Tag Archive: Model 500


Some Releases we missed in June

Mind Over Mirrors – “High & Upon” (Aguirre Records)

Jamie Fennelly’s best known for his work as a member of Peeesseye a U.S. drone/noise trio who’ve combined “elements of warped rock architecture, freejazz horror, intergalactic glossolalia and stripped down abstract expressionism” together since 2002. This is a reissue of his debut limited edition cassette release on Gift Tapes from 2011. The album starts with the thick hypnotic harmonium and Fender Rhodes through delays and synth drone that is ‘I’m willing to stagger’ a challenging and unorthodox opening that never the less reward the listener with its complexity and depth. This followed by a sparse and disorienting guitar and harmonium of ‘Harmattan Morning’ which kind of sounds like sunned warped version of “Tomorrow Never Knows” by The Beatles. Finally we’re treated to the sparse piano and steady emolliating organ and synth drone of ‘Mountain Convalesence’ a 15 minute epic. Though not a the type of release we generally cover on Sonic Fiction “High & Upon” is definetly worth checking out via Mind Over Mirrors Soundcloud as is the even more brilliant “The Voice Rolling”. You can buy “High & Upon” via Boomkat on vinyl or digital download. I hope they soon stock the sold out “The Voice Rolling” digitally too.

Bear Bones, Lay Low – “El Telonero” (Kraak Records)

Prior to this album Bear Bones, Lay Low’s biggest exposure outside of the noise/drone music scene was his fantastic contribution to Crammed Disc’s Congotronics vs Rockers compilation. This album is quite different from that track concentrating on creating short and satisfying songs heavily influenced by the krautrock of Can, Harmonia, the post-punk electronic synth music of Cabaret Voltaire and Ekoplekz, Jamaica dub and his cosmic contemporaries Black Moth Super Rainbow. The music is far more relaxed and colourful than what I had expected in fact it ranges from the brightness of ‘A Fourth Ring’ and ‘Bien Gracias’ to the deep dark undercurrent of ‘Drive Sucks’ and many shades in between. There are many artists recreating the sounds of krautrock artists such as Harmonia, Can and Cluster and a large majority sound like retreads but a combination of his weaving of other influences into his tracks and something that I just can’t put my finger helps Bear Bones, Lay Low rises above these mere imitators. It’s genuinely great to hear an artist who feels at once like he’s exploring with his instruments and at the same time creating such convincing and brilliant tracks. Definitely one for fans of any of the artists and genres mentioned above and adventurous listeners will be rewarded!!!

Chevel – “Reset EP” (self-released)

Techno producer and DJ Chevel (Dario Tronchin), from Treviso, Italy, self-released “Reset”, a mini-album of spaced-out techno, this month. Having previously created mixes for the highly-respected Stroboscopic Artifacts, the label headed by fellow Italian Lucy, Chevel’s “Reset” contains tracks that are in comparison to his SA material, sexier and slower with greater focus on rhythm and warmth. There is rawness to Chevel’s work, which comes by way of his live recording process and analogue gear, including a Roland SH101 and 606, sequencer and various modular synths. The Italian’s one-take shots capture the improvised patterns and spontaneous tweaks that result in a primitive yet controlled cut. Though now living near Venice, Chevel used to live in Berlin where he explored Basic Channel, Berghain and the records stocked in Hard Wax. The tracks on “Reset” undoubtedly show the energy and influence he soaked up during his time in the capital. ‘Reset One’ has a satisfyingly thudding bass drum with an intensely resonant bass line that rises and falls. ‘Reset Three’ is a warm, grooving techno cut with a signal-like delayed synth riff that rings out over Basic Channel-style drum programming. The slow, swarming synth notes and forceful, heads down German techno drum rhythm that makes up ‘Reset Four’ is as good as Marcel Dettmann’s own sex-infused push-and-pull rhythms. With an introduction of a thick analogue bass drum and a more discernible melodic motif it becomes a driving, silvery techno cut similar to the works of Morphosis or Claudio PRC, another exciting Italian talent whose album “Inner State” won a place on my ‘Albums of The Year…so far’ list. July will see the release of Chevel’s “The Building EP”, the second of a three part series.

