Few forms of popular music go through trends like dance music does. Every few years a producer will hit upon a new sound; scarcely a week later sound-alike 12"s will flood record stores. The copycat factor, combined with sometimes fickle audiences, has resulted in spectacular paradigm shifts. Drum & bass, for example, has flip-flopped multiple times between dark (techstep, neurofunk, choppage) and light (jazzstep, Afrofunk, liquid funk). Progressive house swung from over-the-top trance to dark minimalism and back again to banging electro-house. In recent years, techno has moved away from repetitive, loops-based DJ tools to song-oriented, minimal production. The strength of this trend is stunning; whether through legitimate artistic evolution or herd mentality, even long-established producers are changing their sounds to go minimal. Johannes Heil is the latest to follow suit. He’s made some fine tracks for Freaks R Us, but are these Johannes Heil tracks?
Granted, Heil has never been the type to set trends. Rather, he has applied his individual sound to whatever techno styles have been in vogue. Until now, Heil’s signature has been lush, melodic synths. Working within the confines of downtempo, electro, techno’s older drum machine-based style, and its later loops-based style, he’s produced some of the most soulful electronic music ever made. DJ’s favor Heil’s 12"s, but his full-length albums have allowed him to craft diverse, sublime listening experiences. Reality to Midi, Illuminate the Planet, and Future Primitive are all now considered classics and well worth hearing. 2003’s 20,000 Leagues under the Skin featured some of Heil’s deepest production. As its name suggests, the album was a heady journey full of cavernous, aquatic synths. Heil has become a flagship artist for Kanzleramt, the Berlin label known for melodic, soulful techno. Thus, it’s surprising to see that his new album is on minimal techno label Klang Elektronik.
Freaks R Us feels like a collection of 12"s rather than an album. Its ten tracks all clock in around seven minutes, and almost all are dancefloor fillers. With lengthy intros and outros made for DJ mixing, the tracks sound more sterile than they really are. Had this album included a mixed CD, the tracks would have appeared in their intended setting. The production is clean and technically flawless. Snares and claps come in at just the right times, and Heil has a knack for adding ride cymbals and synth accents to keep tracks moving. Most of the tracks feature the buzzy, percolating synths and stiff, crisp grooves prevalent in minimal techno today. Highlights include “Warrior of Light”, an old school acid house number with modern production values, and “Artology”, an irresistible shuffler with dark, staccato synths. Gone is the lush ambience that was Heil’s forte; the album ends with the Moby-esque electronic symphony of “The 1st”, but the track feels out of place next to all the club bangers. Heil hasn’t lost his soul, though. For a stunning example of his deep production within the minimal techno context, track down “Aquarius”, the vinyl B-side to this album’s title track.