Last year Motor came out of nowhere to release Klunk, an album of hard club-oriented techno that landed at #2 on PopMatters’ Best Electronic Music list for 2006. At the time—not actually very long ago!—I had a difficult time quantifying just exactly how significant Klunk actually was. Looking back on what I wrote, I find myself falling back less on effective rhetoric or prosody and more on simple adjectives: “hard, throbbing, raw, powerful… unadorned, unmixed, uncut. Simply powerful.” (Notice I said powerful twice?) It’s hard to argue with that assessment in hindsight, but it’s also not hard to see that the essential charms of an act like Motor resist any kind of simple parsing. On the one hand the music is almost comically simple in places, repetitive motifs played out to excess over the course of five or six minutes, laid atop brutal, jackhammer-subtle beats. But such a reductive description does very little to convey just how ineffably pleasurable such an experience actually is.
We’re back less than a year later with Motor’s sophomore release, Unhuman, and the pleasures have remained essentially unchanged. The beats are still hard, the acid 303 riffs still razor sharp, the futuristic decadence still undimmed by moderation or modesty. The temptation exists, after listening to the album a few times, to criticize Motor for delivering a follow-up so close in spirit and execution to their debut as to be, in practice, almost indistinguishable. I wouldn’t be the first person to note the casual hypocrisy of rock critics who criticize artists from straying too much from accepted templates will also criticizing those same acts for not straying far enough (one need look no further than the inverted reactions to the Strokes’ second and third album to see this phenomenon at work).
I think that Motor present the rare and happy spectacle of an act who are so good at what they do that you can’t really wish they did anything whatsoever differently; it would be churlish to wish for, say, downtempo interlude or a guest vocalist. They’ve come so close to the Platonic ideal for this particular brand of music that it is difficult to imagine what they would even do to expand their sound without diluting it: this is as far into the future as music goes, anything less would almost by definition seem a step backwards.
Which is not to imply that the sound is necessarily limited. One only needs to hear a track like “Night Drive”, with its pitch-perfect evocation of early Detroit techno a la Derrick May by way of Orbital, to see just how flexible the template actually is. “20 Volts of Steel” is as hard as anything on the album, hearkening back to the days of early ‘90s industrial dance like Nitzer Ebb in both tone and execution. “Flashback” is almost literally what is says—an intricate flashback to post-Detroit electro and the early wave of British acid that blossomed with the coming of rave. Think early LFO (the Warp act, not the “Summer Girls” idiots) and you probably have a good idea.
Unhuman avoids falling into the trap of mere retro mummery by virtue of the sheer intelligence harnessed to the purpose of making hardcore dance music. As much as I love electronic music in all its forms, one of the biggest disappointments of the last few years has been the almost wholesale abandonment of the harder dance sound by the progressive electronic establishment. The cheese has always dominated the dance charts, but there have been fewer and fewer intelligent acts in recent years that have even tried to appeal to the middle path—where are the heirs to Daft Punk and the Chemical Brothers, acts that realized that powerful and energetic dance music could be powerfully intelligent as well? Where is the ecstatic application of repetitious rhythm and psychedelic melody that made dance music (to me) the most exciting genre of the ‘90s?
The body is not yet cold, there’s still a pulse, and that pulse is thrumming to the beat of Unhuman. There aren’t likely to be many tracks this year as singularly awesome as “Sikk”, which manages to be not merely a Plastikman homage but a glorious evocation of peak-hour dance-floor transcendence in its own right. This is fearsome smart music, aggressive and cerebral in equal proportions. I love Richie Hawtin to death but I think he and his spiritual cohorts at the Kompakt label have taken the small-scale intricacy of minimal house about as far as it can go. There’s room again for the broad gesture and the mighty bassline—take a look at the Field’s From Here to Sublime for further evidence that emotional, evocative dance music is alive and well, and hasn’t been entirely strangled to death by the madding crowds at Ibiza. Motor have arrived none to soon, and Unhuman, for all its effortless virtuosity, is exactly what we need.
// Notes from the Road
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