Whisker Quiet: Fennesz?s latest is a hair?s breadth from ambient territory.

Sign up for our free newsletter

Ostensibly an avant-gardist, guitarist and laptop musician Christian Fennesz has become a traditionalist of sorts in recent years—his music now has much in common with Brian Eno’s ambient recordings of the late ’70s and early ’80s. The albums Eno made in this vein, such as Discreet Music and Music for Films, are interesting enough to warrant a listener’s full attention yet pleasant enough to ignore. The same could be said of Fennesz’s latest, Black Sea. The album bears little resemblance to the Austrian’s late-’90s electronica, which flirted with rhythmic chaos and unpleasant tones. Fennesz abandoned this approach with 2001’s Endless Summer, an album as bright and tuneful as its title and cover (which looked like the poster for a surfing movie) suggested. What seemed like a fluke was actually the beginning of a new direction. The records following Endless Summer—which also include 2004’s Venice and last year’s Cendre (a collaboration with pianist Ryuichi Sakamoto)—are popular in large part because they embrace simple melodies and uncomplicated rhythms. But Fennesz’s post-millennial output would be mere Muzak were it not for its emphasis on grit and granularity. Black Sea’s title track, for example, begins with a random assortment of digital bomb bursts, and those explosions clear the way for an impressionistic guitar progression that soon disappears inside a dense sonic fog. Befitting its title, Black Sea is the darkest of Fennesz’s recent efforts, yet it is no less a balancing act than any of its immediate predecessors. “Black Sea,” for all of its abstraction, is brightened by a melody that runs like an undercurrent through its steady stream of changes. And on the flip, the album’s best shot at a single, “Perfume for Winter,” is all but obscured by thick digital distortion—it sounds as if it was initially written for a love scene but wound up on a corrupted hard drive. One gets the sense that, even as he slouches toward easy listening, Fennesz is wary of making music that is too beautiful or unblemished. There’s a cold, clinical aspect to Eno’s ambient music that’s missing from Black Sea. It’s not just the fact that you can hear Fennesz’s acoustic guitar or imagine him sitting in the space where it was recorded. It’s all of the digital pockmarks and instrumental imperfections combined. Perhaps more than any other Fennesz record, Black Sea exemplifies the kind of ambient music that’s never so seamless that you forget it was made by a human being.