Tag Archive: Richie Hawtin


This is a new quarterly column that will reassess the reputations of artists and address whether they are underrated or overrated. First under the microscope is Sheffield post-punk group Cabaret Voltaire.

The group were one of the original industrial bands that formed in the mid ‘70s and were a seminal post-punk band during the movement’s conception. However, when they attempted like many of their contemporaries to infiltrate the mainstream they struggled to gain a foot hold. In this article I will look at possible reasons why this happened, compare the band to their contemporaries and reassess their position in the late ‘70s and ‘80s musical landscape.

Taking their name from a Zurich nightclub that was central to the 1910s Dada art movement, Cabaret Voltaire had been an ever changing group of friends from 1973 who settled on a permanent line-up and become a serious operation in 1975. At this point the line-up featured Richard H. Kirk (clarinet and, later, guitar), Chris Watson (organ, homemade oscillator) and Stephen Mallinder (bass, vocals). The Dada movement was a big influence on the early material and attitude of Cabaret Voltaire (known affectionately as the Cabs). Their motto was ‘no sound shall go untreated’; everything was fed through a combination of oscillator, ring modulators, distortion, delays and anything else that could be acquired cheaply and this created a sound that was closer to the musique concrete experiments of Morton Subotnik than any of the rock and pop music being played by other bands at the time. Further to this the band adopted the mantra of ‘We are not musicians’, an idea that Watson and Kirk had heard in the records and lectures of their hero Brian Eno. A third important formative influence was that of William Burroughs and Bryan Gysin’s cut-up techniques which informed the group’s love of re-editing speeches by anyone from politicians to pornographers and the ever constant concepts of control (see song titles “Your Agent Man” and “Kneel to the Boss”) and paranoia that pervade their lyrics and sound.

In 1977 the band’s sound and confidence had developed enough for them to send a demo to Richard Boon at New Hormones. As he could not afford to release their material he gave them a support slot for the Buzzcocks at The Lyceum in London. By this point they also moved into a rehearsal and recording space called Western Works where the band installed a multi track tape machine and mixing desk which allowed Cabaret Voltaire to make and release high-quality music for the first time. The early Western Works recordings got them signed to Rough Trade and the band quickly released early singles ‘Nag Nag Nag’ and “Silent Command’ and established their combination of fuzz ridden itchy punk-funk guitar, organ stabs, sticky synth lines and tumbling electronic drums all fighting for attention with Mallinder’s processed vocals, which was described as: “like molten glass being blown into distended shapes.” They followed the success of the singles with debut album “The Mix-Up” which while not as vital as the band’s subsequent releases showed that they could last the distance on an album and demonstrated huge potential for the band to develop.

After their first trip to the US the trio returned to Western Works “fascinated by America but aware of its darker side”, as they sensed the tension just before Reagan’s  election and became entranced by televangelist Eugene Scott who the band sampled for the “Sluggin’ For Jesus” single. Their second album “The Voice of America” (1979) may have focused strongly on the US in its lyrics and sample choices but its sound combined Cabaret Voltaire’s trademark scathing sound with an explicit dub influence that had only previously been implied by the infrequent use of a dub delay. The dub music influence was now central to their drum machine rhythms and Mallinder’s impressive bass playing and deep tone. “The Voice of America” was the high point of this period of the Cabs, finding a balance between their diverse influences without compromise.

Their next album releases ‘Three Mantras’ (1980) and ‘Red Mecca’ (1981) looked at the parallels between fundamentalist Islam and born-again Christianity in America. The albums took very different approaches to these subjects. “Three Mantras” featured two side long tracks. The first song, “Western Mantra”, blends Neu!’s motorik rhythms, Mallinder’s subtle bass variations with Kirk’s Arabic sounding guitar squalls and piercing keyboards from Watson to mesmerizing, propulsive effect. “Eastern Mantra”, the second side, loops a vocal sample over a drone and Arabic and Israeli pop music flashes in and out of the mix, later Kirk joins in with some crisp rhythm guitar. Arabic wind instruments and found sound from a Jerusalem market complete the package and make for an incredibly evocative release that utilises its sources well without falling foul of cultural tourist clichés. “Red Mecca”, though a very good album feels like a step back to  the sound of “The Voice of America” yet it doesn’t quite have the same punch. It comes as no surprise that Cabaret Voltaire felt they had done all they could with their current sound by this point.