The Cinematic Orchestra – “In Motion #1” (Ninja Tune)

The new release from The Cinematic Orchestra (TCO) is the first in a series of compilation albums on which TCO, their closet musical friends and other artists on Ninja Tune and its family of labels create new scores for classic silent films. For the first in the series they invited jazz pianist and Flying Lotus collaborator Austin Peralta, abstract hip-hop/electronica producer Dorian Concept and regular TCO guest vocalist Grey Reverend to contribute and collaborate. TCO kick off the album themselves and though the sound (strings, synth bass and heavily processed synths) aren’t their usual fare the atmosphere they create will be familiar to TCO fans, when they kick in the acoustic drums are the things that reminders the listen who they are listening to and the track takes off from there. Next up is Peralta’s contribution a minimal stately piece utilise his piano skills alongside a string quartet that feature throughout the album. Dorian Concept’s two piece in collaboration with TCO saxophonist Tom Chant take a different tack, the first ‘Outer Space’ combines Smeared psychedelic strings and effects with the string quartets dry sound and a wobbly echo leaden solo from Chant. Similarly ‘Dream Work’ uses abstract sounds and processes acoustic instruments this time for a haunting effect, to send a chill down the spine. ‘Entr’acte’ (TCO) begins with  strings and bowed double bass moving at a glacial pace before halfway through the track it turns into an instrumental and much more elaborate version of TCO’s ‘To Build A Home’, as the track enters its last quarter the string quartet and shuffling drums add much needed tension and release. ‘Regen’ featuring the acoustic guitar of Grey Reverend and double bass of Phil France of TCO is a spare and emotional effecting track that is far greater than the majority of the tracks from his debut album from last year. The album closes with ‘Manhatta’ (TCO) with its dreamy strings, TCO groove and acoustic guitar that recalls “Ma Flour” (2007) the bands last studio album. The criticisms I can really leave at this album is that some tracks lack the tension of TCO’s previous studio albums and that this may have worked better as a DVD where the experience would be completed, however you can create this yourself using Youtube. Though “In Motion #1” isn’t the best album on TCO’s back catalogue it’s still a  very strong album and well worth investigation.

KonKoma – “KonKoma” (Soundway)

We don’t usually feature the brilliant releases by Soundway Records as they generally focus on reissues and compilations of West African Afrobeat and High Life music as well as music from Columbia and Central America and these releases do not fit into our remit. However, KonKoma are an active London-based band inspired by Ghanaian Afrobeat and High Life and this release is their début album. It’s an impressive start too as the band not only perfect assimilate the main sounds and aesthetics of this music but move it forward with sensitive modern production that doesn’t take anything from the origins of the genres and some slower paced material that demonstrates this music needn’t be all about out of the traps drums breaks and funk bass lines. The band is also great at arrangements subtly but effective utilising the vast array of instruments and vocals in the mix to create dynamic, spacious tracks that keep the listen on their toes while never disrupting the grooves of the tracks. KonKoma have produced a début album that shows off their musical and production skills and points the way forward for Western African music that could have become a stagnant museum piece, highly recommended.

The Invisible – “Rispah” (Ninja Tune)

I remember the self titled debut album from The Invisible leaving little impression on me back in 2009. I wanted to like it and it seemed they were trying to attain something to but falling short and never quite convincing me, the listener. I’m glad to say that on “Rispah” (named after singer and guitar Dave Okumu’s late mother) that they’ve achieved an arresting and emotive sound that combines electronics, guitar, drums, bass, gentle vocals and a ton of hooks and they are now the complete package. The album is thoroughly modern combining traditional band performs with electronic music production, sounds and programming all delivered with a strong emotive punch. Though the album sounds on its own, there does seem to be a hint of TV on the Radio to The Invisible’s sound. Whenever a band attempts this kind of merger of sounds it often lacks the tunefulness and heart of this release, the band too busy being clever-clever or fussing over sonic details. The album never feels like a deathly dirge could so easily have become after the death of Dave Okumu’s mother instead it a bright and almost optimistic record full of hope and redemption. “Rispah” is a pleasure to listen to in every respect; it could a dark horse in the race for album of the year.

