Thursday, February 12, 2009

Black Sea - Fennesz

Black Sea

Touch N Go Records.

SCQ Rating: 79%

City buses get cleaned maybe once a winter in Toronto, accounting for each being slathered in frozen mud and salt, mixed so haphazardly yet creating a similar collage of grays, blacks and browns. Dirty splashes dry in phenomenal designs across my morning commutes and, like frozen waves, bare all the inherent beauty of nature that we feel proactive throwing salt at. The sight of these several, framed impressionistic prints is an acquired taste for me; one that I stared vacantly through until its complexity drew me in.

Black Sea, Christian Fennesz’s follow-up to 2004’s Venice, is very much an acquired taste in that vein: harsh and compassionless, as desolate as its landscape cover-art yet inviting to those who are convinced they hear more than is immediately audible. Take the mournfully clean guitar in ‘Black Sea’ that washes away initial slabs of industrial noise or witness the daybreak clarity of ‘Grey Scale’, a contemplative song that spends its sparse melody warding off Fennesz’s expertly layered digital attacks. These passing episodes of directness invite listeners to brave heavier endeavors like ‘The Colour of Three’, a track that indeed showcases Black Sea’s difficult side. Carrying on as a crushing second-half to the title track, Fennesz creates claustrophobic layers of buzzing synths that strike suddenly and then swell and morph in rhythm to nearly identical layers. It’s challenging and morose; the kind of track that instantly ditches casual hipsters and those curious for “ambient music you can study to”. Even so, these bleak moments lug a ton of grace.

What makes those city bus windows so visually interesting to navigate lies beneath its ice and dirt, where the outside world is still partially visible and passing by. Just when I’m completely transfixed by my make-shift bus-art installation, I’ll catch familiar sights trapped beneath the frame. Black Sea is an authentic ambient record – in that there are instances (‘Glass Ceiling’) you’ll truly forget it’s playing – but for all its well-honed smoke and mirrors, it holds “familiars” all the same. Silence builds to a Sigur Ros circa 2002 crest in ‘Glide’ while ‘Perfume of Winter’ drops playful chords like nostalgic footprints in snow. The disc closes with ‘Saffron Revolution’, a song that makes good on an album’s worth of electronic detritus and delivers a haunting swan-song where Fennesz’s puzzle-pieces come together.

Listening to Black Sea from beginning to end tonight, ‘Saffron Revolution’’s memorable climax feels greater than before. As I peer out of spotless windows on this greyhound bus, finding far-off lights that linger behind the impossible miles of Canada, Black Sea reflects the emotion and mentality of taking the long road. I see no great prize awaiting me at the end of those photographed railroads – no more than I see tonight from a snowy highway in darkness – but ‘Saffron Revolution’ is a song of winning, of that final step. Black Sea, for all its tempermental chapters, is about navigating a safe path across.

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