Another crucial element that the band used, was slide and cine projectors that were utilised to create sensory overload for the audience. Like their peers Throbbing Gristle the Cabs saw themselves as reporters operating in ‘the information war’. “The film projections were part of this counter-propaganda, working as a kind of anti-TV. Hence their non-judgemental stance, appropriate to the neutrality of the good reporter.” This stemmed from both the influence of Burroughs and his theories about control and “[t]he hard, unblinking, amoral stare of J.G. Ballard’s fiction as it surveyed the contemporary mediascape” was another huge influence. The band were keen observers of what was happening around them: urban riots in the UK in 1981, the situation in the Middle East and tension present in pre-Reagan America and were able to subtlety articulate this in the mood, tone, lyrics and samples present in their music and visuals.

Cabaret Voltaire’s next release “2 X 45” comprised of two 12” records which feature guest drummer Alan Fish of Sheffield experimentalists Hula and the last three songs recorded with Chris Watson who departed the band in October ‘81 for a career in television sound recording. The second record includes their first recordings as a two piece with guests Nort (drums) and Eric Random (percussion/guitar). Though it is correct to view “2 X 45” as an transitional release it seems there is a transition within the record itself. Watson’s input and influence is definitely reduced and keeps reducing across the three tracks as if he is moving towards the exit as they record. The second half of the record sees the band really start to push towards the dance music direction they would incorporate for the remainder of the ‘80s; the 12” format is also a clue to this new direction. “War of Nerves (T.E.S.)” would be a typical Cabs track but instead it is the rhythm that dominates, “Wait and Shuffle” is as close to upbeat reggae as they ever reached and “Get out of My Face” is driven by Kirk’s relentless yet fun rhythm guitar.

In 1981 Stephen Mallinder and Richard H. Kirk were invited to watch Soft Cell’s performance of “Tainted Love” on Top of the Pops by Stevo the head of Some Bizzare management/record company. Stevo was making a name for himself as an electronic and avant-garde music DJ and someone who could sell new acts to major labels and re-launch the careers of established acts like the Cabs who had reached an impasse. At the meeting Stevo discussed his idea of “conform-to-deform” which struck a chord with the group. He gave them £5000 to buy a video duplication machine for their video company Doublevision, allowing the band to be autonomous and able to produce small runs of video via mail order. Stevo also paid for the recording of the next album “The Crackdown” (1981) and in return the band stripped down their sound to make it more accessible and pushed Mallinder’s vocal central in the mix. This created a shift for his and Kirk’s roles as Mallinder was now becoming the front man and occasional bassist with Kirk taking on other musical roles.

The result of this was a sound that attempted to blend their post-punk paranoia with the electro sound that was emerging from New York simultaneously. As with their friends and peers New Order, who recorded part of their debut album “Movement” at Western Works, Cabaret Voltaire were trying to combine white angst and black groove, though New Order’s was an emotional angst and theirs was political. One of the fateful events that lead to the Cabs’ adoption of electro was Kirk who was blown away by Afrika Bambaataa’s ‘Planet Rock’ which he heard at The Hacienda (the Cabs had also played at the Manchester institution’s opening night) He later remarked, “it was like Kraftwerk only funkier”. This epiphany and (co-composer of “Planet Rock”) John Robie’s electro remix of ‘Yasher’ from “2 X 45” convinced the band on their change of direction and how to create a dance floor suited version of their sound. Cabaret Voltaire undertook this direction change with help from co-producer Flood, Soft Cell keyboardist Dave Ball and all the latest dance music technology of synthesisers, a sequencer, a Roland 808 drum machine, harmonisers and the electro staple, the Claptrap.

With Malinder now the front man the duo relied less on voice recordings from television programmes but were still intent on spreading a complex, ambiguous political message while attempting mass communication. This is a reason why the band are commercially disappointing when compared to New Order. The Cabs attempted to communicate both present and recent political past, their music rich with data and meaning, gleaming with the same number-crunching technology of the bankers and investors who inhabited Thatcher’s Britain. New Order conversely dealt in the universal emotions of yearning, love and death therefore their music was instantly relatable and thus climbed the charts. Cabaret Voltaire’s material was akin to “a night spent channel-hopping on TV, tuning through the shortwave radio dial or watching a sequence of advertising hoardings from the window of a speeding car could ever be”. There was no one subject. “It was more about creating atmosphere.” Kirk commented on the duo’s “cut-up method of setting voices snatched from the mediascape against Mallinder’s vocals”.

