Agora by Fennesz

TO115 Artwork

Fennesz | Agora
Touch (CD/LP/DL)

I was exactly 18 years and 1 month old when Endless Summer was released, and as such Fennesz, for better or worse, has been with me my entire adult life.  Such was the omnipresence of that album, and at such a formative point in my life, that it is hard to consider its composer outside of that vibrant and specific auto-biographical context.  If I have grown, in the years since, to be somewhat underwhelmed by Fennesz’s catalog, it should be noted it is not due to any inherent lack of skill on his part. Christian Fennesz is an extremely talented figure. He is without doubt a fantastic craftsman, in the same way a man who builds an ornate chair is a fantastic craftsman – which is to say, a chair is always a chair, no matter how well constructed.  The definition of its frame, the comfort of its seat… as important as these things are, they remain facets of a limited technique, in which the chair is the ultimate and only possible outcome. To my mind, it is much the same with the music of Fennesz. He is excellent at constructing a particular sort of ambient, electro-acoustic guitar jam, somehow making such things ever-so slightly more palatable to a mainstream audience than they have a right to be, as if he alone has access to some secret ambient ingredient that can touch the hearts of the proletariat. And yet, for all of that abundant skill, it is incredibly hard to get excited by his work. To fall in love with Fennesz would be akin to falling in love with a chair, a night stand, a coat rack.

That said, Agora is ultimately quite a lot better than much of Fennesz’s output.  It is notably less structured than previous albums, with more dedication to his sonic materials, reminiscent perhaps of his work on Black Sea. As might be expected, everything functions very well, with competent and well-articulated sounds evenly located across the spectrum, a plethoric sea of unfolding waves and grainy, manipulated-guitar swells. It is all extremely pleasant, and slightly pointless.  Whilst there is little, if anything, to fault in regard to the actual qualities of the music, I suspect listeners maybe torn as to wether this is an excellent example of its genre, or supremely unambitious.

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That said, there are some moments of more definitive interest – the swampy end of In My Room offers some lovely textural counterpoint between droning atmos and purring electronics, replete with a certain murky and emotive loss of fidelity. Conversely, Rainfall is at times borderline post-rock, and whilst being beautiful and rambling and sorrowful in that way that post-rock so often is, it’s hardly breaking new ground. Like In My Room, it ends better than it begins, falling into an ongoing arpeggiation that lasts too long for comfort, and in doing so courts excellence. We Trigger The Sun feels like the melancholic bit at the end of a dystopian sci-fi film, and though superbly rendered, remains entirely indebted to its singular and perhaps all-too clinical crusade. Here lies a conundrum that permeates the album as a whole – it’s very ‘good’, but I can’t help wishing it would do something more, push a little harder against its own manicured borders.

Where things get truly exciting, however, is with the albums title-track, Agora. Here, the composer reduces his means to such a degree as to invoke sleep, dispelling the tepidity he all too often relies upon in favour of something far less pristine. Agora is a wonderful haze, an out-of-focus postcard of nothing at night, through which Fennesz channels some extremely subtle textures.  It is a career-high, and though a far-throw from his more pop-orientated work, demonstrates a much more urgent and compelling area of practice.

Whilst I have never truly understood the seemingly messianic status Fennesz enjoys in certain circles, it is with Agora that I hear, for the first time, the voice of a truly authoritative composer, an artist able to work with his materials in a manner that transcends mere craft. It is a patchy album in this regard, with the title track holding a great deal more power than the somewhat hum-drum tracks that append it. Though it lacks the pop structures and glossy sheen of his more mainstream work, Agora excels in its propensity for more abstract, murky timbres, a depth of focus that interests me far more than I have come to expect from its composer. 

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