Sunday, March 06, 2005
I've been thinking about a lot of stuff that I want to write about, but I thought I'd start with a post commemorating all the lovely electro-house that was the soundtrack to my thrills 'n' spills in continental Europe. Big up to dance partners Etienne, Geeta and Tobias!

John Tejada - Sweat (On The Walls)
Sometimes I suspect that John Tejada is forging his back catalogue on the basis that if all other german micro/electro-ish house disappeared tomorrow he’d still be able to offer a representative sampling of all its various nooks and crannies. Usually people who do this end up being a bit second-tier in all fields (jack of all trades etc.) but if there's a word that sums up "Sweat" it's... consummate. Perhaps that's why I'm starting with it: if you wanted a single track to explain to you where Germany's head is at right now, this would probably be it.

A Poker Flat release, this could just as easily have been released on Get Physical – it’s so fuckin’ lush – but a better reference point might be that it’s the hypothetical peak track on Andy Weatherall’s Fabric mix that somehow didn’t end up on there. An inquisitive, assured female voice flips between describing her clubbing experiences and asking the listener a series of questions about their clubbing and drug habits, while behind her an insistent electro riff pulses balefully, metastasising into several overlaid riffs each doing their damage to your internal nervous system, until a speed bug infested 303 arrives to finish off the job. By the time I got to Germany I suspect all the major players had caned it too hard and put it out to pasture, but when DJ Chole played it at Pulp in Paris the place went mental, you could feel people thrilling to the way Tejada just keeps on ratcheting the intensity up a notch with ever more compulsive riffs. “acid all over the place.”

Alexkid – Don’t Hide It
In lieu of “Sweat”, this is along with DJ T’s “Time Out (Acid Dub)” probably my favourite moment on Weatherall’s Fabric mix. Acid revivalism is probably so passé to any sophisticated readers, but I’m rarely timely, so I won't deny that this acid torch song hits me incredibly hard. I guess a couple of years ago a sexy, vaguely jazzy vocal like the one on “Don’t Hide It” would have had a disco-based, vaguely post-French House backing arrangement (Moloko’s “Sing It Back” is a passable reference point here). Instead it’s got several acid lines squealing all over the place, and the tension between the refined and restrained vocal performance and the 303 insanity is delicious.

I was thinking that one of the things that’s so great about the acid sound (then and now) is how meaningless its mencace is. Big post-electroclash synth riffs seem to call to mind a camp/goth/punk persona as a matter of course (workin’ on the “Fade To Gray”/”Behind the Wheel”/”Blue Monday” axis); but as with Tiefschwarz’s pumping bass riffs (only more so), acid can be more like a catalytic additive – bringing out the latent danger in any source material without tainting it. But it helps here that the source material is so damn classy: as with Herbert’s remix of “Sing It Back”, the unlikely marriage of arrangement to song works its magic on the latter, revealing a undercurrent of darkness, frenzy and hysteria to an otherwise cool as ice tale of love and disillusionment on the dancefloor. “Licking venom from your hands…”

DJ T vs Freestyle Man - Beat The Street
The mantle of "Most Caned Track" passed smoothly from "Sweat" to "Beat The Streets", which I heard played out a record five times. I haven't got a copy of it, so I can only describe it from memory, but the basics are an ominous, slightly dragging bassline and a heartstopping morse code electro riff, the whole groove piercing your nervous system and subjugating your limbs with the same torpid grace as Volga Select's classic-to-the-max "The Unconditional Discipline of the Bastard Prince". When Geeta and I saw DJ T at the incomparable Ostgut/Panorama Bar in Berlin, "Beat the Streets" singlehandedly and completely revived a very tired Tim at 6:30 in the morning. Maybe I'll write more when I have a copy I can refer back to, but suffice to say that the Get Physical camp astound me with their ability to push this glistening, perfectly honed aesthetic (singular - I was a bit disappointed with myself actually that I couldn't tell the difference between DJ T and M.A.N.D.Y. tracks, but then Tobias informed me that Booka Shade basically writes and produces all their tracks anyway!) ever further into tourettes-style jack-yr-body territory, while still retaining the mirrorball grace that has been their calling card all along.