Disappointment of the Month

Florian Meindl  – “WAVES” (Flash Recordings)

Working as a sound designer and producer, Florian Meindl has a reputation built on his high production values and “WAVES”, the Austrian’s debut, maintains this standard. Indeed, for audiophiles there is a 4GB USB stick available to purchase with high resolution masters of the tracks. For all the undeniable production quality “WAVES” is missing something: an emotional pull, a heart to balance the dryness of sheer good production. Even ‘Isa’, a house track built on flourishes of piano chords that is dedicated to Meindl’s girlfriend, is insignificant and simply grooves away anonymously. Begging the question: how did dedicating a song to a meaningful person result in a meaningless track? Can Meindl only provide music that serves a practical purpose? There are some great tracks like ‘What Is Techno’, a powerful, dirty techno track with an irresistible bass drum, clap and hi-hat groove. A low male voice asks “What is techno? What is house?” while a percussive melody drives the listener to the dancefloor. ‘Spread Out’, a dark techno track dense with claps and percussion which build to an irresistible, surging synth melody with a cry of pain/ecstasy underneath. This stands out as does the fun and bouncy ‘Good Times’. Hats, a deep bass drum and a metallic synth punch as Ricardo Phillips’s vocals command we “let the good time roll.” This and a track like ‘It’s all making sense now’ would sound incredible in a club context: the immense bass drums hit in you in the chest and the bass lines and drum grooves bully you into dancing. The rises and falls tease and pummel. Away from this context, say listening at home “WAVES” doesn’t work. There is little if any emotion to be found in the head-pounding drums and aloof synth melodies. Besides, would the average listener have the equipment to do justice to the range and richness of frequencies “WAVES” contains? The different tack Meindl attempts with ‘Isa’ and ‘Wishful Thinking’ feat. Detachments falls flat. ‘Wishful Thinking’ needs Sascha Ring’s (Apparat) gorgeous voice, not the current singer’s uninspiring monotone, to carry the song to the emotional point it’s trying to achieve. Releasing the club tracks as 12”s may have been a cleverer option than compiling them in a form that rarely naturally suits techno.

Mortiz Von Oswald Trio – “Fetch” (Honest Jon’s)

Consisting of four long-form compositions that entwine elements of dub, techno and jazz, “Fetch” is darker and danker than Moritz Von Oswald Trio’s previous albums “Vertical Ascent” and “Horizontal Structures”. The oppressive opening track ‘Jam’ unfolds over 17 and a half minutes with acoustic percussion instrumentation, brass and woodind phrases, dissonant textures, puncturing stabs of delayed bass and a drum machine backbeat that meander beneath Sebastian Studnitzky’s darting trumpet melodies. Second is ‘Dark’, which drops the pace down further and maintains the tension and sense of dread that ‘Jam’ introduced the listener to. The beat is kept nodding underneath effected sound textures, viscous bass and steely horn melodies. The album’s standout is the dancefloor-in-mind ‘Club’. Steeped in Von Oswald’s Basic Channel pioneering mode of minimal/dub techno. The twelve minute track is built on a 4/4 bass drum and 16th note hi-hat pattern that pushes the listener into techno territory. Bass frequencies growl, percussion strikes and a distant two-note synth melody is surrounded by noisy atmospherics and ghostly textures; creating a hypnotic track that remains fluid as opposed to the usual grid-based structure of techno. The mid-tempo ‘Yangissa’ closes “Fetch”. Its simmering brass and tumbling African nyabinghi-style drums weave into a dub-influenced shuffle.

