The 1990s was a period of unbelievable fecundity for dub techno, and much of it can be traced to two men: Markus Ernestus and Moritz van Oswald. Working out of their native Berlin, they were entrepreneurs, tastemakers, and insanely good producers, fusing the metallic machinations of Detroit techno with European drone and shadows of Jamaican dub, and creating the outlets through which people could hear the music. Their original label, Basic Channel (also the name of their duo), only lasted from ’93 to ’95, but in that short time, they released several mesmerizing LPs that had a galvanizing effect on the dance community in Europe. Ernestus and von Oswald are still spoken about in hushed tones, even after dropping their longtime anonymity, and the name Basic Channel is more often associated with the idea of perfection than just about any musical enterprise in the last two decades.
I mention all of this because Biokinetics is as much about Basic Channel as it is about Thomas Köner and Andy Mellwig, the duo of Porter Ricks. When the Basic Channel label folded in 1995, Ernestus and von Oswald launched a selective new imprint, Chain Reaction, specifically for artists who shared their sound and ideals. Porter Ricks (named after a character in the TV show Flipper) were responsible for some of Chain Reaction’s initial 12” offerings, and Biokinetics was the label’s first CD, housed inside a metal box that would become an iconic (and slightly controversial) Chain Reaction staple. Biokinetics, however, wasn’t just the first whole album in Chain Reaction’s roster; it was also the best. The label, which ceased operation in 2003, is home to lots of intriguing and worthwhile material, but Porter Ricks handed it its crown jewel early, simultaneously revering and redefining the Basic Channel aesthetic in a subtly revolutionary way.
Köner and Mellwig were a dream team of producers, up there with Madlib and MF Doom. An auxiliary member of Pete Kember’s Experimental Audio Research collective, Köner had been quietly releasing solo albums of low-frequency drone music indebted to early innovators like Karlheinz Stockhausen during the first half of the ‘90s. Mellwig, meanwhile, was learning how to cut his own vinyl and master tracks in the studio, and had released an album of harsh, grimy techno on another of Moritz von Oswald’s labels. It’s a played out (and often incorrect) cliché to say that two heads are better than one, but Köner and Mellwig undoubtedly accomplished more together than either of them could have done alone. You can practically visualize the point at which their minds intersect, where a sense of overwhelming atmosphere and surging depth meets a love of industrial music and supreme beat programming.
Biokinetics, first released in 1996 and thankfully reissued in 2012 by Type, is actually made up of previously released singles on Chain Reaction, plus a few tracks written specifically for the album. Yet there is nothing piecemeal, lazy, or haphazard about Biokinetics, and as with the best semi-compilations, all the songs sound like they were written to be right where they are. “Port Gentil” was originally the A-side on a two-song 12”; here, it’s an opening salvo, venturing further into epic territory than Basic Channel was often willing to go. Instead of reinforcing restraint and circumscription, Porter Ricks provide the illusion of skimming through a vast expanse. The phased sounds of wheels on train tracks put the song on land, yet the mesmerizing drones and whooshes suggest that we’re 10,000 feet above the earth or beneath the ocean surface, as a muffled kick drum propels us like a skipping stone along the current of the atmosphere. “Nautical Zone”, a new track placed at the end of the record, conjures a similar but unique experience, as if “Port Gentil” were being reflected in rippling water. It’s positively huge and wide, effortlessly propulsive and immersive. From these songs, it’s hard to believe that the first Gas album hadn’t even appeared until a year later, in 1997.
On the other side of spectrum is a set of rhythmic punishers that actually benefit from having no melody whatsoever. Spanning a wide range from clipped blasts of air to the sound of ears popping under pressure, the beats on “Port of Nuba” roll over themselves, expanding and collapsing as they move through the track. Calling the rhythm a “gallop” isn’t quite right, because of the equine reference; it’s more like the continuous, elastic smacks of a squid’s tentacles. “Nautical Nuba” is almost the same track, except the hi-hat provides an anchor and the rest of the beats become submerged underwater. While these two pieces were somewhat redundant on the 12” Port of Nuba single, they are brilliant in the context of Biokinetics, clearing away the grime mid-record like a couple of sonic windshield wipers.
Prior to the “Nubas”, “Port of Call” — another previous single — stands on the record as Porter Ricks’ version of an American club track, running a standard 4/4 beat through a series of modulations and cloaking it in remnants of Detroit-inspired melodies. A pair of new offerings, appropriately titled “Biokinetics 1” and “Biokinetics 2”, help round out the record with two different versions of enigmatic ambience. The dirty, swiveling “Biokinetics 1” could be a dub artist’s version of record scratching, harkening to a time when experimental musicians used whatever means necessary to create dissonance. “Biokinetics 2” seems as though it may have been a Köner solo production, in which a faraway knocking noise is the only sound to poke through a haze of nighttime ocean fog. I’m still not completely sold on “Nautical Dub”; it’s a good mid-tempo track with a sort of ancient vibe, though it fails to reach the heights (or tremendous depths) of what surrounds it. Nonetheless, by the time “Nautical Zone” folds in on itself and closes out the record, it’s clear that Porter Ricks have written their own language and invented an entire world.
The duo went on to create more music together, but it wasn’t the same. There were two records for the departed Mille Plateaux label and one in which they took over the Experimental Audio Research project from Pete Kember, and then it appears they parted ways. Köner continued to write solo records well into the 2000s and make a living as a multimedia artist; Mellwig tried his hand at straight techno as Continuous Mode and then fell off the face of the earth, or at least out of the public eye. Biokinetics remains their unequivocal masterpiece, and Type had the incredible foresight (and likely the financial means) to reissue it, along with Köner’s early ‘90s recordings, which provide a window into his mindset leading up to this album. As dub techno experiences a renaissance and the Basic Channel catalogue sees the light of day again, Biokinetics will remind fans and newcomers of what could have been a lost classic of electronic music.
// Notes from the Road
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