By Rob van Alstyne
By Zach McCormick
By Emily Eveland
By Jack Spencer
By Michael Madden
By Reed Fischer
By Emily Weiss
By Emily Weiss
Live in Japan
Like Falco, public health care, and Roberto Benigni's Pinocchio remake, the European phenomenon of the live PowerBook performance hasn't taken very well on American shores. Perhaps in these war-torn times, audiences need a little more shock-and-awe onstage than a guy sitting in front of a laptop can provide. Or maybe the new broken equipment craze that's propelling bands like Wolf Eyes and Nautical Almanac has made it uncool to buy pre-built, unmodified gear. Who knows? All I can say for sure is that at a recent house show here in Minneapolis, New York headliner Chuck Bettis spewed the kind of heart-thrilling noise Merzbow would kill for-- and five minutes into his set, there was barely anyone left in the room to hear it.
Sure, it was the crowd's loss. But perhaps those deserters afflicted with live-laptop bias should listen to Fennesz's new Live in Japan, which is the most compelling argument for them to shut the fuck up and listen that I've yet to hear. Austrian-based artist Christian Fennesz has already established himself as a preeminent computer musician, meticulously splicing shards of sound and processed guitar into the hazy future-pop of his classic Endless Summer. But where his albums are marked by precise editing and meticulously layered washes of fuzz, Live In Japan captures Fennesz in an improvisational mood, flitting through melodies with the kind of dynamic, turn-on-a-dime shifts that characterize the best that live improv can offer, laptop or otherwise.
This shouldn't really be a surprise, since Fennesz regularly takes his PowerBook on the road for solo performances and collaborations with acts like Polwechsel and Fenn O'Berg. Even so, his performance here (presented as a single 43-minute track) is remarkable both in its scope and its consistency: Building up looped melodic phrases into a mass of sound, he then subsumes the whole thing with harsh screeches and crackles. Though the process may sound simple, it takes some skillful manipulation to simultaneously tug those heartstrings and poke them with tiny pins.
Each of the several mini-narratives that arises within the set repeatedly pitches melody against noise, order against entropy. The grunting noise that opens the performance slowly unfolds into a pulsing wall of guitar. The hiss of reverberating tape- decayed synthesizers ply themselves against flickering sample-strobes at the 20- minute mark. And at my favorite point in the album, lush organ-drones and finger-picked guitar cap off the first part of the set, variously recalling Ry Cooder, My Bloody Valentine, and early Aphex Twin ambience. There's a marked playfulness throughout the set, as Fennesz drops in teaser samples from his early albums before twisting them into entirely new shapes: It's a knowing wink to the audience, followed by a stealthily concealed middle finger.
Toward the last quarter of the record, Fennesz brings things to an emotional pitch, fades entirely to silence, and slowly works back into a splendidly noisy recap of Endless Summer's hauntingly catchy "Caecilia" before fading into quiet fields of pop and crackle. It's a heartbreaking ending that makes a damn good argument for the laptop's rightful place on center stage. And if Fennesz still can't convince the doubters, then it's probably time for the laser light show.