f ambient music were to ever have a supergroup (Brian Eno's many collaborations notwithstanding), Christian Fennesz and Ryuichi Sakamoto would be it. Texture maven Fennesz has garnered all kinds of praise for his ability to whittle down monolithic slabs of noise into pop on his solo outings Endless Summer and Venice. Sakamoto is an elder statesman of the electronic scene, a founding member of seminal synthpop group Yellow Magic Orchestra and an Academy Award winning composer whose collaborated on projects with Oliver Stone and David Byrne. Unfortunately supergroups rarely function like they should in theory. The whole rarely adds up to the sum of its parts and, like a four-course dinner stuffed in a blender, the outcome is either surprisingly bland or just nauseating.
The pair avoided this trap on their first collaboration, 2005's architectural overture Sala Saint Cecilia, by letting Fennesz drive the piece. His giant engines of sound and quilted microloops swallowed up a cathedral-sized space in fat swaths, reducing Kevin Shields-esque squalls of guitar into glitched out shadows. If most pop records are houses, then Fennesz put up the scaffolding for a skyscraper only to burn it down. Sakamoto's contributions were a bit vague, but his own trademarks, present in the album's cool sheen and traditional structure, were a welcome balm to Fennesz's abrasive style.
If Cecilia seemed like Fennesz's monster, then Cendre (French for ash) is Sakamoto's response and necessary coda. Posing the question of what to do when there is nothing left to burn, Cendre ventures cautiously into an apocalyptic ambience. Sakamoto meanders around Fennesz's wasteland but doesn't bother to repopulate the space with his own vision. Instead Sakamoto diagrams the emptiness of the soundscape: the only localizing force throughout is Sakamoto’s momentary and fractured intonations of piano. These extended jaunts into minimalist noodling are only occasionally glanced by Fennesz's embers of fuzz but not nearly enough—too often Sakamoto numbs until all effect is lost. Album closer "Abyss," finds Sakamoto at emotional ends and at his most fulfilling. He asserts a brooding piano loop over the barren scene, Fennesz twitters his laptop in response, and the piled up angst of the first ten tracks releases itself—an exceptional moment where concept finally meets execution. But fifty minutes in to the record, the response is less relief, more confusion.
Sakamoto once remarked at the end of one of his many collaborations that "it's been difficult for me to physically do my own music, and so I think I'm expressing a sense of all this frustration in [2004's] Chasm." Funny, cause Chasm, the title track in particular, sounds a lot like Cendre. Sakamoto has allowed the controlled demolitions of Sala Saint Cecilia to atrophy into frustrated wanderings, most of the passages resembling a dystopian Music for Airports—if Eno's ambient touchstone feels like a womb, then Cendre must be what if feels like to be naked.
Reviewed by: Daniel Denorch
Reviewed on: 2007-04-18