Music Reviews

Christian Fennesz / David Daniell / Tony Buck Knoxville

(Thrill Jockey) Rating - 6/10

Fennesz Daniell Buck's improvised live album Knoxville is a unique cut that achieves what it sets out to do, though its unfettered experimenting will not appeal to everyone.

Guitarists Christian Fennesz and David Daniell, and drummer Tony Buck recorded Knoxville at the Big Ears Festival in Knoxville, Tennessee, on February 7, 2009. According to press material, Fennesz, Daniell and Buck had never played together prior to the recording, which is both impressive and somewhat obvious.

It is impressive that the trio was able to get on stage with little collaborative preparation, play for half an hour and walk away with a successful album to their names; most bands spend a year or two in the studio and emerge with far less. However, Knoxville also lacks the refinement and tightness achieved through familiarity and rehearsals.

It begins sparsely with a cymbal tap here, a guitar pluck there, and slowly builds for the first four minutes of the eight and a half minute song. Around six minutes, Fennesz, Daniell and Buck really let loose for a solid two minutes, not stopping until the beginning of Heat from Light.

Heat and Light, once again, begins sparsely and slowly builds to a sonically-charged climax before dropping off, again, so Antonia can begin sparsely and build. Each song essentially employs a similar dynamic structure, a shortcoming of the album. Despite this relative structural congruity, each song establishes a unique tonal soundscape and mood, critical for ambient music.

Antonia could be described as the largo movement of the suite, as it sits in the number three slot and practices more restraint than the others. It builds, but doesn't take off and evokes a strong sense of isolation throughout, even during its busiest passages. Antonia is rarely quiet, but Buck's cymbal rolls and the various effects and reverberations combine to create a loneliness despite the plentiful sound, perhaps a commentary on our overstimulated, electronic lives.

Heat from Light is the sophomore slump of the album. Something similar to a perpetual rain stick or a caffeinated rattlesnake permeates most of the track and really distracts from the actual instruments, though the instruments are not terrible busy; the same wavering guitar riff, or something similar, repeats throughout the track. About halfway through, it sounds as if someone starts vacuuming. There is a lot going on, but none of it is particularly stimulating or interesting. At nearly ten minutes long, Heat from Light is also the longest song on the album.

Everything seems to come together in the last track, Diamond Mind. Propelled by a rhythmic buzz reminiscent of a distorted truck horn, and active cymbal work, it exhibits an urgency missing from the other tracks. Each part begins independently, and gradually they all seem to fall into place, creating some interesting and fairly complex rhythms. The parts weave and interact, merge and diverge in hypnotizing controlled chaos. The song seems to reflect our modern urban existence as the listener floats amidst a near cacophony as the parts sometimes compete and sometimes collude, seemingly at random.

It is clear that these three musicians are intimately familiar with their chosen instruments and intend to and succeed in coaxing new and interesting sounds from them, but a few more rehearsals might have allowed the musicians to examine how the tracks work individually and how they could better function as an album. They might have reconsidered the oppressive rain stick on Heat from Light or varied the dynamic structure of the songs, but that would have undermined the intent of the album. Knoxville, unlike other live or even most improvised albums, which are usually rehearsed to some degree, is a foray of immediacy, an examination of the present, and if you're feeling particularly abstract, a look into the creative process.

This unique sensibility partially pardons its flaws as curiosities, prototypes of the album's more effective ideas. Now if only those flaws weren't sometimes stretched over six or seven minute songs. Rooted in spontaneity and intuition, Knoxville was not conceived with the intention of perfection, nor does it strive for it.  Additionally, it represents a refreshing change from the verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus format of most popular music.

This brand of thoughtful ambient music is certainly not for everyone, but those willing to take the plunge may just come away surprised.  After all, being perhaps too original and ambitious is often better than being trite and derivative.