Bobby Womack – “The Bravest Man in the Universe” (XL)

Bobby Womack’s new album is a triumphant return for the soul veteran, after the success of his collaboration with Gorillaz in 2010, on the “Plastic Beach” album which finished at number 2 in my (Liam, Sonic Fiction editor) Top 20 Albums of the Year that year. “The Bravest Man in the Universe” is similar to Gil Scott-Heron’s “I’m New Here” (2010) which was also produced by Richard Russell, in that it brings together modern genres and production techniques with a black music star of the 70’s. One of the main ways this album distinguishes its self is that whereas “I’m New Here” was very focused on atmosphere to back poetry, melody is always front and centre here. The album focus around hip-hop beats, probing synth bass, strings and piano with Womack’s soulful, emotive and expressive vocals always taking the lead and slotting perfectly into a through modern backing. The music recalls everything from trip-hop (Portishead, Massive Attack), cinematic hip-hop/jazz (The Cinematic Orchestra) and the dance-pop and cartoon funk of co-produce Damon Albarn’s Gorillaz. Despite all this genre-hopping the album hangs to together and only one of the track truly lets the side down the Lana Del Rey duet ‘Dayglo Reflection’ in which Del Rey feels like she’s been dropped in at the last second in a cynical record company marketing ploy. This aside it’s great to hear Womack back doing what he does best: singing and writing great soulful pop music that sticks in the brain long after the music has stopped.

Oh No – “OhNoMite” (Traffic Records)

Oh No’s “OhNoMite” is another in a string of impressive hip-hop albums released in 2012 up there with releases from Killer Mike, El-P, Thee Satisfaction, Doseone and Quakers. In fact, the album’s overall sound and approach has much in common with Quakers self titled debut as both albums hark back to classic 90’s hip-hop sound, the main difference being “OhNoMite”s source material. The album is entirely made of samples from Rudy Ray Moore’s audio achieves drawing heavily on the soundtrack to Blaxploitation film “Dolemite” from the album takes its title. As a result of this the album is pack full of funk loops, smoky jazz chords and swinging tough hip-hop beats that get your head nodding. Another similarity with the Quakers album is that this is also stuffed with guest appears but doesn’t suffer from attention deficit disorder, each MC contributing high quality raps that fit into the album overall theme. The old skool styling’s of album don’t get in the way of enjoying it, in fact it’s a major part of “OhNoMite”’s appeal. One of the stand-out elements of the album is the fantastic array of analogue synth sounds that feature throughout; it’s also a sound that doesn’t always bed in well in straight hip-hop tracks, in my opinion and Oh No’s production’s successful ingrate them with thrilling results. This is a thoroughly brilliant and refreshing hip-hop record that will appeal to fans of Madlib, The Alchemist and filthy funk 90s classic hip-hop.

Doseone – “G Is For Deep” (Anticon)

The long awaited new solo album by cLOUDDEAD co-founder Doseone is one of the finest releases by any member of that trio since their self titled debut album in 2001. It picks up where the last Subtle (a spin off project from Doseone and Jel of cLOUDDEAD) left off but with a much greater emphasis on space and pop hooks. Throughout Doseone strikes a balance between chip tune elements and deep probing electro beats and strong melodic content. The releases of by cLOUDDEAD and their related projects have always used ambience in conjunction with beats and rapping but here it feels more like Doseone is tapping into a rich vein of dream-pop that recalls the Cocteau Twins in their 80’s pomp. The new found space and melodic clarity make for a more immediate listening experience though there are still enough twists and turns to keep long time fans interested, I’m sure some will see this as a compromise but this genuinely feels like a natural evolution for a unique artist.

Delta Funktionen – “Traces” (Delsin)

