A lot of music journalism is a bluff. Upon being assigned an album to review, writers often fall immediately to sniffing around Google in an effort to contextualise the record within its zeitgeist and genre. The eventual hope is that the reader hears a voice that Gets The Record and Knows What It’s Talking About. Sometimes, however, a reviewer is forced to throw their hands in the air and confess that a record has left them adrift in a sea of experimental abstraction. Live recording Knoxville by three of the world’s most well respected purveyors of improvised experimental music – Christian Fennesz, David Daniell, and Tony Buck – is such a record. My critical faculties cower in the presence of what is essentially a physical experience, rather than an aural one.
The album is an instrumental piece built from keys, distorted guitars and minimalistic drum work (my ears failed to detect even a single use of the snare), around a half hour in length. It’s divided into four tracks, but arbitrarily so: this is unmistakably one cohesive piece; track divisions simply being placed in the natural troughs occurring after the band have finished riding a textural peak. That’s how it reads on paper. To the ear, it’s a powerful and moving journey that isn’t abrasive enough to be described as noise, nor tonal enough to be described as musical. Instead, Knoxville is an effective (and affective) showcase of the power of sound.
The musicians immediately display a comfort with silences and slowness. The recording spends its opening minutes offering little more than occasional screeches and even rarer tinkles of percussion; the band is never in any particular hurry to get to wherever it is that they’re going. The live nature of the recording becomes apparent as the musicians slowly take their time to feed off each other and put everything into place, building their textures over the course of ten minute stretches from near-silence to towering drones of distorted guitar.
On an album that predominantly ebbs and flows with the rhythm of waves upon a beach, ‘Diamond Mind’ serves as a fitting climax: the band’s closest approximation to rocking out. Unlike the three preceding sections, the finale takes no time to build up to a cascade of sound – rumbling floor toms and howling stabs of noise keep the texture thick from the off. Gone is the band’s affection for the power of build and release; gone is the respect for the power of silence and rest. Instead, the recording ends with a relentlessly gruelling seven minutes of deep foreboding – an undoubtedly cathartic conclusion to an engrossing and powerful exploration of sound.
Knoxville is a strikingly emotive recording that’s almost tangibly atmospheric yet, as I implied in the introduction, I have little insight to offer in regard to how this record succeeds or fails in semi-objective musical terms. I feel in no way qualified to comment on anything so brazenly experimental and, furthermore, I would suggest that any attempt to do so would be to somehow miss the point: Knoxville is an experience designed to be felt, not heard.