Olav Pozsgay - Nur Aus Liebe
Of course Get Physical are currently facing some seriously stiff competition from Marc Romboy's Systematic label; it's an all out race now to see who can definitively own Chicago house revivalism in 2005. "Nur Aus Liebe" reminds me of DJ T's gorgeous "Time Out" - all metallic surround-sound bass pulses, e-lusive synth melodies and elaborate multi-tiered drum programming straight from '88. But what stops this sort of record collector house from being solely curatorial is how breathlessly romantic it is: this steely groove retains enough bouncy bittersweetness to provide the sort of structural support for lovelorn pop-songs that was French House's stock in trade. How long before electro-house produces its own "One More Time"? Or even it's own "Love At First Sight"?

Marc Romboy ft. Blake Baxter - Freakin'
This one's more shamelessly retro, right down to the you-must-be-joking title, and only gets away with it by being so perfectly constructed (second most caned track in Berlin, by my reckoning). Blake Baxter, flushed from his success with Abe Duque's "What Happened?", returns with a seedy intonation so cliched that it passes right through "tired" and ends up back in "adorable" (kind of like how Little Britain jokes go from funny to boring to funny again through sheer bloodyminded repetition), a sibilant insistent seduction that pulls you through the tripping assemblage of Shep Pettibone snares before pulling you up with syncopated urgency: "Don't stop now you can't go stop now don't stop now you can't stop...DON'T STOP!" Also good on the Systematic label, though I haven't heard it enough to wax lyrical: Abysm's "Future Love/Future Funk".

Misc, Sender Records and Jake Fairley
Misc's "The Magic Number" makes me want to popularise the term Marauder House. With synths like giant robots’ laser beams come to level yr city, “the magic number” seems like an ironic title for this track. The number in question could only be the code you accidentally punched into the pad for a time-delay nuclear bomb. This track isn’t so much the bomb itself as the tense, edgy minutes just prior, a riot of sounds and effects crowding around the central countdown synth-riff, interspersed with interludes of sorrowful strings, mourning the loss of a future that will never be. And then these huge, unidentifiable whooshing sounds (the city’s evacuation, riots, police and robots doing battle etc.), and the countdown riff returns with a smug “I’M BACK!” stutter.

Alongside Basteroid’s more recent material (and “Against Luftwiderstand” is a good reference point for this actually), Misc.’s stuff is kinda paradigmatic of the nu German electro-house sound: somewhere between Black Strobe’s take no prisoners assault and Areal’s wonky explosions, between the smooth charge of Speicher tracks and the fractured maximalism of Tiefschwarz, it’s at once cluttered and streamlined: destructive machines that create enormous amounts of debris but never pay it any mind. Apart from the unbeatable Areal, this sound is maybe most of all where my head is at right now when it comes to dance music: what it's got going for it is all the will-to-self-annihilation thrills that defined so many permutations of techno throughout the nineties, but moving at a house tempo gives it all a devastating prowling quality, a slow self-assurance that hard techno's jittery tempos rarely attains. There's an intelligence to its destructiveness, a tone of consideration, but it's not related to IDM by any means. When I was young what always scared me in movies were the killing machines that were more intelligent than i felt they had a right to be, as if god or technology had given them an unnatural advantage: the T1000 from Terminator 2, the velociraptor from Jurassic Park.

I liked "The Magic Number" so much I bought Misc's recent album Crunch Time, put out by Sender. Crunch Time underwhelmed me a bit at first actually, although it's a solid brick shithouse of tech-muscle that I'll now heartily recommend (key picks: "Teleworking" and especially "Momentum"). The problem with this brand of electro-house is that its meticulous clockwork menace just doesn't seem unusual when you listen to 13 tracks of it in a row, and grooves which blow your mind in the middle of a mix can begin to sound all-too-easy - in that way it's kinda reminiscent of SCSI-9's Digital Russian album, although much much tuffer.

The best way to consume this stuff is three or four tracks at a time on a 12 inch release, where you can focus instead on how the producers wring out such a variety of sounds, grooves and emotions from this toolkit of murky acidic bass slithers, withering zaps, gassy bubbles, ghostly minor key melodies, wet cracking snares and pounding pounding kick drums. When it comes to combinations of the above Sender has the market on lock, and I've yet to hear a 12 inch they've put out in the last twelve months that I didn't love. Picks of the bunch would be Misc's "Rocket Skating Remixes", wherein Basteroid, Mathias Schaffhauser, Frank Martiniq and Pan/Tone all compete to convince you that they in fact invented this sound, and especially Jake Fairley's "Going Down The Road" from late '03: three slices of peerless tech-house as existential crisis.