“The Crackdown” also signalled another important development. Cabaret Voltaire signed a record deal with Virgin on the proviso that they be allowed to put out 12” versions of album tracks. The duo left behind the scratchy, lo-fi sound of the 7” associated with punk and Rough Trade for the high end “seduction of the club sound system” and the lifestyle of excess that accompanied it. The 12” is synonymous with the 1980s and the circle that the Cabs moved in from the decade’s early electro scene through to the beginnings of rave music appeared in their sound. The album has a new “rhythmic certainty” and a feeling of “space, order and purpose” where previously there was chaos and claustrophobic. Dissonance, however, still remained but this could be blended seamlessly into the streamlined sequencer music.

They continued to pursue success and the harmonisation of man with cutting edge machinery with 1984’s “Micro-Phonies”. For this release Cabaret Voltaire employed an E-mu Emulator – a sampler keyboard that allowed Kirk to place samples where needed. The keyboard elevated the level of complexity that the Cabs were able to achieve, which was exemplified by the 12” mix ‘Sensoria’ from the album. The 12” “presented Redneck America’s party line on clean living, lifted from a television documentary on the Ku Klux Klan. Set against it, to deepen the conceptual irony further still were the chants of Zulu singers.”

Conversely their visual feature managed to directly mass communicate free of limiting censorship, certification and copyright law. Until the moral panic caused by video nasties which lead to the introduction of the UK’s Video Recordings Act 1984 Cabaret Voltaire were able to assemble cut-ups of hardcore porn, anatomical surgery and CCTV into their videos and could sell these to fans via mail order with no interference from Virgin. They were also able to experiment with all the possibilities of the format with typical video promos, their own Wipeout T.V. magazine show and Johnny Yesno, their film and soundtrack from 1983. In this respect the duo were forerunners to great Audio/Visual innovators like Coldcut and VJs (Visual Jockeys) who were inspired by rave era music are indebted to the Cabs’ pioneering music and visuals.

By the release of “The Covenant, The Sword and The Arm of the Lord” (1985) Kirk had bought a sampler (the E-mu Emulator had been hired due to its prohibitive price) and explored the techniques associated with it. Some of the sampler techniques on display in this release are the same that are used in hip-hop and their beloved electro. The band went a step further than on previous albums that had virtually avoided the traditional emotional palette of pop music. This typical subject matter is subverted on “I Want You” with “…words that once formed the basic unit meaning for just about every pop song in existence…skilfully exposed as the utterance of a TV preacher calling his faithful viewers to prayer.” The Cabs’ explicit, as opposed to earlier, implicit, subversion ended hopes of commercial success.

Another important factor in Cabaret Voltaire’s failure to achieve the commercial and dancefloor triumph akin to their contemporaries New Order, Soft Cell, Depeche Mode and Heaven 17 et al is that club music changed direction and attitude in the mid 1980s. In the early ‘80s post-punk innovators had lead the way and found an audience willing to follow their most daring experiments yet only five years later the times had changed. Conservatism took hold in music with most audiences disliking challenges and debates. Despite the similarity of the Cabs’ music and subject matter to the acts on the On-U Sound label (Tackhead, Mark Stewart, Gary Clail), they now overtook Cabaret Voltaire’s level of attention and popularity in clubs, though they too rarely entered the charts. House and techno DJs and producers grew increasingly popular and people did not want the Cabs’ technological chatter. Though they became unfashionable Cabaret Voltaire exerted a large influence on the development of techno and electronica. Derrick May has stated “Everybody from Frankie Knuckles to Ron Hardy, young black DJs in Detroit, and Richie Hawtin, loved Cabaret Voltaire.” The duo were also educated enough in dance music technology to meet with house and techno producers and share ideas. They also influenced the artists involved in Warp’s Artificial Intelligence series and important early ‘90s labels R&S and Plus 8 owe Cabaret Voltaire a great debt.

More recently their authority can be heard in new bands like White Car (the title of a Cabs track from “C.O.D.E.”), Factory Floor, Breton, Suuns and the reactivated Blancmange. It is odd that a band with this level of reach and whose fans regularly bemoan their underrated music are so consistently overlooked. Some of their Virgin albums are nearly impossible to purchase which should be addressed as it was with earlier albums. They should work with Richard H. Kirk to re-master, remix and re-release the later releases. If contemporaries like Nizter Ebb, Throbbing Gristle and Chris & Cosey can experience a resurgence of interest then why not Cabaret Voltaire? They are a band that consistently created fresh, different and worthy albums from 1978 to 1987 yet they have not received the same reappraisal as others, which needs to be rectified.

