Fenn O'Berg: The Return of Fenn O'Berg

Following upon their impressive maiden voyage The Magic Sound of Fenn O'Berg, PowerBook mavens Christian Fennesz, Jim O'Rourke, and Peter Rehberg return for a second tour, this time anchoring in Vienna and Paris for the four tracks comprising The Return of Fenn O'Berg. A similar graphic approach courtesy of Chicks On Speed adorns both releases, suggesting that this latest effort might not deviate too much in spirit from the first. To what degree, then, does the sound of the second one differ? Well, not much, to be honest, though that's not a bad thing necessarily. One could imagine the two releases packaged as a single 2-cd set and it would stand up easily as a cohesive whole. As before, our heroes indulge in no shortage of tomfoolery, wielding their laptops like sabers and improvising fearlessly. It's remarkable, really, that the trio manages to achieve such coherent results when the compositional outcomes remain so unpredictable. While they do improvise (and the meandering trajectories of the four pieces suggest that this is so), they complement one another to an incredible degree. Because they exercise restraint in not overpowering one another, the result is, in spite of its busyness, rather subtle and at times nuanced, especially in the occasional quieter passages. Thus anyone misguidedly anticipating a relentless, abrasive onslaught of Merzbow-like noise will be disappointed. Typically, a section appears, is elaborated upon, and then replaced quickly by another, so that the pieces never collapse into stasis but constantly unfold into unexpected directions. Given the distinctive character of their respective releases, one might imagine that it would be easy to identify which individual is responsible for the component sounds. One might expect, for example, to be bombarded by some signature Pita-like shards or bedazzled by guitar treatments like those heard on Fennesz's Endless Summer. But those expectations are largely thwarted as the three seem more interested in channeling their energies to create a cohesive group sound, rather than merely generating individual bits that happen to be overlaid on top of one another in some collage-like manner. A more detailed description of one of the pieces offers a representative example of the overall sound. “A Viennese Tragedy” begins with screeching and buzzing that is soon replaced by bowed stuttering and orchestral string oscillations; plucking and hammering noises segue into a languid interlude punctuated by a tinkling piano and whirring tones, which is ultimately followed by a closing orchestral section accompanied by all manner of chattering static. In a recent interview, O'Rourke waxed enthusiastically about this second release by the trio and decreed it the better one. Frankly, I'm not so sure that I agree, given the stunning caliber of their debut, but it would be quibbling, really, to consider one the lesser of the two when both are such superior examples of laptop improvisation. This second release manages to be sufficiently different from the first yet still sounds like a natural complement to it. While not a significant advancement to the debut, it's certainly no diminishment either.

December 2002