Grooves, Joe Panzner
Live at the LU marks the first duo appearance by tabletop guitarist Rowe and guitar-cum-laptop celebrity Fennesz, though they've previously shared space in the twelve-piece MIMEO maelstrom and a one-off quintet filled out by Pita, Pimmon, and Oren Ambarchi. Rowe holds the blustery glitchpop work of his sparring partner in high esteem - high enough rekindle his renewed interest in the Beach Boys' later works - and thus a first glance at the pairing might inspire daydreams of swooning digitalia punctuated by Rowe's trademark rattles and grayscale drone. Such presuppositions about comfortable jostling and easy exchanges, however, will be quickly extinguished in the first detonation of transistor static, heavy guitar chunking, and combustible computer spray. Live is a far rawer beast that stands more comfortably alongside Rowe's scouring, relentlessly un-aesthetic Harsh and Fennesz's thorny Hotel Paral.lel than the shoegaze glitz of the latter's recent Venice.
As with most Rowe releases, the cover art is telling. Here his distinctive Pop Art cover - a bubblegum-pink mash-up of modernist art and consumer society touchstones - rubs up against quirky visual hybrids born of Walt Disney and Philip Guston. Like Guston's deliberately crude figures and textures, the visceral quality of the music emphasizes a coarse materiality and upends trends toward the complacent and easily consumable - trends with which Fennesz's recent efforts have perhaps been complicit. The laptopper spins out one of his most invigoratingly unrefined sets, burying all traces of his pop affections in prickly-cold drifts of pitch-shifted drones pocked with the blip burps of decidedly unpremeditated processing. Rowe's perennial restlessness and knack for the surprising gesture blooms in this mire. His guitar blurts out thick sheets of distressed signals and his static-wash shortwave interruptions further puncture his partner's already unstable landscapes. The grit and sparks carry a palpable edge thanks to the rough-edged recording that keeps the blows raw, clear, and dangerous sounding, like a handful of hammers and broken stereos rolled in a particularly resonant oil drum. Save for a small handful of awkward instances, the dialogue stays mostly sharp and questioning throughout, its continual undercurrent of subverted expectations yielding uneasy truces at off-kilter moments. Rowe and Fennesz, with seams and spines exposed, have chiseled out an incisive piece of work stuffed full of twists and clever parries for any listener's preconceived notions.
One Final Note, Jason Bivins
Rowe has also recently found himself making music with unlikely critical darling Christian Fennesz. Live at the LU (Erstwhile 043) captures their very first duo show together (their only prior work together has been in the large ensemble MIMEO), and it contains music of serious tension (not just in its construction and elaboration, but between the very different improvisational styles of the two musicians). The two have recently played a handful of live shows in the US, including a wonderfully hypnotic (almost psychedelic) show at New York's Tonic. This disc was recorded two years ago, in May 2002 in Nantes.
It's an intriguing and—if all you know of Fennesz is some of his more poppy or melodic work—improbable pairing but it works quite well. Fennesz avoids his quite familiar laptop fantasy; he doesn't even mangle up his favored melodies, but exchanges them for an array of rough textures: Wet dragging things, scraping metal, high whistles and whines, or jarring clusters of explosive pops and cracks. The feel of the performance is akin to what I imagine it would be like to dive into deep waters, discovering there a wholly unfamiliar but captivating lifeworld. Rowe, one of the world's most responsive and sensitive improvisers, adapts easily to what Fennesz does: He uses his fans to create whisper-soft drones, and employs a bevy of items to coax gurgles or creaks from his beat-up strings. But he also disturbs and challenges his colleague to leave behind the familiar soundworld in which he often buries himself. The tone field is sometimes starkly bright, and elsewhere darkly muffled. The long restive passage in the middle—after the dense assault of the first portion of the disc—is filled with far more suspense than it might otherwise be (say, if it preceded the onslaught).
All-Music Guide, Brian Olewnick
Recorded in May of 2002, almost a year after Fennesz' surprisingly successful (commercially) release, Endless Summer, one might have expected that this pairing would produce an intriguing collision of opposing forces. On the one hand you have all the pop-influenced, steamily melodic and erotic explorations that Fennesz had developed in the prior years. Countering that, one could readily imagine Rowe as saboteur, finding rifts in the smooth mass to deviously penetrate and deflate. This doesn't happen. Instead, the two lock horns immediately and engage in 40-plus minutes of intense sparring, often throwing up nearly opaque walls of harsh, even brutal sound, almost daring the listener to enter. For the first half of the performance, this tactic works brilliantly, with Rowe} leagues away from the introspective, quieter work he was generally creating around this time (as in his work with Toshimaru Nakamura, for example). He opts for the dense, layered manner of his brilliant 3" disc on Sound 323, 29 October 2001, summoning billowing, metallic drones and utilizing his array of handheld fans to evoke hordes of angry wasps. Fennesz is with him every step of the way; if his contributions have a very slightly more tonal content, it's only in contrast (just the briefest snatch of dance music pokes its head through). He does fill out the sound-space quite beautifully, contributing immensely to the corporeal effect of the music. It's a furious onslaught and, for about 20 minutes, as inspired and intense music as you're likely to hear anywhere. About halfway through, though, the duo meanders a bit, as if overwhelmed by the power of what just transpired. Even here, however, they make far more out of searching for a path onward than most would manage. It takes several minutes for them to regain footing, but when they do, they achieve a relatively even keel that's quite satisfying and offers a far different "point of view" than expressed earlier on. It's a rough ride, but Live at the LU ends up being a revealing and rewarding example of two somewhat disparate improvisers meeting head on, not giving an inch and struggling toward some amazing music.