Spotify playlist:

Cabaret Voltaire

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The 2000s saw techno tangle with pop music with many artists incorporating directly pop-influenced melodies and harmonies as tracks evolved into songs. Meanwhile minimal techno and its main purveyor M-nus continued to blossom and Kompakt’s rich techno hallmark garnered critical acclaim. The end of the decade also saw the rise of the Berghain and Ostgut Ton artists who have captured the imaginations of many by reinvigorating the ‘Berlin’ sound that some had perceived to be stagnating. Similar to the Three Decades of Techno: The Second Chapter, I will focus primarily on the genre’s development in Germany throughout the last decade whilst covering other European and South American artists who have shaped the sound of techno’s future.

Growing into an empire of distribution with an incredible record and download shop, booking agency and a number of sub-labels (Immer, Profan, Kompakt Pop, Kompakt Extra), Cologne’s Kompakt has a near mythological quality in the techno world, is admired by virtually all techno fans and can be pinpointed from the start of the 2000s as the beginning of techno’s cross-pollination with pop music. Wolfgang Voigt has described the label’s signature as “honest, simple. It is adult techno, cultural techno” and has also frequently spoken about the importance of the “boom boom boom” that underpins all electronic music, something the label has explored by releasing boundless variations of techno, tech-house, ambient, ambient-dub and pop music. In essence the famous “Kompakt sound”, which is mentioned in almost everything written about the label, is the incorporation of traditionally pop music melodies and harmonies into that fundamental pulsing 4/4 bass drum and looped, textural ambience: firm but supple.

Despite first making its reputation as a sponsor of minimal techno Kompakt’s trademark has always been a full and distinctly, a lovingly intimate sound. Thomas Fehlmann’s “Honigpumpe”, the “Nah Und Fern” compilation by GAS and The Field’s “From Here We Go Sublime” embody this eloquently. Its core artists Voigt, Michael Mayer, Superpitcher, DJ Koze, Reinhard Voigt and Justus Köhncke have been with the label for a decade or more. Though they have often released projects under pseudonyms covering different styles these artists have helped the label achieve its distinct and renowned identity. Kompakt has played a remarkable role to techno over the decade with music critic Simon Reynolds crediting it as the “label that’s contributed more than any other to Germany’s dominance of electronic dance music this decade [the 2000s].”

Chilean-German DJ and producer Ricardo Villalobos is one of the most revered names in techno. Though usually described as minimal techno, his productions are too singular to be part of one genre. His critically celebrated 2003 debut album “Alcachofa” from which the seminal ‘Easy Lee’ and ‘Dexter’ were cultivated is a unique collection of intricate and highly detailed tracks; keywords in Villalobos’ discography. Included on several compilations and mixes curated by his peers Richie Hawtin and Michael Mayer and others that year, ten minute opener ‘Easy Lee’ builds slowly with delicate percussion pattering under an uneasy vocodered vocal refrain and showcases Villalobos’ expert hand in creating subtly composed sound-designed tracks. Writing for All Music Guide, Andy Kellman observed “Alcachofa”‘s (artichoke in Spanish) appropriate title, “If the kind of vivid house you hear blaring in the hip clothing store is an apple, giving the mouth an instant burst of flavor the moment the teeth puncture its skin, then the microhouse of Ricardo Villalobos is more like an artichoke – a more subtle fruit that’s consumed by peeling off its fleshy leaves and delicately skimming the pulp off the inner surface.”

An exceptional feature of Ricardo Villalobos’ work is that his productions truly feel equally perfect for both home listening and DJ sets, something that many artists have tried to achieve, because despite the elongated grooves and naturally evolving structures that are suited to the dance floor the microscopic details and the queasy feeling of nervousness that permeates his material, especially “Alcachofa”, can only be detected when listening in stasis.

His bespoke speakers that resemble a gramophone which use every frequency across the spectrum, his passion for audio fidelity and sound design, his immersive Fabric36 mix and the sheer complexity and amount of work that Villalobos puts into creating his productions display why he is such a highly regarded figure in techno who is continuously mentioned by critics and artists. The influence of his work on new producers going in to this decade like Nicolas Jaar, Shackleton and The Field in such a short space of time is a testament to his talent and individual material.