After four years of releasing EPs on the Delsin and Ann Aimee labels and DJing across Europe, Delta Funktionen (Niels Luinenburg) takes the next step and translates his skills to the album format. This is a hurdle where many talented techno producers falter as shown by Florian Meindl’s disappointing “WAVES”; it is one thing to produce a potent dance floor EP but it’s another to come up with fresh ideas and approaches that can carry the weight of a much longer format. Happily, Luinenberg joins that small group of techno artists who have made the transition. The Dutch producer has said that research was key in his approach for “Traces” and he aimed to pair “a raw, machine made aesthetic with plenty of real human soul and palpable earthly emotion.” “Traces” covers a lot of ground within electronic music sub-genres. The influence of Detroit and European techno, Italo-disco and electro are strongly felt. Album opener ‘Frozen Land’ is a track of driving, futuristic electro with a Model 500-esque rhythm of percussion, echoing claps and shuffling bass drum. Its metallic sheen is speared by the undercurrent of tension in the austere synths that recall Drexciya. The searing acidic synths and driving hats of ‘Enter’ bleed through the warm, thick texture of the analogue equipment to create a pure electro cut. This opening pair introduces the album’s over-arching principles. The pacing and structure of “Traces” is classic techno: start slow then gradually build to an opening up in the track’s centre, drop and then return to a visceral fury until the end. The bass frequencies are the star of the album. ‘Redemption’ features possibly the most resonant bass line you’ll hear this year. The subterranean bass drum pounds under a forceful hats and clap pattern while the central melody played on a sparkling synth rips through the air. This visceral and raging track demands to be included in DJ sets. ‘Utopia’, a techno/italo-disco cut, speeds the tempo up. A thick, resonant bassline and tight claps are complimented by washes of atmospheric chords and an ascending/descending melody played on a thin, bright synth. A section at 4:40 minutes breaks down to just the bass drum, hats and that deep, warm bass. The re-introduction of the melody and chords lifts ‘Utopia’ to an evocative finale. An elegy to Detroit techno, ‘Challenger’ is a seductive track composed of a purring bass line and slowly, evolving underwater synth chords, which provides a moment of reflection after the furious intensity of the previous tracks. ‘On A Distant Journey’ is perhaps the finest moment on “Traces”. As with the rest of the album, Luinenberg draws inspiration from classic techno and electro sounds. Its ten minute run-time boasts drum rhythms that raise the spirit of Detroit techno innovators such as Derrick May and Juan Atkins and merges this with the emotive synth melodies of Kraftwerk. Just when the listener is convinced that they are being taken on a meditative trip, it unexpectedly drops to vicious drums and distorted acid riffs before veering back to the track’s initial esoteric journey. Conversely to Meindl’s “WAVES”, Luinenberg doesn’t lose sight in intricate sound-design and instead allows the pure power of machines to control “Traces”. By doing this Delta Funktionen proves to be one of the few to thrive in this challenging setting for techno producers.

Peaking Lights – “Lucifer” (Weird World)

The stunning new album from Peaking Lights showcases a more immediate version of their sound from previous foggy lo-fi releases. In fact along with Julia Holter’s “Ekstatis” this album proves that lo-fi home recordings can have a clarity and immediacy without sacrificing the grit that made them attractive in the first place. “Lucifer” acts a cooling balm or cool stream water leaping at your feet instead of the more humid and clammy sound of 2011 brilliant “936”, though it’s a little unfair to directly compare those two albums “Lucifer” demonstrates the duo ability to subtle involve their sound while still using the same basic sound set. Maybe the biggest difference musical is that Peaking Lights have chosen to create more up tempo track this time round compared with leisurely to sluggish pace of previous work, this seems to run in tandem with their new clearer and more immediate sound. The best examples of this are the funk strut of ‘Dream Beat’, the pumping bass and purposeful drum beat of ‘Live Love’ and its darker musical twin ‘Midnight (in the Valley of the Shadows)’. Peaking Lights also add some new elements to the album such as marimba on ‘Moonrise’, piano on ‘Beautiful Son’ and an Oriental melody on ‘Live Love’, that it would e great to hear more of future releases. All in all I’d through recommend “Lucifer” to Peaking Lights fans, those who are curious about the duo or those whose interest is piqued by this write up, it’s well worth investigating.

