Wednesday, July 14, 2004
Part two of that dancehall round-up has been delayed because, right after writing that first installment, I began to feel the effects of dancehall-overdose: unconsciously choosing to listen to anything but dancehall. As a result, the write-up (which, because it requires "close listening", neccessitates intense exposure) has been delayed. Instead, I listened to almost nothing but pop-crunk for a week, then almost nothing but rock for a week, and since then it's been Kompakt Kompakt Kompakt. Doubtless in a few days time I'll suddenly find myself shuddering at the prospect of a repetitive 4/4 beat and craving some new riddims, so I better jot down any thoughts I have on the former now.

A Kompakt (and related tech/microhouse) obsession has of course been facilitated by the sudden and overdue expansion of the coverage of Limewire (mac download client of choice) into music outside the top 40, which has allowed me to hear all manner of stuff I'd resigned to missing out on, chief amongst them being the glorious Michael Mayer 12" combo of "Privat" and "Amabile" from last year. This was timely - I'd been overdosing on other Mayer classics lately ("Hush Hush Baby", "Amanda", "17 & 4", "Pensum (A2)", "Falling Hands", "Love Is Stronger Than Pride") and trying to articulate the underlying methodology that unifies these disparate tracks. I think Andy K said somewhere that Mayer reveals his DJ sensibilities in his work, which frequently focuses on the introduction and incorporation of new, complementary ideas throughout the course of a track. This is definitely a big part of what makes Mayer's material so effective: think of the way "Hush Hush Baby" moves from its light, airy burbles into that hypnotic bass churn, or how the cloud of amorphous sirens in "Falling Hands" seems to peak in intensity, only to be dragged down by a single-note bassline pulsing almost ominously. If I recall, Andy's comments were actually directed towards the Speicher track "X", where particles and fragments of sound are arranged into a lustrous chain that seems to flicker and twist constantly.

"Privat" bears all the hallmarks of a "classic" Mayer track: a lush, melancholy downbeat house number that pulses with gloomy romanticism, lonesome guitar peals recalling the mournful expanses of Superpitcher's "Tomorrow". But I slightly prefer the shuffly "Amabile": at first blush coming on like a more restrained take on the balearic glam of Mayer & Reinhard Voigt's "Unter Null" - owing to its bleepy synth hook and buzzy bouncy bassline - it slowly reveals itself to be an even more majestic tribute to melancholy than the a-side, with its viscous swirl of softly bruised synths and the gargly distant sighs of drowned children. One of the aspects of shuffletech that makes it so endlessly involving (many covered in detail here previously) is the capacity for the beat itself to be suffused with emotion and resonance so easily. This ability isn't alien to house - I've talked before about how on songs like Daft Punk's "Digital Love", or Kylie's "Love At First Sight" or Luomo's "Could Be Like This", the beat itself plays a crucial rule in shaping the emotional content and character of the song; Alexander Kowalski is a master at this as well - but, perhaps owing to the peculiar and relatively unfamiliar nature of its groove, shuffletech seems particularly well equipped to have this effect. On "Amabile" the sensation is one of spiralling downwards, of incompletion, the beat always arriving too early or too late for any sense of fulfilment or closure. Which is why those muted background vocals make me think of drowned children: there's a real ghostly effect to this track, a sense of existence suspended, wrongs unatoned or stories unfulfilled, a vision of neither heaven nor hell but instead purgatory. And so much of this is derived not from the musical devices Mayer draws on but rather the beat itself.

"Amabile" offers a vision of shuffle entirely removed from the prevailing models offered so far - the labyrinthine dub perfected by Thomas Fehlmann, or the glam of Raumschmiere/Naum/Goldfrapp, or the gentle pop of Superpitcher's "The Long Way". Instead it charts a more ambivalent course between techno trackiness and abject emotionalism in a manner somewhat similar to the glistening neo-trance sound of The Modernist, Kaito and Magnet. But whereas those three acts have patented a smooth, cruise control glide, there's an inevitable spikiness and rupture to shuffletech that cannot be erased; instead of floating on the surface of the groove I find myself inserted within it. avoiding the rigid "grid" sensation that Reynolds targets as being trance's Achilles' Heel in Generation Ecstacy, shuffletech is at once hypnotic and internally fractured - the interrelatedness of its components has a certain dynamism that allows producers to exploit subtle shifts such that their impact is seismic. Think of the way "Unter Null" shifts back and forth between emphasising the Jam & Spoon guitar loop, the glam riffs and the droning bassline, and how much this changes the entire feel of the track. This opens up a space for shuffle to be a complement to techno, tracky and not songful but explicitly emotional, big and anthemic but nuanced and complex. I'm not saying I want all shuffletech to be like this (and indeed if anything I can only see shuffletech stompin further down the glam path - check the new "We Are Glitter Mix" of Goldfrapp's "Strict Machine", which manages to be simultaneously more shuffle and more grrr rock than the original, a forceful assaultive grind laden with heavy guitar) but it's a nice complement to the other directions in which different artists are taking it.

Joachim Spieth is also doing stuff in this vein: his "Nie Mehr Allein" from last year's Total 5 comp is a hidden gem, its shuffle beat rocking unsteadily like a row boat on a swell while around it a gorgeous collusion of gauzy keyboards and soft string stabs slowly unfurls, and a dreamy shoegazer female vocal wonders "Do you remind me?" It really is shoegazer shuffle, gorgeous but somehow distracted. More urgent is his remix of Mayer's "17 & 4", which has the menacing bassline of a glammier shuffle track (eg. The Orb's "Masterblaster") but whose appeal is much less obvious - here it's the contrast (or conflict) between Spieth's ensemble of micro treble sounds and a slowly rising, sorrowful synth wash. The result is, again, reminiscent of trance - especially early Eye Q or Harthouse - but, once more, the effect is entirely different owing to the nature of the shuffle beat. Perhaps I enjoy this slightly more tech-oriented material because - contra the song stuff - it's so engrossing, so easy get lost in, while never flattening out into a deadening 4/4 pound. It's the same logic that renders the soupy Perlon/Musik Krause material so irresistible, but whereas with microfunk it's difficult to avoid or circumvent an opposition between quirky detail and energy, something like Spieth's "17 & 4" remix can pound away manically while still being a feast for the ears.

Of course, at the other end of the spectrum you have something as defiantly non-tracky and yet downright brilliant as the Justus Kohncke's "Hot Love" remix of Freiland's "Frei". I won't talk about this much because it's been covered pretty sufficiently elsewhere, except to say that I love it love it love it, and that it rewards repeated listens much more than I could have hoped for - a vision of shuffle-as-glam that's not afraid to be silly and delirious and actually camp (cf. Goldfrapp's still enjoyable "camp" as stylistic accessory). It's been in my head for the last week; my boyfriend thinks I'm singing along to the T. Rex original of course. If you can track it down, fans of this should search for the Wasserman mix of Kohncke/Dorau's "Durch Die Nacht" where Wolfgang Voigt (who is Freiland and Wasserman and etc. etc. ad nauseum) returns the favour, turning the original disco-pop chugger into a magical shuffle hymn, not so much silly as halfway between whimsical and mystical, all tidal ebb and flow and majestic bass hums. Who would have thought, listening to the first Schaffelfieber comp three years ago, that this sub-sub-sub-genre could mutate into something so expansive and all-encompassing?


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