Just over halfway in to the decade The Knife released “Silent Shout” and Ellen Allien and Apparat released “Orchestra Of Bubbles” in 2006. “Silent Shout” is an ideal example of the blurring of lines between techno and pop seen in the 2000s, due in part to The Knife’s conceptual, theatrical heart. The Swedish pair’s music is as much techno as it is pop: it has narratives, chord changes, even sing-able choruses. Karin Dreijer Andersson, singer and co-producer, manipulates her voice to become the songs’ protagonists, enabling her to sing in the first person; making the songs far more personal and significant. Yet they are also distancing – as if the listener is an audience member in a macabre play where each scene introduces a new character – the lyrics are skeletal and leave the subject matter open-ended. Dreijer Andersson has explained that the films of David Lynch, in particular the scene from Mulholland Drive in which the lead characters go to a midnight concert where the music is generated from a playback tape, are a great influence on how she presents the songs.

The nightmares of the title track, ‘From Off To On’’s whispering voices, the naïve character in ‘Forest Families’ who, shamed for having “a communist in the family” and told their “favourite book was dirty”, sings about the particular and the universal as the song rises and falls, the furious sexual equality sea-shanty ‘One Hit’ and the schizophrenic voice in ‘We Share Our Mother’s Health’ going hysterical with fear all create the haunting and uneasy mood of “Silent Shout”. Yet it also offers easy to miss humour in the sly  hip-hop beat that announces the arrival of ‘We Share Our Mother’s Health’ and ‘Marble House’’s ‘singing whale’ synth. The album pushes what we can consider to be ‘techno’ and it is The Knife’s ingenious use of pop melodies and characterisation which play against the techno landscape of rippling filters, de-tunings and thunderous 909 claps that makes “Silent Shout” compelling and musically momentous.

Berliner Ellen Allien, acclaimed DJ, producer, graduate of leading ‘90s club Tresor and chief of the record label BPitch Control has spent the last decade releasing five albums and numerous DJ mixes that showcase her distinctive blend of pop-indebted melodies (she claims to have learnt to speak English by listening to David Bowie records), thick bass lines and techno-fied breakbeats. Apparat who co-runs the record label Shitkatapult has released a handful of albums and EPs which combine his understated voice, not unlike Thom Yorke’s, with home-listening designed intelligent dance music (IDM). Their album “Orchestra Of Bubbles” is perhaps the pinnacle their careers. Their differing electronic music styles: Allien’s sweet, dance floor techno and Apparat’s melancholic IDM make the release a thrilling album where the tracks pull and push against each other. It ascends and descends, the glide of techno is resisted by jerky IDM beats, misty pads contrast oomph-ing bass lines, rippling arpeggios swirl around Ellen Allien’s dreamy, accented voice. The songs present a guessing game of which part belongs to whom: interlocking sections shine through as Allien’s as her huge analogue synth leads go head-to-head with Apparat’s grainy crunches and snapping beats, as presented in ‘Turbo Dreams’ and the gorgeous ‘Jet’.

The triangle on ‘Metric’ and ‘Way Out’’s ride cymbal that quietly pushes the chorus along are hidden gems that mark out “Orchestra Of Bubbles” as something that has being meticulously composed. Every aspect of the album sounds considered yet effortless: the vocal stutter that bridges the two sections of ‘Floating Points’ and builds to a demanding SH101 bass line, to standout ‘Do Not Break’, which breathlessly speeds for 5:13 minutes. Its entirety is full and encompassing, even in comparison to Allien’s effervescent “Thrills” released the previous year, and is brimming with the blending of digital and analogue timbres which are so richly textured they are nearly physical. Those looking for an essential song-based techno album and a microcosm of techno in the 2000s will find it in “Orchestra Of Bubbles”.

Ostgut Ton, the Berlin-based label launched six years ago to provide a base for Berghain and Panorama Bar residents, has become the name du jour in the past 18-24 months. ‘90s pioneers Basic Channel’s unique dub-techno sound architecture has left an indelible mark on the productions of Ostgut Ton’s main artists: Ben Klock, Marcel Fengler, Norman Nodge and Marcel Dettmann. Perfunctory, mechanical, cold: adjectives used to describe Ostgut Ton’s output contradict the productions’ true sound. On closer listen they are clearly imbued with a womb-like warmth and depth. Typifying this is Marcel Dettmann’s debut album “Dettmann”, which is filled with immersive atmospherics and bass frequencies that embrace and surround; more akin to Basic Channel and early techno like Model 500 than the icy, driving beat that is associated with Berlin techno. Despite murmurs of a backlash Ostgut Ton have entranced many with its pure stylistic signature and this with Berghain’s infamously strict door policy give the label an exclusive nature that harks back to techno’s beginnings in elite parties for only the most dedicated. Hopefully this limitation will stop the popularity and hype of Ostgut Ton/Berghain been its downfall.