Liars – “WIXIW” (Mute Records)

The new album from Liars is quite a departure from their previous efforts. The band completely abandoned their usual guitar, drums and bass combination and composed and recorded the album almost entirely using computer music technology. The album covers quite a lot of electronic music territory from dark techno to Matthew Dear style electro-pop, techno-punk and glitch electronica recalling Mouse On Mars. Angus Andrew’s vocal are still front and centre on the album but he’s quieter and more reflective on ‘”WIXIW”, the depth of his vocal brings to mind Matthew Dear’s deep tones. I was half expecting the band’s inexperience with music technology to result in basic and generic sounds but the lush synths and subtle drums are executed expertly. Another big difference is that melodies are given the room to breathe and atonal sounds are kept to a minimum and every track is more spacious than anything previously recorded by this ambitious and experimental band. In many ways this is Liars’ most conventional release but this is no bad thing as it showcases a different side to the band rather than being a betrayal of their previous work and ethos. This is the band’s most immediate release and I feel sure it will reward listeners even more every time they revisit it.

Joint Top Release of the Month

Christian Löffler – “A Forest” (Ki)

The forests of north Germany in which Christian Löffler lived during the making of the album are the backbone of “A Forest” and Löffler’s work as a visual artist informs his focus on narrating a story as would happen with a collection of photographs or paintings. Over the twelve tracks that make-up “A Forest”, a rich yet spacious tapestry gradually unfurls. “A Forest” sits together as one piece, an entrancingly atmospheric whole. Warm, organic samples of wooden percussion are underpinned with fragile synth melodies; the chord progressions recall John Tejada’s melancholy, sunset-tinged tracks, combined with Pantha du Prince’s percussive textures and attention to detail. Although the 4/4 bass drum dominates rhythmically, it remains unobtrusive, lying low in the mix beneath the hypnotic, dreamlike atmosphere.  The title track features John Tejada-style collapsing chords atop a warm bass line and slight percussion and bell-like instrumentation. The three vocalists on “A Forest”, Gry, Mohna and Marcus Roloff, are a new dimension to Löffler’s productions and give the album an even greater emotional resonance. Mohna’s dreamy, fragile voice on ‘Eleven’ is surrounded by buzzing noises and distant bass frequencies. In one section her looped voice sits between chopping hi-hats and a bass line that rolls back and forth like sea waves. The beautiful ‘Feelharmonia’ features the Danish singer Gry whose mournful voice is embraced by shuffling percussion, syncopated drums, tapping wood blocks and a bouncing synth pattern. It is a standout in its wonderful melancholic simplicity. An interesting track is ‘Signals’, which is inspired by the Tintinnabuli compositional style of Estonian composer Arvo Pärt. The bells are brought to the dancefloor by a techno shuffle of bass drum, hats and claps.

‘Blind’ is a deeply moving sunset-suited track of ambient pads, rolling percussion, softly distorted bass, a distant male vocal and an elegiac atmosphere. ‘Swift Code’ is another notable inclusion. Lyricist and poet Marcus Roloff’s German poem passages alternate between implicit and explicitly threatening verses, which are encircled by crackles and floating glassy textures; the ambience circling like birds. On a ‘Hundred Lights’ a 4/4 bass drum finally comes out from the under the mix and pushes determinedly against an undulating bass line. Digital synthesis bubbles and wooden percussion, which features heavily throughout the album in reflection of the forest of the album’s title, chops through the atmosphere. ‘Slowlight’ is an effortless track. A simple melody loops, a bass line engulfs and a rhythm of bass drum and claps pushes and pulls. Wooden percussion grows in intensity as licks of reverb are applied and a brittle synth enters in the final seconds bringing “A Forest” to a delicate close.

Neneh Cherry and The Thing – “The Cherry Thing” (Smalltown Supersound)