Jake Fairley's own recent album, the ace Touch Not The Cat for Dumb Unit (who are like Sender with added doses of punkiness), veers in the other direction from Misc, junking immaculate formalism for hefty doses of diversity and personality. He even sings on several tracks! Sadly he is Canadian not German and he sounds like he actually understands his own lyrics, which is hardly ideal for this sort of stuff. The album is basically divided between the very sort of pulveriser electro-house he records for Sender and ostentatiously glammy hard-rocking schaffel. The schaffel is almost almost almost a bit too obvious by now, or maybe it's just the Alter Ego remix of 2Raumwohnung's "Spiel Mit" felt like the absolute last word on ostentatiously glammy hard-rocking schaffel and anything subsequent to that is bound to sound like washed out homages. Fairley makes the grade on execution though, and his grooves attaining a massive sense of steroid density that even the other major players have only managed on occasion. I mostly prefer the straightahead four-to-the-floor tracks though: see for example the heart-seizure acid sinewaves and black mascara atmospherics of the perfectly titled "Prussia", whose mentalism would make even Reinhard Voigt a teensy bit scared (its thick tic-toc snares and hi-hats alone are to die for).

Basteroid – Against Luftwiderstand (Remix by Ada & Jake Fairley)
I love the original “Against Luftwiderstand”, sometimes I think I love it more than just about anything else in the world, it’s just so massive and brooding, the way those slimy synths rub together like worms trying to start a fire with their bodies… This remix is even more punishing, those slashing snares forcing the ungainly groove along its narrow path with brutal jabs while Benni Benassi synths drone balefully somewhere underneath. Becoming more piledriving with each measure (I’m reminded slightly of Green Velvet’s “Flash”), it would almost be hopelessly stentorian, but for Ada and Jake adding eerie, Spacemen 3 style vocals: “I love all that you do… I do all that you say…” These floaty, disarmingly gentle sirens turn the brutality into something altogether different, a crushing swoon reminiscent of “Feed Me With Your Kiss”.

M.I.A. - Change
Not that M.I.A. This one (also female) makes deep and lusciously dark electro-house for the Sub Static label, which she co-owns. Sub Static is one of my favourite labels at the moment - great releases from John Spring and Matthew Johnson - but its aesthetic is harder to pin down because the artists are often willfully individual. M.I.A. basically splits the difference between Fairley and Ada, playing down the former's muscly grunt and adding some of the latter's ethereal melodicism, with snatches of vocals buried far in the mix not unlike the remix above. But M.I.A. isn't just a point on a map; what marks her out is the exquisite glumness that characterises almost all her work. The best word for M.I.A. is lugubrious; there's a slowly unfolding, labyrinthine quality to her work that is suggestive of someone who plays with their depression a neurosis like they were picking at a scab, delighting in the sensations of their own pain, unable to leave it alone.

I like M.I.A.'s recent album Schwarzweizz quite a bit, but I'd wager the tracks on her subsequent "Sweet November" 12 inch, another Berlin DJ box staple, outperform most of the album comfortably. "Change" is my current favourite of the three: fragile dissolving melodies, whooshing poltergeists and strobing acid bass, while endlessly refracted wispy vocal samples hover nervously like a host of fallen angels. Here that depressive energy just builds and builds, with a new element of thrilling paranoia arriving every couple of bars. The whole track seems to glance forward anxiously towards some sort of explosion that never arrives (presumably you're supposed to mix it into Black Strobe's "The Abwehr Disco" or something; on this fantastic mix it leads into the Volga Select dub of "Innerstrings" instead, but near enough is good enough). Instead it just shivers and shudders in dreadful anticipation, a delightful ball of tension with no release.

Envoy - Move On (Alex Smoke Dub)
If you want real goth however, park here. I discovered this on the mix I linked to above, and it's utterly irresistible: a mucky swamp of bottomless bass, tortured elephant squeals, and a near indecipherable nicotine-rattle robot chanting lines like "I think I wanna dance" as if it were a death sentence. Alex Smoke is a simply fantastic sonic sculptor, and this track is utterly impeccable, the way the sounds morph and interlock completely blows me away. Distorted snares flash like laser guns across the groove, minor key electro melodies flare and palpitate, tiny irridescent flickers of percussion form intricate spiderwebs worthy of Luciano or Ricardo Villalobos, but throughout it maintains an evil devotion to rocking out that makes me desperate to hear it played in a club. Alex Smoke's more micro-tilted album Incommunicado is pretty fabulous (more on that later), but this reveals him at his most devilishly, physically commanding.

Whew! That's all I can manage for now I think.


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