Ahead of his performance at Coachella last year Richie Hawtin was asked in an interview with LA Times: “You’re based in Europe now, where everyone seems to think the edgiest electronic music is being made today. How do you think the American scene can catch up?” To which he replied, “Well, to catch up would be hard in a way because it’s been sustained for so long there. It’s not about catching up; it’s about following your scene and your location’s individual path. And that’s what electronic music’s about. There shouldn’t be one electronic music hit everywhere, like Jay-Z is everywhere. Electronic music is like a snake that you can’t grab. So it should be different in different scenes. That’s what makes it interesting.”

Hawtin’s point encapsulates what techno in the past three decades has been about and done.  It has mutated and flourished in numerous countries, evolving into different breeds independently and yet the genre’s founding ideologies have remained: emotive and human, pushing the limits of technology, valuing music for head as much as the feet. Techno is so adored and indestructible it will continue to be a dominant force for decades to come.

Continuing from the opening section of Three Decades of Techno, the second will focus on techno’s development in Detroit and Germany during the 1990s and cover a selection of the artists and labels that made it happen. This was the decade when techno was both consolidated and fractured. As a musical form its identity and popularity strengthened, spreading to Europe and developing in the hands of the second generation of Detroit producers yet techno, the idea, became increasingly difficult to classify. Its precarious nature and dispersal across countries evaded definition. Its accidental formation resulting from an infrequent overlap of geography, technology, time and individuals, the division into subgenres and reactions to reactions can make the genre’s pinpointing its history challenging. This piece should provide a compact timeline of techno, clarify how new artists expanded the music and idea of the genre and why this matured so neatly in Germany.

Germany’s techno scene was conceived while the country began to redefine itself in 1990. With Detroit techno serving as their main influence and Berlin as the natural capital, Germany’s youth built their first dance music scene. The no-man’s land that sandwiched the Wall still existed after its collapse leaving many buildings uninhabited during the year-long reunification process; as such the unclaimed and derelict spaces served many with the opportunity for club locations. Dimitri Hegemann and his Interfisch label peers found a series of underground rooms punctuated with iron bars in the redundant Wertheim Kaufhaus (once the largest in Europe), next to the Potsdamer Platz artery. The group took on their newly discovered space and named it Tresor (meaning vault or safe in German). Hegemann recalls in Dan Sicko’s expert book ‘Techno Rebels’: “We were the place where East and West kids came together, musically. We found our style – it was definitely orientated towards minimal Detroit sounds, and then after a year and a half we had our own crowd.” Hegemann also felt a need to strengthen the connection between Berlin and Detroit. Tresor released several works by Detroit artists, starting with Underground Resistance’s project X-101 and the 1993 compilation ‘Tresor II: Berlin-Detroit: A Techno Alliance’, distributed in the US by Nova-Mute (a sub-division of Mute) was the catalyst for plans to open a sister venue in Detroit, which eventually died out.

The genre’s etymological origin and its sound distilled from factories, intellect and subtly expressed emotions naturally found a home in Germany. The country’s decades-long utilisation and innovation of technology and industry, its rich artistic history and, importantly, its predilection for looking to the future, made Berlin Detroit’s European counterpart. By the mid-1990s, the city was getting closer to strongly defining its own techno identity as the Detroit-Berlin sound bled into each other. The controversy, however, over techno’s heritage – whether it stemmed from tekno (its spelling with a k being a joke illustrating the hard, industrial style popular in the Netherlands and Belgium: ‘That record is tekno with four ks!’) or Detroit’s techno – occasionally kicked up though its Detroit origins won out eventually, with people accepting the ‘techno’ spelling and soft pronunciation.

Hugely important in the timeline of the genre is Hard Wax, a record shop at the core of Berlin’s techno scene. With a high regard for Detroit techno and its principles, Hard Wax is known for being central to one of the most important happenings, not just in Berlin but for the entire genre. Mark Ernestus, the shop’s owner, and Moritz von Oswald formed the seminal Basic Channel whose slim but revered catalogue subtracted all but techno’s most essential ingredients then reconstructed them to merge Jamaican dub, 4/4 bass drum pulses and dissonant synthesisers buried by rippling delays, even the releases’ distressed artwork mirrored the murky, tense tracks. Their pioneering work would go on to inform the work of Monolake and Hard Wax associate Pole, who, alongside Basic Channel, both form an important family from which minimal techno was born. In this article I explore these artists and minimal techno further.

