Ryuichi Sakamoto has been a mercurial collaborator, wading through different scenes with a long list of working-partners. Early on he worked with Haruomo Hosono as YMO and scored the films ‘Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence’ and ‘The Last Emperor’, while more recently he’s worked with David Sylvian and entered into the laptop fray as Vrioon, a delicate collaboration with Carsten Nicolai released on Raster-Noton in 2001. Fennesz, on the other hand, is the definitive soloist. Though he’s also racked up plenty of collaborations, the Austrian’s textured sounds are a constant. His lauded albums, ‘Endless Summer’ and ‘Venice’ are singular works, and his individuality washes through other voices like an incoming tide.
When the maxi-single ‘Sala Santa Cecilia’ was released, it suggested greater things to come. It’s a live performance recorded in a Roman church, and the atmosphere is appropriately soaring and spacious. The nineteen-minute piece is a cogent whole; Sakamoto with laptop, Fennesz on guitar and laptop, making it difficult to discern who might have been doing what, exactly, but it’s dominated by Fenneszian textures and movements, tempered to something in line with the quiet, sullen passages of ‘Venice’. In ‘Cendre’, Sakamoto’s piano lines make an appearance, drawing a clearer picture of respective contributions.
The balance of power shifts towards Sakamoto and wobbles through most of the album without ever finding the pulsing accord of ‘Sala Santa Cecilia’. The result of two years of file exchanging, ‘Cendre’ is loaded with sad dissonance and a tension that sounds uncomfortably like well-intentioned match-making gone wrong. The distinct streams of lyric piano and dystopian electronic soundscape cross paths often without merging, barely recognising each other.
There is, though, some suspense and even beauty in the tension. The second track is suffused with melancholy through the deep piano notes. But by the fourth track, ‘Trace’, figure/ground issues - the piano is blurred by static and digital fog – obscure the emotional impact. The standouts are the distinctly Fenneszian title track, ‘Cendre’, and the weighty resolution ‘Oto’ at the end. ‘Oto’ is a crucial envoi - after close to fifty minutes, the tension is resolved with stronger piano chords and a gentleness that sounds like reconciliation.
It’s an album of drawn-out disquiet and fleeting resolution that maps an interesting partnership, with all its awkwardness.