The Wire, Brian Marley
What distinguishes Wrapped Islands from Polwechsel's earlier CDs is not just the presence of their guest Christian Fennesz. Composition has always been important to the group, but here all of the music is freely improvised. This combination of factors makes a considerable difference to how the music actually sounds. Wrapped Islands is less austere and much less cerebral than their previous releases. The music, recorded over a three-day period, is warm and inviting, and events unfold at a leisurely pace. Think of it as a late season postscript to Fennesz's Endless Summer.
Wrapped Islands seems to allude to Christo, the artist who surrounded eleven islands in Biscayne Bay with wide collars of buoyant pink plastic, and whose notoriety stems from his wrapping of historic buildings such as the Reichstag. Christo's play on the themes of demarcation, commodification, mystery and simplification can also be applied to music, and with interesting results. For example, the largely unruffled surfaces of much of Wrapped Islands may be masking complex phenomena which only repeated plays - something inimical to free improvisation - will reveal.
But I'm making Wrapped Islands sound like a more formidable proposition than it actually is. "Framing 2" has a relaxed, jazzy feel, driven by Werner Dafeldecker's double bass, Michael Moser's cello, and Fennesz and Burkhard Stangl's acoustic and lightly amplified guitars. If one concentrates on these instruments - rather than the glassy electronics and John Butcher's feedback tenor saxophone, which subtly complicate the aural image - this track is abstractly reminiscent of Tim Buckley albums such as Lorca and Blue Afternoon. The influence of Christian Fennesz is most obvious at moments such as these. Essentially, his music is melodically direct but otherwise ambiguous, qualities which can be heard throughout Wrapped Islands but especially on "Framing 6" and "Framing 8". All things considered, this is the most satisfying album I've heard this year.
Fakejazz.com, Gil Gershman
Leave it to Erstwhile's visionary Jon Abbey to facilitate an encounter between Polwechsel and Christian Fennesz. Polwechsel being the austere contemporary composition quartet led by Werner Dafeldecker, and Fennesz a universally embraced envoy for a mistier stripe of laptop humanism, all these two forces appear to have in common would be a home base in Vienna. Where Fennesz would have you wallow with him in surf's-up nostalgia, Polwechsel prefers the fusty, dusty domain of academic papers and aesthetic treatises. Wrapped Islands not only finds common ground for this oddly matched pairing, but finds it in a South Pacific setting conceptually linked to Christo's outrageous art feat of the early '80s.
In all fairness, Fennesz has proven himself an uncommonly versatile player, slipping comfortably between his celebrated solo projects, the lighthearted Fenno'berg, heady sound/art interfaces, and dates with the daunting Music in Movement Electronic Orchestra (MIMEO). Polwechsel, however, bends its rigid agenda in several notable ways. Firstly, the music assembled as Wrapped Islands was improvised, not composed, during a three-day recording session at Christoph Amann's Vienna studio. And while the instrumental voices of Dafeldecker's double bass, John Butcher's various saxophones, Michael Moser's cello, and Burkhard Stangl's electric and acoustic guitars draw from a familiar palette, augmented as usual with electro-acoustic accents (all but Butcher shape and supplement their sounds with a computer or electronic devices), Fennesz's presence is immediately apparent. Though he avoids the blatant sunniness of Endless Summer, perhaps in deference to Dafeldecker's dictum of ego less performance, Fennesz maintains a tone warm and insinuating enough to thaw Polwechsel's icy formality. Friederike Paetzold's fantastic art design revels in the difference, incorporating wrapped islands, "Solaris" still frames, modular furniture and mitosis imagery, and a trippy spectrum of psychedelic pastels that breaks completely with the stark aesthetic of Polwechsel past.
No Polwechsel record has ever sounded so humid, so lush. In the opening "Framing 1," the pervasive electro-acoustic haze melts Stangl's six-string icicles, and the mingled low-register sounds swell as they drink in the moisture. The call-and-response between Butcher's brass and the other musicians shape-shifts to hint at myriad fowl and fauna flitting heard-but-unseen through dense foliage. The complementary guitar textures of Fennesz's digitally smeared strums and Stangl's crystalline plucks sustain this vivid rainforest impressionism throughout much of the album, though all five musicians are inventive enough in their choices of devices and unpredictable gestures that each "Framing" emerges as distinct experience. On "Framing 4," for example, the guitars recede as Dafeldecker and Moser stage a slinky pas de deux against a vespertine backdrop of chirps and clicks. Roscid, roiling atmospherics return with "Framing 5," now setting a series of exquisite Stangl semi-solos in bedewed contrast to the quiet bustle. Moser takes a memorable turn in "Framing 7," sawing more sensuously than Polwechsel ever allowed. The closing "Framing 8" is so lovely and fleeting, it could actually be mistaken for a John Fahey guitar-and-tape piece.