In 1993 Wolfgang Viogt, his brother Reinhard, Jörg Burger and Jürgen Paape, who were later joined by Michael Mayer, opened Delirium, a techno record shop in Cologne. Combining the shop and distributor with a few existing labels and event organisers, Delirium became Kompakt 5 years later. Though their dominance took hold fully in the 2000s and will be discussed further in the last chapter of Three Decades of Techno the label’s importance for German techno in the 1990s needed to form part of the second chapter. In opposition to the typical cold precision of Berlin techno, Kompakt’s musical signature of blending texture and techno’s rhythmic intensity with rich ambience has been consistently heralded. Similar to Hard Wax, Kompakt provided a community by releasing and distributing German artists’ material into the 2000s aiding the genre’s  evolution and giving artists an identity on home soil.

Meanwhile in Detroit, DJs such as Richie Hawtin and Carl Craig (a student of Derrick May) were introducing the next wave of techno to fresh audiences. Mirroring the move from DJing to production made 10 years previously, Hawtin established the record label Plus 8 with John Acquaviva, after being unable to break into Derrick May’s Transmat label. Their third white label release was stamped with the phrase ‘The Future Sound of Detroit’, which projected the idea of Detroit having a regional sound character. This backfired however as established artists and the African-American community saw Plus 8, run by two Caucasian men, cashing in on a status others had built. The indignation and suspicions surrounding the now-renamed white label release ‘Technarchy’ ironically made it one the label’s best-selling, shifting around twenty thousand copies. By mid-’91, Plus 8 had matured considerably and released its first compilation ‘From Our Minds To Yours, Vol. 1’ and their ability to deal with the early faux pas and erudite business acumen would be integral for the label’s success.

American independents pursued Cybersonik (who produced Technarchy), a collaboration between Hawtin and his friend Daniel Bell, seeing them as a compliment to the noise and industrial acts on their rosters. Hawtin and Bell declined offers after realising their intense and drum-machine driven sound was unintentionally being perceived as aggressive. Stunned by the discovery, which was reinforced by news that their tracks were being played at a notorious anti-Semitic dance/football club in Rotterdam, the two the two dissolved the project and Hawtin explored his interests in the studio further, resulting in Plastikman, who ventured out with the four-album arc released on Plus 8 between 1993 and 1998, with a resurrection in 2003. He used the pseudonym to describe the pliable, bouncy noises emanating from his TB-303s and celebrated Kraftwerk’s influence with his use of the Germanic k in his song titles (‘Helikopter’, ‘Spastik’, ‘Kriket’ etc.). As a reaction against hardcore techno, Plastikman’s ‘sound’, which arguably ran parallel to Basic Channel’s, was more atmospheric and distinctly slower and deliberate yet thrillingly intense and emotive.

Through continuing the techno characteristics of employment and abuse of technology, stark aesthetics and unrestricted emotions etc., Hawtin, one of Plus 8’s most successful artists, has built a dedicated fan base with continent-spanning acclaim and his influence on techno in the 1990s and 2000s as Plastikman and the leader of loved/loathed M_nus label is incalculable.

Germany’s newly established sound/s and continuing confidence marked the start of techno’s decentralization. As pioneers existed in Detroit, figureheads like Hard Wax, Tresor and Kompakt and their associated DJs and acts emerged to push the genre forward and add their own interpretations and each sound. Predictions of where techno would go next as it spread from nation to nation, how the genre and the Detroit sound could evolve and where the next artists and labels would emerge from were impossible to make.

Sonic Fiction is proud to introduce the new bi-monthly column Music Is Improper, which will focus on electronic music brought to you by our columnist Vier.

Minimal Techno: a discussion of the most criticised genre in electronic music

When house and techno grew in exposure in the mid 1980s productions were minimal out of necessity. As sampling and programming technology developed, the music grew increasingly layered and clean. Evolution to some, unnecessary commercial crossover moves to others. Reacting against these increasingly dense productions, minimal techno artists subtracted from their productions almost everything except sharp drum rhythms and stark sequencer or synthesizer patterns and yet of all the electronic music genres, none are more maligned and misunderstood than minimal techno. It is criticised for a lack of depth and lacklustre, monotonous repetition, a disparagement that has been levelled at electronic music in its entirety, with fans of other electronic music genres quick to invalidate it, viewing it as calculated affectation. Fans of minimal (an adjective so powerful it seems to negate the need for a noun) can get it wrong too, valuing it as being thoroughly innovative and progressively new above other, busier genres, forgetting that minimalism, in its original sense, played a key role in the invention of electronic music.

