Black Sea is an album of contrasts, and the possibilities that emerge with the combination of opposing elements. In the interplay between the squalls of laptop-generated digital static that drift across these nine tracks like rain clouds, and the rich warm tones of gently plucked guitar which ring out sharp and clear against the background of fuzz. You could also see this as the contrast between the artificial and the natural – a dubious distinction at the best of times, after all isn’t everything human-made ultimately natural? Fennesz beautifully dissolves this distinction by seamlessly blending grainy white noise into the sounds of wind and lapping water – the synthetic dissipating into the organic. Sunlight doesn’t have a sound but if it did, it would be like the guitar that breaks through the clouds midway through album opener, Black Sea.
The contrast of land, sea and sky, and the intersection of different textures and different worlds, is another that runs throughout this record. And thirdly, perhaps the antithesis most clearly in evidence, and that Fennesz deploys most effectively, is that of loud versus quiet, silence versus noise. Both elements are used to evoke a sense of huge space, of clear open skies overhead, or a towering thunderhead building over a distant horizon. For if anything, Black Sea feels like a paean to the solitude and splendour of nature; presumably as it’s inspired by the actual geographical feature of the same name.
And although these nine compositions are built on an epic scale, this isn’t a sprawling record, fitting comfortably within an hour. Most of the tracks are self-contained mini-movements that start gradually and then either reach some sort of climax or fade away, as subtly and imperceptibly as they began. The best example of this is Glide, the midway peak of the album. Building for several minutes like the gradual ascent of a rocket, a steady thrum slowly increases in intensity, underpinned by intermittent hammering and rattling noises that could almost be the sound of the bolts holding the ship together coming loose. When playing this in the background it’s easy to zone out until the noise reaches stratospheric levels, and a melody you didn’t even know was developing suddenly bursts forth triumphantly. At which point I never fail to stop whatever I may be doing and become transfixed by the music.
Many electronic artists use noise as a weapon, bludgeoning listeners into submission with crushing bursts of static. But although he clearly has access to great power at his fingertips, Fennesz doesn’t tend towards brute force, instead focusing on the minute granular detail of noise and the endless variations of texture he can generate with it. The Colour of Three begins with searing sheets of droning noise, that crash into one another like waves rebounding off a sea wall. The effect is overwhelming, but in the same way a natural phenomenon like a thunderstorm is. As the noise fades out over several minutes it gives way to an arrhythmic clanking that sounds like bells being blown in the wind – human artifice again overlapping with the natural – as the storm gradually blows itself out.
Another way in which Fennesz distinguishes himself from the legions of laptop-wielding producers who were peppering their ambient soundscapes with clicks and crackles of static throughout the early 2000s, is his gentle way with melody. There’s an almost refined romanticism to his music; unlike artists whose roots can be traced back to more traditional ‘dance music’ where melody is employed to tug on the heart strings and induce a sense of euphoria, Fennesz’s melodies are understated and fully integrated into the canvas of noise and guitar distortion. A track like Glass Ceiling for example, slowly unfurls its melody from gossamer-thin textures of shimmering noise. Ambient pads hint at a building climax which never comes; instead you come away feeling like you witnessed a fleeting moment of beauty – a rainbow on a stormy day.
Thanks to endless days spent largely at home, I’ve found myself listening to much more ambient music lately. Fennesz’s ‘breakout’ album, Endless Summer, had been in my rotation for years but it’s only recently I started exploring the rest of his discography. With its ambitious sense of scale matched with a focus on microscopic detail, Black Sea is a marked development of the sound he pioneered on that album and honed further on follow-up Venice. And as with both of those releases, there are many moments that evoke the feeling of lying on a beach with waves gently lapping beside you. And much like lying on a beach watching waves crash on the shore, or clouds floating overhead, you can focus your attention on the ever shifting patterns, or simply let the scene wash over you in a beautiful drift.