The story of Christian Fennesz’s landmark 2001 album Endless Summer starts with a single he released a couple years earlier. Plays came out first as a 7″ on Austrian label Mego in November 1998 and hit CD via Jim O’Rourke’s Moikai imprint a few months later. It comprised two tracks: “Don’t Talk (Put Your Head on My Shoulder)” and “Paint It Black.” The label identified them as covers of songs from 1966 by the Beach Boys and the Rolling Stones, respectively, but damn if I could hear any connection. Both were instrumental, and “Don’t Talk” was especially intriguing, mixing moody synth drones with bits of acoustic guitar including explosive struck notes and gentle, comforting strums. It sounded dense and complicated on the one hand, music that rapidly improving computer processing made possible, but it was also beautiful and weirdly accessible.
This kind of patient and melodic sound was new for Fennesz. He grew up in a small town in eastern Austria, studied guitar, went to art school, and eventually joined a band called Maische in the late ’80s. They gigged in Austria and put out a couple of records before splitting up a few years later. You can find their 1992 album Brand floating around online; it sounds math-y, a bit like Helmet. Fennesz then turned his attention to experimental music. His first EP, 1995’s Instrument, was so named because his guitar and amplifier were the sources. Drenched in feedback and static, it sounds in places a lot like Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music, channeling that record’s harsh and trebly electrical rush. By 1997’s Hotel Para.lel, Fennesz was treating his guitar not just with pedals but also via computer.
New software environments such as Max/MSP, SuperCollider, and Reaktor — all of which hit the broader market for the first time between ’96 and ’98 — gave musicians access to modular synthesis and granular processing, so long as they had a consumer-grade computer. Technology couldn’t help but shape how records were being made and what they sounded like. If you could imagine a sound, you could create it, and one didn’t need to buy expensive room-sized hardware to make it happen. Home computers, including newly powerful laptops, had become both instruments and recording studios. Hotel Para.lel, conceived just as these developments were getting underway, has moments of brilliance, but much of the record is Fennesz at his dense and abstract extreme. He sounded more like another artist on Mego than someone with his own voice. Alongside label-mates like Farmer’s Manual and Tim Hecker, his music sometimes resembled the sound of someone beta-testing an application to see what it could do.
With his work before Endless Summer, one heard the texture first and the structure second. The sophomore Fennesz full-length, Plus Forty Seven Degrees 56′ 37″ Minus Sixteen Degrees 51′ 08″ — the coordinates describe the global position of the house in the Austrian countryside where he created the music, a tidbit I was delighted to discover on my own when I learned how to search the numbers via MapQuest — was the only one of his releases made entirely on a computer. “I was thinking of it as the scientific or research period,” he told The Wire in a 2004 interview. “What can I do with SuperCollider, Max/MSP, all these tools.” At points Plus Forty Seven brings to mind Merzbow-style noise music, and it’s among his most challenging records, but it also seems as if it’s searching to find something pretty inside the rumbles and static.
That “research period” stretches through the two sides of the Plays single and paid off mightily when Endless Summer came out 20 years ago this week (in the summer, naturally). This was certainly experimental electronic music, but everything about it seemed designed to pull listeners in, which was atypical in this sphere. First there was the title, which most probably knew from the Beach Boys’ 1974 best-of — and if you’d been following along with Fennesz to this point the “Don’t Talk” cover reinforced that association — but which more committed students of 20th century California pop culture traced to the 1966 surfing documentary The Endless Summer by director Bruce Brown. The soundtrack to the film is by a surf-rock band called the Sandals, and the group’s “Theme From The Endless Summer” has a strummed acoustic guitar whose chords have some relationship Fennesz’s title track (the Sandals’ tune also sounds a hell of a lot like Real Estate). If you grew up in Austria wearing black and playing in dark and heavy rock bands, it’s not surprising that sunny West Coast Americana imagery has exotic appeal.
