Saturday, 28 February 2009

Dark energy, cold vitalism: Ostgut Ton.

It is interesting to examine the recent shifts in Germanic post-minimal techno-house, which can only be conceptualised as a kind of battle within minimalism itself, since if anything the Berghain/Ostgut Ton sound is every bit as minimal as the Kompakt art Techno of the last 8 or so years. However what is reasserted is muscularity, harshness, inhumanity, but without necessarily returning to the relentless (and relentlessly boring and energy sapping) hard loop techno of the mid to late 90s. What producers like Ben Klock and Marcel Dettmann maintain from the minimal era are its fetishisation of pure sonic texture for its own sake, and an obsessive approach to filtering elements in order to rinse every last scintilla of variation from synths and outlying percussion. The textures of Klock's debut album (One) and accompanying EP (the logically entitled Before One) are stark and burnished, but we have moved from the metaphorical tasteful minimalist flat (see k-punk’s amusing review of 2562's Aerial last year in FACT) to an industrial kitchen of steel surfaces, exquisitely sharpened blades of scything hi hats, lifestyle music for butchers of obscene humanoid meats perhaps… Detroit iciness, Sähkö reductive brutalism, Basic Channel shimmering archefossilised dub glisten, Burial’s discarded shell case percussion… a resurrection of the goosepimpling shivering dread-flesh of the future, a sort of late 00s Martyn Hannett Techno… music to watch cities in motion to, to watch economies die to…

That such dark music evades dubstep’s dope-fugged torpor is revealing, and not merely by regular deployment of four to the floor basskicks. Instead the atmosphere is lucid, rather than druggy-languid, alien… powerful without becoming thuggish, bleak whilst pulsating with a mechanically efficient, seductive energy…The post Burial jerky hi-hat scissor slicings of Klock’s remix of Kerri Chandler’s “Pong” from 2008 is indicative of the curious relationship between Ostgut Ton and dubstep (one which evades the bland-out fears k-punk outlined before, imbuing the tropes it acquires with a cold-hearted vigour and chiselled assassin attack). The crystalline rhythmical post-2 step track "Gold Rush" on One could almost have been lifted straight from Burial's first record, juddering with a jagged metallic percussive bump-and-grind, spurting forth distant gushes of aqueous sonics (though if anything Klock pushes the sound further into oneiric minimalism with fantastic sound design). There are two vocal tracks on One, an interesting choice for such an ostensibly inhumanoid musical form. The most intelligible lyric appears on “OK” running “ain’t no happiness, ain’t no sadness…” endlessly filtered, backmasked through reverbs, swirling through the chunky snare-clunk, a call-and-response of zero-affectivity, anthemic in its endtimes resoluteness, cycling forever without resolve, a dislocated clarion call. “Napoleon Hill” from the EP swaggers into view on dusty shaker patterns, a shivering synth riff repeating like electrical charges through its neuro-percussive infrastructure. Likewise the first and lengthiest piece from One, "Coney Island", has an insistent synth riff which flickers with inhuman relentlessness, unsettling and ruthless, yet infectiously danceable, its minimalism never pedantic or pretentious. However the album is not content with dancefloor functionalism, the art-ambient house piece "Init Two" resisting a kick drum (riding on the regular chop of a satisfyingly physical hi hat) but again convulses with sound-energy- tiny tinkling glassy bell patterns and undulating shuddering audio-shimmers actually managing to make the often tired ambient form sound refreshing.

Equally of interest is the MDR04 EP from last year by Klock’s slightly better known fellow Berghain resident Marcel Dettmann (on his own MDR label). This is of a piece with Klock’s cold muscular future-art-tech, but traffics in more striated rasping textures, "Lattice" regularly being rent apart by surging blasts of static white noise. Largely eschewing synth sounds for pure percussion and noise, tracks like "Shatter Proof" have an implied musicality, hints of fucked-up swing jazz emerging from the scree of pitched industrial drum sounds. Dettmann's own remixes from the last year or so are equally extraordinary, especially his treatment of dubstep artist Scuba's "From Within", which evades bass-heavy lethargy for a different kind of darkness, a cold sensuality or metallic sexiness. Shed’s album on Ostgut Ton from 2008 (Shedding the Past) is worthy of mention, although it slips the aesthetic slightly by being less forward looking, less texturally rigorous, and warmer. Intriguingly however he continues the crossover with dubstep or two step, with "ITHAW" directly referencing the sound. Even when the tracks seem superficially more obviously techno inspired, often the basskick action is weirdly non-4x4, with odd stuttering patterns and strangely quantised galloping snare/tom work.

What is intriguing is why this sound has become so massive at this particular juncture in time (Berghain/Panoramabar being noted by Resident Advisor as the new centres of global techno). Whilst Simon Reynolds has been keen to disabuse those amongst us who might fancy a naive interrelation between the economy and musical creativity (see his recent FACT piece here) there is certainly something in the marked shift in tone- away from the exuberant teeming Latin-mnml of Villalobos or Luciano, away from the dramatic synth-pop influenced Ellen Allien, away from the ornate mnml trance of Gui Boratto or Stephan Bodzin, towards a bleaker, harder, sound, operating beyond the pleasure principle. The only recent precursor in Germanic minimal techno would be someone like the great and deeply underrated Matias Aguayo, whose Are You Really Lost and Night at the Tilehouse combine a similar chunkiness of percussive texture with a bleak sexuality. But Aguayo’s work has a sleaziness to it which is absent from the Ostgut sound, which frequently opts for heavier harsher sonics and a greater degree of reductionism. Whilst the Ostgut Ton artists are clearly working in a consolidatory fashion rather than a revolutionary leap (integrating past sounds and atmospheres within the space opened up by mnml, just as mnml itself did with microhouse) there is much here which chimes eerily with the spirit of our times. Whilst it would false to claim any kind of political impact from this kind of work (and really asking the wrong kind of questions I think) it is interesting to note the “bellwether” like status of contemporary techno, wired into the zeitgeist in a way which other genres seem to avoid.

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