Agora by Fennesz

Release date: March 29, 2019
Label: Touch

Agora is Christian Fennesz’s first solo album in five years and it finds the king of processed guitar drone going back to basics. Or something. Having made great collaborations in recent years with Jim O’Rourke, David Sylvian and King Midas Sound here he turns inward to the singular qualities of his distinctive sound. Finding himself without a proper studio, he moved all his gear into his flat and recorded this album on headphones in a bedroom. “I didn’t even have the courage to plug in all the gear and instruments which were at my disposal. I just used what was to hand.” Using a more minimal set up Agora simultaneously condenses the core elements of his sound and displays the wide range allowed by his mastery of them.

The title of the first track ‘In My Room’ is likely a reflection of this working situation but also suggests the solitary and meditative nature of the music. What you get is almost exactly what you would expect, delicate synth and guitar textures shimmer and overlap. Drones slowly unwind and shift like weather or water. It does not impose on you but invites you to engage with it. The album starts with bundles of rolling hiss and a rising metallic tone that hovers at the edge of irritation before it disperses into a warmer bed. How I’ve felt about it has changed back and forth every time I listen, what mood I bring to it completing the piece in that moment but not overwriting it. Fennesz’s music is quite remarkably open in this way without ever being blank. It is evocative and changing but somehow resists specific emotional signposts. It’s calming but also, if you’re of a mind, there are threads of unease running through that prevent it ever becoming cosy or cloying.

Another exquisite contradiction with Fennesz is that his computer music is so organic and human and yet there’s rarely a sense of him actually playing it. To describe him as a guitarist to someone hearing him for the first time is likely to result in confused looks. His sound is something like a time lapse after image of Kevin Shields’ glide guitar, seemingly self generating. Odd and striking then to hear the distinctive squeak of fingers moving on guitar strings and soft but recognisable strums in the first half of ‘Rainfall’. They slowly recede to a dramatic second half of looping and overlapping keyboard patterns that sound entirely as if he has set his pedals and machines in motion and left them to resolve themselves like a Reichian tape experiment. Wordless vocals are submerged in there too, although not immediately apparent. There are more vocals on the title track as well as field recordings which seamlessly mingle with the grit and glitch of the processing.

The album was previewed by a lengthy sampler ‘symphony’ entitled ‘Umbrella’ that combined sections of all four tracks into a whole. Despite this and the smooth synthesis of elements within them the four tracks each have their own distinct character. The final track ‘We Trigger The Sun’ feels the densest, a multi-textured tapestry of treated guitar, laptop static and meditative drones combined and recombined to stunning effect. Once again the cover image is of the ocean, a black and white shot of sunlight hitting the rippling water receding at the edge of the land. It’s a perfect image of the music. The interacting layers of light, water and sand, the sense of movement, even the suggestion of that very particular hissing granular rush made by the top layer of sand being dragged back by the tide. We all know what it’s going to look like if we stand on the shore and stare out to sea and yet we find it endlessly fascinating. For those of us who prefer the beach to be deserted and perhaps a little overcast, this is music to spend time alone with and sink into. Agora is a refinement of a unique and generous sound, it repays time spent with it, it wants you to wade in.

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