In a 2004 interview with Detroit’s Metro Times, famed minimal techno producer and DJ Richie Hawtin (you might know him as F.U.S.E. or Plastikman) reasoned that Detroit techno was well received in Berlin because both cities tended to leave many of their inhabitants feeling like outcasts. Electro-fied dance parties, with their atmosphere of acceptance and free-range hedonism, offer the perfect escape from such oppressive climates, he asserted.
Listening to this double CD set of beloved and previously unheard techno tracks from Berlin’s Cabinet label, one senses both the urban isolation and the dancefloor liberation that Hawtin, whose Plus 8 imprint is responsible for this release, describes. With its post-human, post-industrial, and postmodern trajectories, electronic dance music immediately suggests the varieties of alienation endemic to late capitalist society. But to be post-anything is to always keep that anything in sight, to define the self in opposition to the abandoned other. So the odors and motions of gyrating bodies, the optimism encouraged by technological revolutions, and the formalist concerns of high Modernism are never far from sight. The songs here may be futuristic, but they are not strictly Futurist.
Such delineations matter little in sweaty clubs, though, so it should be first noted that most of these tracks boast choice rhythms. Disc One, Classics, revives legendary singles by Compass, Horseshoe, and Cab Drivers. These cuts provide purist readings of transnational techno’s aesthetic, bubbling with dense layers of polished 909 pulses, airtight bass grooves indebted equally to dub and funk, snatches of disco-nodding hi-hat, and the occasional Roland keyboard plink. And as with many techno comps, tracks are well composed and differentiated, but the artists themselves don’t necessarily have unique styles—Classics could pass for a single-producer affair.
The compilers think equally as highly of the outtakes that populate Disc Two, Unreleased Classics. Featuring all aforementioned artists as well as ONS Project, DJ Trike, Karo Zwo, Todd Bodine, and label founder Daniel P, the collection’s second half includes more rhythmic surprises and ambient flourishes than the first half. You might have to be a bit creative when working some of these tracks into your next iPod DJ set, but you’ll find that the Unreleased Classics are also uniformly excellent.
Exuberance abounds on both discs. With “Arcade”, Cab Drivers build a richly textured piece from only rhythmic components, masterfully playing the timbres of each percussive device off of one another. Compass 4’s “Moonflight 1557-08” delivers on its title’s promise, undergirding its expansive beats with shimmering, escapist acid textures. Horseshoe also contributes an aptly named song: “Bassfunk” interjects ecstatic, high-pitched tremors of punctuation into its insistent throb.
But there are a number of other instances in which the music feels a bit unheimlich. DJ Trike’s “Turbulenze” is a bit of a party-killer: it’s too thick and slow to dance to. But usually the queasiness is understated, more a sneaking suspicion than an outright proclamation of doom. Sinister synths trickle into ONS Project’s “Michele”, and the beat even drops out of Compass’s “Cab Driver” as paranoid ambient washes creep onto the scene.
Also unsettlingly ethereal is the way in which ghosts of pop music’s past flitter by. The opening drumroll and submerged frequencies of Horseshoe’s “So Closed” are straight out of King Tubby, but this track sounds even more zonked-out and distant than an old dub side; to hear this song is to hear a barely-there reggae transmission from beyond the grave. Less striking but still notable are the drawn-out, Harmonia-hearkening four-note keyboard melody that unfurls in Compass’s “Gliding” and the 1970s dance music pastiche (some jazz-funk keys here, some blocky, conga-like drum machine there, a bit of hi-hat Tom Moulton would dig) in Horseshoe’s “Honey”. Like war-ravaged Berlin, this music cannot fully distance itself from its past; it can only hope to shift its pitch, to transcribe it, to let it filter in piece-by-piece rather than replay itself all at once.