Without the repetition and phrasing of minimal music and the rejection of traditional compositional, notational and tonal language by its leaders Steve Reich and Philip Glass et al techno and house as we know it would not exist. Neither would electro and hip-hop – spinning the same two records to infinitely extend a loop is as minimal as it gets and yet the minimal tag is a misrepresentation. Vacant they are not; the tracks brim with colour, shade and moods, neither are artists lazy; they sculpt sounds: moulding tone, pitch and timbre. With fewer elements each is more exposed and thus must justify its existence. Sparseness permits emotions to move to the foreground, absorption of the atmospheres and textures is encouraged by repetition, rejecting traditional song structure allow the listener to enter a trance-like state, purging late night excesses. After years as the black sheep and enduring a creative slump, minimal techno found its way into the hands of a generation of artists like Ricardo Villalobos, Gui Boratto and Click Box who have reinvigorated it with incorporations of Southern American instruments and rhythms and a new generation of listeners, who were children when many seminal albums were delivered, are discovering exciting records past and present.

As for the genre’s supposed lack of depth, Plastikman’s influential, and greatest, album ‘Closer’ is the sound of someone in the pit of depression; disconnected, exhausted and unemotional. The music is distant, as if approaching from outside, a place the voice is crawling to reach. Crunches, snaps and rips creep up on the listener, encasing them inside the protagonist’s oppressed mind; the microscopic variations amplify the tension. Dystopia: techno stripped to its inner core. Not exactly limp.

A key text in the genre’s history is Basic Channel’s ‘BCD’ from 1996. Redefining the standard of stripped music further than their peers, the duo of Moritz von Oswald and Mark Ernestus subtracted percussive elements, leaving only reverb to swirl and decay in the vacuum created. Journalist Simon Reynolds noted that listening to Basic Channel was akin to hearing a pounding nightclub from miles away. Most of the tracks on ‘BCD’, which is a compilation of single edits rather than a true album, are without drums, aside from the occasionally-occurring propelling bass drum and melodies are replaced by weightless chords. Synthesisers replicate the codes a listener would expect to hear in techno. The intricacies are the focus rather than pumping drum patterns yet Basic Channel songs sound like techno tracks. Closely related to Basic Channel is Pole, whose trio of albums, ‘1’, ‘2’ and ‘3’, demonstrate a detached austerity, even in full-colour covers.  Compositionally, Pole’s albums are kept bare; tracks are tethered by dub-specked held bass lines and an effervescence of high end. By reducing the elements so severely Pole reveals the similarities of dub and techno. Both share repetitious loops and the smallest of modifying steps – filter cutoff sweeps, hissing tapes, bouncing delay – are to be zoned in on and the clicks, pops and squeals present are now the foundation of minimal techno. The Cologne label and distributor Kompakt is considered synonymous with the genre and founder Wolfgang Voigt’s GAS pseudonym can be thought of as worship to Basic Channel. Purportedly a contemplation of German identity, GAS mutates samples of German classical music into dark arrangements held down by a simple bass drum. Sections morph and counterpoints dissolve, building an oppressive atmosphere where pops and clicks resemble stepped-on fallen branches while lost in the black forest. Although GAS’ sound isn’t overtly techno and is much bigger in size than Basic Channel, the stripped production and its rejection of structural norms is evidence of how malleable minimal techno is, which can therefore lead to misunderstandings of what it is.

The genre is also maligned because perhaps its philosophy is not understood due in part to the traditional reluctance of many electronic music artists to permit press meetings though these can often be enlightening. In an interview for Resident Advisor, Hawtin responded to a question about the aesthetics of his record label Minus, which has minimal techno artists such as Magda, False and himself on its roster, with: ‘I think the Minus aesthetic has always been about finding a balance between music and technology and art… when it’s in sound, whether it’s a Gaiser record or a Plastikman record, you’re fighting to get your point across with just the bare essentials of timbres, of sounds, of effects…all of that goes into the whole Minus aesthetic. It’s minimalistic, but it’s also futuristic and progressive at the same time.’

This ethos coupled with Minus’ nine date, nine country AV tour Making Contakt, which set out to explore themes of security, privacy and communication, blurred the lines between performer and audience by actively encouraging audience participation and interaction via technology summarizes what minimal techno is; an evolving and engaging form that is true to the founding ideology of electronic music: to push musical and technological boundaries and defy audience expectations. To progress, to challenge, to be the vanguard.

Vier

Minimal techno playlist

Minimal techno playlist

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