Another thread through electronic music of the 1994-2001 period was the rise of “glitch,” which was both an aesthetic marker and, for a short time, a recognized subgenre. The idea — and a certain amount of it was subliminal, a feeling that wasn’t necessarily spelled out — was that as the digital world continued to encroach on our analog consciousness the computer “mistake” had peculiar resonance. The skipping CD, brought to prominence as a musical gesture by Markus Popp’s Oval project in the 1990s, was one common manifestation of glitch, but as the decade wore on computerized noise became an object of fascination in some scenes.
Fennesz was connected to this world, but with Endless Summer he used the crackle and hum of misfiring bits especially artfully. Tunes like “Made In Hongkong,” “Caecilia,” and “Shisheido” sound as if ideas of songs that started in a human mind are struggling through frayed wires and faulty connection cables to make their way to your ear. These tracks have familiar musical elements — vibraphone; strummed guitars playing chord progressions that in another context, someone might sing over — but their immersion in the dissolving solution of destructive technology lends poignancy, hinting at struggle and loss. (A few years later, when chillwave as an idea came on the scene, this idea of pop songs that gain an extra layer of emotion after having been stretched, warped, and left out in the sun would become more widely accepted.)
But on Endless Summer every song is doing something different. There are the aforementioned near-pop songs, but then there’s a sleek and gorgeous drone (“A Year In A Minute”), a splintering piece that hints at the noise of Plus Forty Seven (“Got To Move On”), an Oval-like track built from instrumental fragments culled from the Beach Boys’ “‘Til I Die” (“Before I Leave”), and a lovely longer piece in which small changes accrue gradually and a bouncing electronic music is consumed by static (“Happy Audio”). Warmth and melody tie it all together, even as two tracks next to each other might sound nothing alike.
Measuring the impact of a record like Endless Summer is difficult. I can tell you it finished in the #2 slot in Pitchfork’s list of the 20 best albums of 2001 (I wrote the original review and that entry from the year-end feature) and was the #3 album in The Wire’s list. You won’t see it anywhere on Pazz & Jop, and I have no information about how many copies it sold, though I have a feeling it was quite a few (over 4,000 people on Discogs list it in their collection, which we can assume is a small fraction of the total number sold). The most notable thing about how it was received and the aftermath — and this is purely anecdotal — is that it was for a time “the experimental electronic record for people who only own one.”
In 2001, it was possible to focus attention on a relatively obscure album in a niche genre. That was exciting, if also, in its own way, limiting — we hear from a far more diverse group of instrumental musicians now through sites like Bandcamp, for example. It’s just hard for them to get paid. Though file sharing was in full swing by 2001, the market for experimental music on CD — then the preferred format by far — was strong. At shops like Aquarius Records in San Francisco and Other Music in Manhattan — both did mail order for people living elsewhere — the CD still dominated, and a lot of what they sold was from far outside the mainstream. The format was kind to records like Fennesz’s Endless Summer; CD-quality audio was what we now call “hi-res,” perfect computer-generated music working at the edges of audibility, and the price point meant that creators who sold units in the low thousands could get a nice chunk of money.
In musical terms, the legacy of Endless Summer has less to do with how the album changed culture and more to do with how it expanded the perceptions of those who heard it. It shaped how people listened and what they listened for, which created space for artists who could have been ignored otherwise. Prominent among these is Tim Hecker, another producer enamored with noise and drone whose music, as abstract as it can get, still has some relationship to rock. Hecker’s earliest work was in minimal techno, but by the time he released Haunt Me, Haunt Me Do It Again in late 2001, it was hard not to hear what he was doing in relation to Fennesz, even if he was already on his own path.
As for Christian Fennesz himself, he’s made a ton of terrific records since, many of them in collaboration with other artists. He also returns with a solo album every few years; they range from good to great, even as none of them, save 2014’s Bécs, sound much like Endless Summer. He keeps growing and changing as an artist — his best work, as on 2019’s Agora, has a symphonic grandeur, and his records with Ryuichi Sakamoto are filled with sublime passages — but nothing else he’s released since has lined up with the zeitgeist quite the way this one did.