Written by: Dave Cantrell
Sitting where I sit to attempt this quixotic work, in a more or less public café space in the building where I work downtown, I was shuffling through the typically intimidating stack of backlogged albums when a restricted-access door alarm went off. An innocent mistake by a maintenance worker, the noise emitted was a steady keening drone just this side of penetrating. Reflexively, I reached for the faUSt.
With their vast, eon-spanning, curiously enigmatic history, simply referring to them as ‘krautrock legends’ does no one any favors but seeing as their story makes the word ‘convoluted’ seem a straight line – for starters, like a komische Gene Loves Jezebel, there are reportedly at the moment two working units claiming the name ‘Faust’ – it’s best to let Wikipedia handle whatever contextual curiosity you might have and just stick to the album at hand. It’s enough of a ride in itself.
In the spring of 2016 the refitted, case-altered faUSt, in this iteration consisting of founding members Jean-Hervé Peron and Werner “Zappi” Diermaier along with Maxine Manac’h, toured the United States, drafting in musicians and audience members to help flesh skeletal rhythmic jams. While the results could easily be utterly shambolic in lesser hands, the tracks on Fresh Air in great part succeed, meshing with intrinsic drive the impromptu with the concrete.
In usual Faust fashion, it makes zero difference what length the track, the long and short of it is they’ll hold your attention captive one way or another. Most often it’s in a riveting hypnotic way, of course, as on the gently-but-firmly insistent “La Poulie,” its relaxed Can-esque space groove providing refuge for all manner of (mostly unobtrusive) noiseniks – lost flanged guitar twangs, synth squiggles and general insectoid electronics courtesy Die Krupps’ Jeurgen Engler – before eventually hosting Peron’s emphatic vocals interspersed with outbreaks of fuzz deluxe electric guitar.
The seven tracks were sourced from three different locales – two at WFMU in Jersey City, two at Austin’s A1 Nico Studios, and three at CalArts in LA, each scenario with its own specific guest musicians and it’s a curious exercise to determine the extent to which the unique dynamics brought by each small set of invitees inexorably pulled the hosts – and the process as a whole – in a particular direction.
As a baseline value, maybe, we can use, for this project anyway, the brief, moody, jungle-haunting atmospherics of “Birds of Texas” and the above-mentioned “La Poulie,” since only Engler figures there and only on the latter. Like the most supple of krautrock bands, Faust has always seemed most comfortable on that shaky fulcrum between motorik linearity and a reflexive experimentalism that can swing from the wild to the whimsical, and both those tracks reflect that aesthetic truce, being for the most part fairly direct and uncluttered, well-grounded regardless of whatever brash overlays. Add in the rented CalArts crew – most widely known perhaps being Barbara Manning but as well LA-based avant-rock composer Ulrich Krieger, fellow sonic adventurers Michael Yr. Jeannouxa Day and Braden Diotte – and the vibe gets Beat poetic with a Euro-autobahn pulse, most frantically on album highlight “Lights Flickr,” Manning stepping well outside her SF Seals/Go-Luckys! confines to fall into a Patti Smith-goes-full-Exene trance, the narrative details edging into horror-absurdity as Zappi and Peron push themselves to a groove beyond.
By contrast, the sessions recorded live at WFMU that bookend the record, where the core Faustians were abetted by British-bred NY-based composer/conductor/violinist/etc Ysanne Spevack and artist Robert Pepper, the mood is decidedly more emotional and more mercurial, the opening title track especially, evolving midway through its 17+ minute span from the tentative, suspended drones that hover in an increasingly fraught cloud of tension as Beata Budkiewicz very calmly reads a French poem in Polish to a pounding sturm und drang with monstrously relentless momentum, Peron eventually, in squalling voice, pleading/demanding of the gods or whatever faceless authorities the need for the title’s basic ingredient. Whether meant literally or symbolically is left to the listener, of course. This band as much as any artist worth their legendary status, isn’t in the business of defining tropes.
In the most selfless way imaginable, faUSt – and again the same as anyone accorded their status – are selfish. Regardless of what their longtime fans may expect of them, Zappi and Jean-Hervé have to throw themselves at challenges to keep the fires burning within and, as a result, more or less saying to their listeners ‘rely on surprises and you won’t be disappointed.’ As a statement of purpose Fresh Air is both – wonderfully – succinct and sprawling, and indeed the ultimate joy of this album may well be the way it boldly-while-almost-nonchalantly confirms while celebrating the continuing existence of audacity and adventurousness in ‘rock’ music.