underlying tranquility with repeated listens. Venice moved towards slightly more peaceful waters but was still very much the product of a man enamoured, in a slightly abstract sense, with pop music: this was most notable on 'Transit', where David Sylvian's guest vocals turned what would otherwise be a wash of Fennesz noise into a beautifully melancholy ballad.
Black Sea, however, sees the maestro completing his swing towards abstraction: taking a much more compositional approach, the new album, as the press release puts it, goes for the "slow reveal" method over Endless Summer and Venice's more song-based structures. This is, in all sorts of ways, a brilliant move: moving away from the repetition of previous song structures allows for a much more vast and expansive sound. One only needs to listen to the ten-minute title track for affirmation of this. Fennesz's music has always had quite a visual element to it, painting beautiful pictures in your head as you listen, and on Black Sea this is more evident than ever: the introductory swell of noise morphs into something sweeping and grandiose, giving the impression of a vast expanse of violent, crashing sea. The clicks and whirrs and abrasive sheets of static soon fade quite abruptly as we, the listeners, are pulled under the surface of the waves, down into the echoey depths of Fennesz's sonic sea, the crashing of the waves beating down in the distance. And suddenly all is peaceful: gentle sweeps of guitar ambience grace our ears and purposefully picked-out notes on an acoustic guitar reverberate wonderfully, providing a reassuring organic quality that would have otherwise been lost in all the sheets of fuzz.
That's one particularly impressive thing about Black Sea as an album: for a piece of experimental electronic music it comes across as surprisingly organic and human; bottomless in its depth and full of sweeping emotion. This may be due to Fennesz's immense attention to detail and recording technique: during the recording of the album, he reports that he experimented greatly with the quality of different rooms and microphones. As a result, each sound resonates in just the right way, creating whole open spaces with layers of echoing noise and distant, fragmented melody. Speaking of melody, that's another thing about Black Sea: where with previous releases Fennesz would have relatively obvious tunes anchoring his songs, this latest release is a lot more abstract for most of its duration, instead placing a lot more emphasis on texture and atmosphere, allowing the songs to build and envelop the listener. This is not, by any means, background music: Black Sea is an album to listen to on headphones and lose yourself completely in. There is so much going on at any given moment - distant rumblings, soft sheets of noise, washes of guitar, echoing strings, even prepared pianos - that the album is a totally engaging listen throughout. There are entire worlds within these sounds, ready to be explored.
My favourite thing about Fennesz is the sheer capacity for emotion and reflection within his sculptures of sound, and Black Sea is in this respect particularly powerful. The best pieces of music have the ability to say things that words cannot adequately express. 'Glide' does this perfectly: building ever so gently, it's easy to let your thoughts wander throughout its duration, but there's a moment halfway through where it subtly but powerfully hits home - and at that point it transports me completely, dredging up all sorts of memories floating around in my mind, reminding me of things, people and places that i miss, or that i've lost and that i wish i could have back. 'Vacuum' has a similarly intoxicating sense of melancholy throughout that lends itself very well to introspection and reflection.
While it's not the kind of thing that I'd like to come back to too often because of its sheer emotional weight, and while this is a purely subjective thing that others may not find here, there is a certain beauty in discovering pieces of music like this that can have such a strong emotional effect. And for all its emotional weight, its all-encompassing atmosphere and its beautiful complexity, Black Sea is one of the most fascinating and rewarding pieces of music released this year. If you have the patience to lie down with some headphones and lose yourself in its sound for a while, you will, with any luck, find the payoff immensely gratifying.
Fennesz - Black Sea