The machinelike regularity with which the Kompakt label churns out music would be annoying if the music in question wasn’t so damn essential. Every years since 2000 has seen the release of a new Total compilation, compiling the previous year’s vinyl-only releases as well as a number of exclusive tracks and remixes. It’s pretty damn amazing to realize that the best new music from Kompakt still sounds like nothing else being produced today. The label’s signature “microhouse” sound may have been adopted (plagiarized?) far and wide across the electronic music world, but there is no substitute for the label’s distinctive attitude, a blend of aesthetic austerity and intellectual playfulness that creates a uniquely intimate effect in a genre often dismissed for impersonality.
The latest bulletin from the label provides a surprisingly eclectic snapshot of the current state of techno. Every independent label that rises to prominence on the strength of an identifying sound faces a challenge when their trademark identity begins to show signs of age. This is especially true in the fashion-forward world of electronic music, where genres are often mistaken for fads and the half-life of any subculture is usually inversely proportional to how popular it was in the first place. It often seems as if certain sounds are abandoned by the trendspotters simply because they become popular in the first place. God forbid the hoi polloi should like something.
In any event, Total 7 manages the neat trick of having its cake and eating it too. For those who love the label’s classic sound, there is plenty here to love. It should not be considered derogatory to refer to many of these tracks as “more of the same”, when the “same” in question is shit-hot minimalist techno that never fails to impress with its facility for teaching new tricks to old dogs. But the barriers that separate distinctive genres of electronic music are never quite as absolute as the tastemakers would have you believe, and seeing the label break out from a more rigorously orthodox understanding of techno feels a lot more natural than skeptics might expect.
The first disc seems to be dedicated to the type of music with which Kompakt rose to prominence. Kontrast’s “Grey Skies to Blue” is an appropriately melancholy bit of synth-infused techno that leads off with an understated vibe. Tracks by folks like Triola, Gui Boratto and DJ Koze are reminiscent of the very best of early compilations. But there’s something else here as well, an increased sense of melodic possibility in songs like Justus Kohncke’s “Love and Dancing” and the Modernist’s “Pearly Spencer” that brings to mind both 80s synth-pop and later acid house. When your music is this minimal to begin with, the most basic elaboration can seen like a radical departure. The disc closes on an odd note, with Mikkel Metal’s (literally) off-beat downtempo “Ulyt” and the Rice Twins’ “For Penny and Alexis”, which manages to achieve a slightly trancey effect with delicate minor-key melodies contrasted against atmospheric synth sweeps.
But if the first disc sees the initial stirrings of change, the second disc breaks the template almost entirely. The Supermayer remix of Gui Boratto’s “Like You” could play in the peak hour of any superclub on the continent—it still carries Kompakt’s distinctive sound, but it’s got actual vocals and the kind of synth vamp that creates an instantly identifiable sonic footprint. If anything the label has ever produced could qualify as an “anthem”, this is it—but not one of those icky cheese-ball anthems, just a real honest-to-Gosh catchy tune. Robert Babicz’s “Sonntag” features, wonder of wonders, authentic drum sounds, with jazzy breakbeats and crisp hi-hats dueling with bright synth noises to create a pleasing dichotomy. Steadycam’s “Knock-Kneed” seems like a far more conventional house track filtered through an odd phlanger effect. If I didn’t know better, Jurgen Paape’s “Take That” could have easily wandered in off the latest DFA compilation, with stomping bass drums and handclaps offset against retro-cornball synthesizers.
Hug’s “The Happy Monster”, in addition to having probably the best title on the set, is a rare example of what seems to be minimal acid. Axel Bartsch’s “Redlight” could have been a dancefloor hit fifteen years ago, but somehow escapes the appearance of merely another retro exercise. Another example of a more restrained acid sound, Reinhard Voigt’s “Tranceformation” is as compelling a house track as you’ll hear all year. That is, of course, until you get to the Field’s “Over the Ice”, which somehow manages to seem vaguely trancey while eschewing the more disgusting traits of that genre, all over the scaffolding of a hard charging microhouse beat. The album finishes with Jonas Bering’s “Melanie”, as close to a gentle lullaby as you’re likely to find in the genre—sure to be a staple of many end of the evening DJ sets.
Although their novel status as the flavor-of-the-moment may have lapsed, Kompakt remains one of the most exciting labels currently operating. The only way to stay on the top of the game is to continue producing compelling music, and in this respect they are succeeding admirably. They are, quite simply, very good at what they do, and what they do is producing really good techno music. Anyone looking for one of the surest bets in today’s musical climate is invited to look no further.