The Left Field: Meet Fennesz, modern-day answer to Kevin Shields

Austrian composer and guitarist Christian Fennesz weaves shoegaze and electronic music into ambient tapestries.

christian fennesz live guitar jazzmaster
Image: Jack Vartoogian / Getty Images

Although shoegaze may be scorned as “The Scene That Celebrates Itself”, no one can deny its influence on rock. But shoegaze happened over three decades ago. And while there have been literal genre follow-ups (nu-gaze, blackgaze), the innovation that the likes of Kevin Shields and Scott Cortez brought to the six-string hasn’t really been built upon by another guitarist. Except, perhaps, for Christian Fennesz.

Known simply as Fennesz, the Vienna-based musician has been churning out swathes of ambient, celestial compositions on his laptop and guitars since the late-90s. The elements of shoegaze are easy to hear – swirling guitars, buried melodies, immersive soundscapes – yet they’re mixed in with treated samples, synths and electronic glitches. If Shields, Ulrich Schnauss, David Toop and Aphex Twin had formed a band together, they would probably sound like Fennesz.

Judge for yourself – here are nine tracks that span Fennesz’s career:

1Rainfall

We’ll begin with Fennesz’s most recent album, Agora, which only dropped at the beginning of April. Standout track Rainfall is a bewildering blend of techno, power electronics and wicked black metal guitars – not at all genres you’d commonly hear in a single song.

2Circassian

Off 2004’s Venice, Circassian is arguably his most shoegazing tune. The ‘glide guitar’ sound, the oceanic swells, the cathartic chord progression… this has My Bloody Valentine written all over it.

3Shisheido

His breakthrough, however, came one album before Venice, with Endless Summer. As its sun-drenched title would suggest, the 2001 LP is 10 tracks’ worth of bright, pop-inspired ditties that gurgle and bleep as a guitar careens through all manner of digital manipulation. It may not sound like it, but Shisheido is the most accessible of the lot.

40318

Fennesz and living Japanese legend Ryuichi Sakamoto have teamed up on a number of occasions, and the 2011 release Flumina represents the pinnacle of their partnership. On 0318, the legendary pianist pins down austere melodies while the guitarist paints the spaces in-between.

5I Just Want You To Stay

Former Sonic Youth man Jim O’Rourke jumps in on the 2016 collaborative EP It’s Hard For Me To Say I’m Sorry, which unsurprisingly bears zero relevance to Chicago. Only two (really long) tracks feature on the record, the first of which sounds like how the eye of a storm feels: alternatingly calm and turbulent – but with the fury of fuzzy guitars threatening to crash down.

6Saffron Revolution

Push shoegaze to its extreme yet logical end, and you’ll end up with Saffron Revolution. The closing track of Black Sea goes from bleak to bristling to blissed-out, with Fennesz’s Jazzmaster charting the course.

7On My Mind

Here’s a big departure from his norm. On My Mind comes from Edition 1, a project with UK dubstep producer King Midas Sound that’s more a proof of concept than album proper: can two outsider artists from wildly different genres find common ground?

8Transit

“Say your goodbyes to Europe,” urges New Romantic icon David Sylvian on Transit. It’s an ominous prediction of Western civilisation’s decline, sung over a track whose desolation and despair ring even truer now, 15 years after its release.

9Goodnight Sweetheart

The late, great Sparklehorse and Fennesz cooped themselves up in a Dutch studio for two days in 2007 to produce In The Fishtank 15. Seven disparate tracks – of admittedly ranging quality – comprise the patchwork record, but at least there’s this special collaboration that plays to their individual strengths.

Fennesz appears on Touch and Editions Mego.