Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Fenn O'Berg

In Stereo (Editions Mego, 03.2010)

For: Christian Fennesz, Peter Rehberg, Jim O'Rourke

Byline: The mighty laptop supergroup (see above) returns with its first record in eight years and first working entirely in the studio, which results in fewer rewards than you might hope. Originally published on www.inyourspeakers.com. Used by permission by In Your Speakers, LLC.

(Read the full review here.)

Jim O’Rourke once called the music of the Austrian imprint Mego a new form of “computer punk.” Featuring an impressive roster of artists—including O’Rourke’s own dreamy, sample-warping laptop music, the transmorphic, guitar-driven beauty of Fennesz, and the relentlessly aggressive, pummeling work of Kevin Drumm—this description made sense. In a world where computerized music is often reduced to simply a tool for dance or hip hop production, Mego’s artists seemed to be out to do precisely what the punks did with their style—take what was already there, and refigure musical familiarities into a new setting. The aim wasn’t to necessarily reinvent the language altogether, but to basically challenge the very understanding of what language specifically is and what its signifiers can mean when channeled in a different way. The results, though not always as outwardly aggressive as Kevin Drumm, were at least jarring and unexpected - a music that wasn’t quite environmental enough to be ambient but at the same time rarely straight forward or transparent, and absolutely never something you could call “ordinary.”

So why does In Stereo, the third album from this computer super-group and latest release on the resurrected Editions Mego, sound so ordinary so often? Is the fact that there’s really not much new and exciting going on with this record an indication that the sound of Mego has gone the way of punk music’s history? It’s easy to forget that the label was founded nearly a decade ago, so to think that this style has perhaps run its course isn’t terribly far-fetched. Still, these are very weird questions to be asking of a style of music not many people know a lot about. In fact, as difficult it is to write a fabulously favorable review for In Stereo, it is equally difficult to brush the album off entirely. The problem is that it’s so tough to know what’s going on in a record like In Stereo, and as such, it’s the kind of album that poses a lot of questions. Why did it take three people to create this? Who (the monster that is “Fenn O’Berg” consists of Christian Fennesz, Jim O’Rourke, and Peter Rehberg) does precisely what on the recording? How was this thing exactly made? Where do the sounds come from? Do we need to know to enjoy the music?

Regardless of what’s unknown about the production of In Stereo—what is known is that what we hear sounds a whole lot like... you know, electronic music. There are blips and bloops, static swells, and the whole thing just sounds real digitized. The trio sets up some great dirges that build into powerful crescendos, but these journeys take a long time to accomplish anything you might call an “event,” and when they do, the way there isn’t always something you might call a truly special trip. Opener “Part III,” sounds like a series of cosmic teapots successively getting ready to blow as nervous ticks and tacks skitter in the background. This goes on for about five minutes before the tense buildup of kinetic energy just fizzles out.

At the same time, however, it’d be criminal to forget some of the album’s truly great moments, like the nice addition of acoustic instruments into the music, most noticeable of which is the shocking entry of drums in “Part I” (which is actually, curiously, the album’s third track—it would have made an excellent overture to the album), but also includes piano and guitar, which are often cleverly disguised within folds of reverb and hum throughout In Stereo. And of course, with the laptop-heavyweights hard at work here, the record is composed and executed with a tremendous amount of care and expertise. In Stereo happens to be the band’s first attempt at a studio sound, rather than piecing together live edits. As such, the attention to sonic detail is simply stunning. A word of advice—don’t even bother listening to this on speakers. Plug this one straight into your best headphones and marvel at Fenn O’Berg’s mastery of the audible field—truly, the album’s saving grace. Sounds extend beyond simply “left” and “right” channels, as the album opens up a space that is over and above, underneath, behind, in front of, and all around the listener’s standard range. Somehow Fenn O’Berg’s textures feel like moments of privileged listening, like a majority of these sounds would be inaudible in any other setting than the one these three have so meticulously created.

What’s unfortunately lost, perhaps a result of scrapping that live state of improvisatory inspiration, is a sense of adventure and chance. There are small, rewarding surprises to be found in each track for sure, but upon repeated listens, these moments end up making too much sense to offer listeners something fresh to get excited about. In short, the album fits well into a genre that was created as a way for artists to specifically not fit well. Ultimately, In Stereo ends up doing only the things it should to be a decent electronic record and nothing more. It’s what the album doesn’t do that holds it back, which is only disappointing knowing what these three are all capable of—individually, but especially as a band. In a weird way, the biggest let down about In Stereo is that it’s just what you would expect.

- Craw'z (3/30/2010)

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