Among the wave of experimental electronic music artists who came to prominence in the 1990s and early 2000s, Christian Fennesz was the scene’s great romantic. His laptop compositions were as formally rigorous as those of his peers, but his music always carried with it an element of grandeur and a touch of the sublime. Unlike many of the producers who were once gathered together under the umbrella of IDM, Fennesz’s work never had a strong connection to dance music. There were beats on early tracks like 1997’s “Blok M,” but these were the exception. Fennesz’s musical heart lay somewhere far from the dance floor.
Even in the exploratory world of electronic music, Fennesz was different. If Autechre’s music could be traced to the metallic thwack of early American electro, Aphex Twin to the machine-heart pulse techno proper, Tim Hecker to shoegaze and the high art world, Fennesz’s strongest aesthetic antecedent was the new romantic ’80s pop that followed in the wake of Roxy Music. This music flourished in an era in which productions were heavy with reverb and effects, where you weren’t sure when the synths ended and the guitars began. Fennesz’s link to the sound of this period was further affirmed by work he did with David Sylvian, the singer, songwriter, and former frontman of the ’80s band Japan, both on the latter’s album Blemish and via Sylvian’s guest spot on Fennesz’s album Venice. And then there was Fennesz’s version of A-Ha’s “Hunting High and Low,” put together for a covers comp in 2008, which showed how the lush twang of his processed guitar fits perfectly into a new wave context, its naked emotionalism worlds away from what first comes to mind when thinking of “computer music.”
This vision of the ’80s provides the thematic context for Fennesz’s new full-length, Agora, his first solo album in almost five years. These pieces are thick with luscious texture and assembled with a symphonic sweep, building from barely audible scrapes and clicks to epic climaxes large enough to blot out the sun. Each of the four tracks has its own dramatic arc, some subtle and some utterly titanic, and the record as a whole has a cumulative force only possible when those are stacked one atop the other.
The title of album opener “In My Room” brings to mind not only private communion with sound, but also, of course, the Beach Boys, another artist that Fennesz covered early and referenced, in part, with the title of his 2001 breakthrough Endless Summer. But this track doesn’t try for the liquid warmth of that album, and instead zeroes in on a thick, piercing, multi-layered drone. After an opening bass throb so low it’s on the threshold of audibility (and if you listen on cheap earbuds you might miss it entirely), “In My Room” gathers new sonic elements one-by-one, like a great ball of sound rolling down a hill. By its final minutes, the tension it builds begins to leak out, as everything comes together and it moves from anticipatory to blissful.
The 10-12 minute range, in which each of these tracks falls, is just the right amount of time for Fennesz to introduce his ideas, develop them, and then twist them into a gut punch. Both “Rainfall” and the closing “We Trigger the Sun” feature blends of synthesizer and processed guitar that bring to mind, however obliquely, the darkly beautiful chords found on the Cure’s Disintegration. The former moves forward in fits and starts, a clanging rattle of sonic energy, and deep in the mix are wisps of buried vocals, more of a suggestion than a statement. The title track, with cavernous echo that evokes grand expanses, not unlike the virtual desert-scapes of ambient composer Steve Roach, is the one stretch of relative calm, but an underlying ripple of anxiety remains. These tracks have the immediacy of pop, but stretched out and blown up.
Fennesz is a consistent album artist, someone who knows what he’s good at, and he’s never made an album that’s less than good. But there’s something special about Agora in how it integrates the immediate pleasure of his pop influences with the patience of his extended works. Listening to it, I kept going back to that A-Ha cover, those ’80s guitars, and what they meant to someone who came of age during the time. This was music about big feelings and human connection that took on a new resonance when heard alone. The blurry sonics framed by those guitars, and then channeled by Fennesz into an entirely different kind of music, recall teen pop fans who were in thrall to the glamour of MTV, but who also appreciated the music in the comfort of their bedrooms, where it gave them space to dream.