When it was originally announced that Neneh Cherry and Swedish jazz trio The Thing would be releasing an album full of reinterpreted versions of songs in a range of genres from post-punk to hip-hop via jazz itself, the collaboration didn’t make sense to me. However, after a little internet research and hearing two tracks from the album my mind was changed and I got quite excited about the prospect of this album. It doesn’t let me down either with The Thing more restrained than they usually are and Cherry on dazzling form on vocals. The album opens with a version of Cherry’s ‘Cashback’ (one of two originals on the album) featuring fantastic twangy double bass, a drum break and counterpoint sax playing off her melodious lead vocal. Things get striped back on a twinkling vibraphone heavy version of Suicide’s ‘Dream Baby Dream’ before a return to a more aggressive tone with the drum and double bass assault of ‘Too Tough To Die’ (Martina Topley Bird). Next up ‘Sudden Movement’ the other original this time written by Mats Gustafsson of The Thing, a dark and dusty yet up beat jazz number. The tempo slows again for Madvillain’s ‘Accordion’ with Cherry trying a half sung half rapped vocal over twangy double bass and subtle arching sax. There are also two nods to Cherry’s father Don (a famous jazz musician, The Thing take their name from one of his songs) the first is by Don himself the ghostly and experimental ‘Golden Heart’ the other is a track original by jazz innovator Ornette Coleman whom Don Cherry complete his jazz apprenticeship with, this track is a sparse finish to a busy and fiery album full of passion and heat. Recommend to fans of the unexpectedly enjoyable!!!

Three Decades of Techno

Part one: The Conception and Development of Techno

A “complete mistake…like George Clinton and Kraftwerk caught in an elevator with only a sequencer to keep them company.”

This piece will explore the beginnings of techno and the effect European music and artists, in particular Kraftwerk, had on young Detroit inhabitants and the parallel that runs between the group and the city and how this cyclical influence evolved into the genre.

Kraftwerk’s music was informed by the clanging, rhythmic noise emanating from the factories of their native Dusseldorf and the funk of James Brown and Motown, in parallel to the mechanical repetition heard from Detroit’s car factories that inspired Motown’s unique backbeats. The four-piece replaced traditional drums and guitars with machine drums and synthesisers which were utilised to create metronomic and melancholic yet funky odes to Autobahns and cross-European train travel perfection. Their propulsive grooves drove them into dance music territory and a dedicated rhythm section in Karl Bartos and Wolfgang Flur brought them close to soul music and thus to Detroit. Bartos recalls, “we [Kraftwerk] were all fans of American music: soul, the whole Tamla Motown thing and of course James Brown. We always tried to make an American rhythm feel with a European approach to harmony and melody.”

This futuristic sound appealed to young Detroit inhabitants whose teenage rebellion forced them away from their parents’ R&B and jazz records towards Kraftwerk and other European artists like Giorgio Moroder. They believed they had found the polar opposite of R&B yet in truth they were still listening to soul music only through unfamiliar sources. Genre pioneer Derrick May recollects in 1992, “Kraftwerk was always…culty, but it was very Detroit too because of the industry in Detroit, and because of the mentality. That music automatically appeals to the people like a tribal calling … it sounded like somebody making music with hammers and nails.”

The sonic aesthetics of mechanics and industry are fetishes of the genre, which is reflected in the soundscapes created – robotic, precise and harsh. The exact drum beats and melodies written in step patterns with perfect quantisation, which would be unplayable by a human, feed into the obsession with impersonal industrial ‘hammers and nails’ clangour. Timbres are deliberately synthetic and multiple sounds are layered and affected to further convey the austere ‘machine music’ feel.  The atmosphere of techno is also indebted to its obsession with the future, whether this is one of streamlined technological perfection or an inhumane dystopia. A signifying code of techno and what defines it from disco and its cousin Chicago house is that its producers were, and still are, driven to find the limits of the technology. They experimented with hardware like Roland TR808 and TR909 drum machines, made deliberate errors and used them for roles they weren’t intended for. For example the Roland TB303 was a bass sequencer designed to accompany guitarists yet it was soon realised that it could be manipulated to create eerie, other-worldly sounds and effects, which have become a foundation of techno’s sound. The genre grew in popularity because of its ability to induce emotion. House was commonly viewed as emotionally vapid whereas techno producers prided themselves on communicating ‘intelligent’ thought.