Butcher, Dafeldecker, Moser, and Stangl are exceptional players and, liberated by the casual, improvised context of Wrapped Islands, they've rarely if ever sounded finer. The talented, benevolent Fennesz once again proves himself an ideal partner. No one else could have truly bonded with these intimidating musicians, broken through their defenses, and brought out the bonhomie often obscured in Polwechsel's sparse and brittle scores.
Stylus, Joe Panzner
Consider Wrapped Islands to be the product of an unlikely-but-fruitful pairing of two of Vienna's more superficially disparate parties - the arch-academics of Polwechsel and Beach-Boys-glitch champion Christian Fennesz. For the past decade, Polwechsel has been responsible for some of the most uncompromising chamber works to be found, microscopic fields of electronics-tinged scratch and scrape rooted in the ego-defying tradition of late-20th century composition. By contrast, Fennesz has spent a career crafting an idiosyncratic brand of digital art merging his devotion to lush 1960s pop with the sputter and hum of the Touch and Mego aesthetic. Fennesz's improvised extracurricular work, how ever, that reveals him to be a sensitive and flexible sparring partner as well as an adept composer. His grainy melodicism is an integral component of the massive MIMEO ensemble, the playful pileups of the Fenn O'Berg trio, and his occasional appearances with Polwechsel's own Werner Dafeldecker. Even with this personal connection, there's still a formidable stylistic gap to be bridged, and the success of Wrapped Islands hinges on the rapid adaptability of its creators.
Wrapped Islands finds Polwechsel on their first all-improvised outing, and their freedom from composition rigor leaves them uncommonly receptive to the sun-warmed atmospheres of Fennesz. The soundfield-bubbling streams of modulated strings, growling bass rumbles, fluttering saxophone multiphonics - is largely Polwechsel's, but the tone found here owes more to the pixilated beaches of Endless Summer than the lunar landscapes of Polwechsel's earlier releases. While Wrapped Islands may jettison the overt melody of Fennesz's last solo effort in favor of more abstract fare, it retains that album's contrast between the apparent placidity of the surface structures and the more unsettling currents that run beneath. Warms surges of suspended string tones wrap around barbed guitar harmonics and fidgety electronics, calling to mind the playfully tense interlocking of the hermetic and organic seen in Christo's environmental art, to which the album's title presumably makes reference.
Beginning with a trickle of electronics and swelling to a rich stream of bass buzz and feedback hum, "Framing 1" immediately sets the terms for the compromise between Polwechsel's icy prickle and Fennesz's warmer currents. Surrounded by Fennesz's sparkling laptop gurgles, guitarist Burkhard Stangl trades in his typically distant clusters for jazzier meanderings and offers up a series of bent flutters before slipping beneath the swelling tide from Werner Dafeldecker's bass and Michael Moser's cello. An omnipresent drone is passed from player to player, establishing a tranquil surface across which round-edged tones leisurely bob and sharper intrusions send quickly stilled ripples of distress. "Framing 3" recasts the opener on a stormier sea, with Dafeldecker establishing a menacing undertow of electronically thickened arco bass echoed by Fennesz's eerily resonant electronics and punctuated by John Butcher's wavering saxophone. On later tracks, like the elegant "Framing 6," Fennesz balances his laptop interjections with fragile acoustic guitar plucking, and he and Stangl's chimes circle like evening fireflies above a cooling pool of glassy bowing and soft pizzicato. Fennesz's playing remains delicate and sensitive throughout, and he folds naturally into the well-established group sound of the Polwechsel crew - even as they continually assimilate his warmly abrasive textures and unhurried pacing.
Other tracks feature Fennesz in a slightly more active vein, and his refracted guitar samples and granular gurgles offer further buoyancy to the lush group sound. "Framing 2" centers on a duet between Stangl's electric guitar and Fennesz's approximation of its digitally dissolving mirror image, while Dafeldecker and Butcher create shifting backdrops of fractal walking bass and amplified tenor saxophone feedback. On "Framing 7," the laptopper's trademark pitchshifted guitar glimmers draw Dafeldecker and Moser into an exchange of uncharacteristically rich bowed drones and fragile harmonics. "Framing 8," the album's impeccable postscript, edges closest to the pop-tinged atmospheres of Fennesz's recent solo efforts. Lazy slide guitars spin out crystalline melodies above a net of splintery electronics that ripples sympathetically with each passing note - it's difficult not to imagine Fahey channeling his spectral blues on the imagined islands of Endless Summer.
Improvised music rarely yields results as immediately inviting as the tropical soundscapes found on Wrapped Islands . Yet despite its accessibility, Wrapped Islands never trades its depth of sonic detail or dulls its sharper edges for the sake of superficial beauty. What emerges is a musical world anchored in both Polwechsel's brittle fragmentation and Fennesz's sentimental flickers - one needs not look further than Friederike Paetzold's color-saturated collage of aerial island photographs and mitosis stills for the appropriate visual corollary. Together, Polwechsel and Fennesz have co-created a brilliant alien beachscape whose warm sands hide slivers of broken glass, an intriguing inner world that demands equal parts admiration and attention from those who visit.