The early flourishes of the genre thrived in Detroit’s environment because it lacked the fickleness of large cities like New York or Los Angeles and was analogous to Dusseldorf’s industry-based economy. The Northwest of the city was the wealthiest part of Detroit and in 1979 the average income was 34% higher than other areas. This was mainly due to assembly-line workers at car factories gaining promotion to office-based jobs. The children of these newly-wealthy employees felt a need “to distance themselves, says Juan Atkins, from the kids that were coming up in the projects, in the ghetto” and the negative stereotypes surrounding them. With few social outlets the NW youths filled the void by organising formal clubs, booking DJs, lights and equipment and hiring spaces. These had an elitist personality and were based on their beliefs of sophistication and exclusivity.

The city’s empty halls were tapped into with two or three club nights per school being established and multiple parties every weekend. At these teenagers were exposed to new wave and Italio-disco and as the attendees got older and bought cars they were able to visit night clubs further afield including ones that had been established by youths living in the East of the city, which tended to be more inclusive so more could attend. The music played was more funk-orientated and eclectic. Similar to the youth’s entrepreneurial approach to creating social opportunities they also realised the importance of radio programming and worked to conserve the variety of music played. New sounds were presented to the city’s residents and the young people fought to keep it available by petitioning radio DJs and stations, which opened the channels for discovery and acceptance of European dance music.

Three of the most noteworthy names in techno met at school in Belleville, an area outside Detroit. Inspired by the cold European music of Gary Numan and Georgio Moroder they had experienced listening to the local radio stations Juan Atkins, Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson (known as the Belleville Three) would theorise about how the artist made the songs and the steps the genre might take. Growing up financially comfortable they were able to buy turntables and a tape deck to learn to DJ and started remixing records and performed at friends’ parties, gaining experience and fine-tuning their knowledge of equipment. Atkins declares, “When I first heard synthesisers dropped on records it was great … so I got one.” From this Atkins, May and Saunderson began releasing music under various pseudonyms and each was playlisted on influential radio stations. They later founded the Music Institute, a club in Detroit’s centre that became a home for the second generation of techno DJs like Carl Craig, Stacey Pullen and Richie Hawtin.

In 1981 the triumvirate set up the record label Deep Space Soundworks to provide a platform for their music. Atkins’ project Cybotron sold 15,000 copies of the first single ‘Alleys Of Your Mind’ in Detroit alone and ‘Clear’ from the debut ‘Enter’ is particularly influential. A Kraftwerkian balance of techno-pop and club oomph the track set the template for Detroit techno: moody machine music to be appreciated nocturnally. After ending Cybotron Atkins progressed to releasing under the guise Model 500 and founded Metroplex Records in 1985 with releases ‘No UFO’s’, ‘Interference’ and ‘Nightdrive’ selling well.

After reconsidering a professional American football career, Kevin Saunderson turned to DJing and formed the record label KMS. Known for a denser, more mechanistic sound his releases as a member of Kreem and Reese & Santonio were well received in the UK underground and his house-inspired group Inner City gained eight appearances in the UK Top 40 and four number ones in the American dance charts. Derrick May gained the most commercial success of the cadre, producing tracks which are considered some of the most original and influential in techno. The classic sound incorporates streamlined percussion and string samples with a warmth that he had picked up on while spending time in Chicago. His Transmat record label was home to some of his best known hits like ‘Nude Photo’, ‘Strings of Life’ and ‘Kaos’, which were produced between ’87 and ’89 as Rhythim Is Rhythim. Though his releases nearly stopped during the ‘90s he maintained his profile as a DJ and positioned Transmat as arespected techno label worldwide.

May was the first of the Belleville three to tour the UK and was quickly followed by Atkins and Saunderson who were recruited for remixes and visited numerous times to perform at outdoor raves. By 1988 the UK had caught up with these futuristic sounds and artists such as the Black Dog, 808 State and LFO formed in large part to the Belleville Three’s influence while the second wave of Detroit techno grew momentum as the decade merged in to the ‘90s.

The second instalment of Three Decades of Techno will discuss the genre during the 1990s, focusing on minimal techno and its growth in Germany while neatly sidestepping rave.

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Three Decades of Techno: The early years

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