Ah, Kompakt. How wonderful it is to describe at glorious length the virtues of such a singularly delightful label. For those who, like myself, have suffered long in the wasteland of a post-“electronica” domestic music industry, seeing the meteoric rise of this sturdy independent breed of new techno has been a deeply pleasurable experience. Which is not to say that Superpitcher’s latest disc is expected to ship platinum—merely that in recent years electronic music has been considered a backwater by all but the most fervent aficionados. The rise of Kompakt (as well as kindred labels such as BPitch Control) has changed that. Considering the startling degree to which electronic music has been dominated by the idea of fashion, the success of a business model built on quality music, on critical acclaim and word-of-mouth, is simply a dream come true.
How many once-promising labels have disappeared in the last few years? How many indie and semi-indie labels have divested their roster of any but the most successful international electronic music acts? The fact is that the music’s current salvation has come from one of its most orthodox styles—old-school techno. Sure, you can call it “microhouse” if you want. There are small differences between what the Kompakt crew are producing in Germany and what folks like Juan Atkins produced in Detroit some twenty years ago—but the beast is still recognizably, and delectably, techno. The minimal, uncluttered style, with modernist record covers, and little bother for the accoutrements of music industry largesse, could not conceivably be more resolutely techno in execution. For those who tuned out when the cult of the Superstar DJ reigned supreme, or when the fanatical fashionistas of the electroclash belch tried to conduct a hostile takeover of the DJ booth, you can come back: the signal virtues of techno have been reinstated. All hail understated modesty, moderation, and a nigh-utopian sense of conscientious artistry.
But it would be one thing if it were only the ideal of Kompakt which appealed: as it stands, the label is also producing some of the very best music in the world. As you might have imagined from the title, Total 6 is the sixth episode in Kompakt’s ongoing label anthology series. Whereas label anthologies can sometimes seem fatuous or superfluous, the Total series is never less than essential, featuring tunes that you might never have otherwise heard if you weren’t either A) in the throws of a prohibitively expensive import vinyl habit or B) an inveterate file-sharer. Those of us who are content to receive our music from less dedicated outlets can simply rejoice that the good people at Kompakt are so diligent in their urge to compile.
The two-disc set begins with DJ Koze’s “Hicc Up”. It’s a dark and supple track, basically an ominous bassline with spare, stuttered rhythmical elements placed above. Justus Kohncke’s “Kreig” is lazy and sleek like a disco b-side, filled with underplayed menace. Aguayo / Rossknecht’s “Bouncin A Round” is a marvel of perpetual motion, a slowly building nexus of whirring and clicking machinery that spends six minutes slowly disassembling itself until falling into its component parts. Thomas Fehlmann’s “Schone Grusse” is a wonder of intricately designed melody.
“The Difference It Makes” by The Mfa presents a gradually rising and shifting phalanx of synthesizer chords that come to resemble a glimpse of Heaven as seen through clouds on a rainy day. Jurgen Paape’s “Cream” would almost have to have been inspired by “Billie Jean”, with its signature hybrid of a stripped-down bass kick and muffled rim shot. It evolves into something more luminescent, however, with synthesizer parts approximating the effect of sunrise on a darkened landscape. Reinhard Voigt’s “Ready For Take Off” brings things back to a more fevered pitch, with the kind of anxious, industrial propulsion favored by the likes of Speedy J.
The second disc begins with Dirk Leyer’s “Wellen”, a slab of arch, effortlessly cosmopolitan instrumental synth pop that brings to mind the very best Kraftwerk remixes that never were. Label superstar (if such a thing is possible) Superpitcher contributes “Tell Me About It”, a melancholy club number illuminated by a repeated piano riff and a faint Dead Can Dance-ish vocal sample. I imagine that it would stand out with a hallucinatory ferocity in a live setting. Mayer / Aguayo offer up a deadpan minimal cover of Kylie Minogue’s “Slow”—the track was already a masterpiece of techno restraint, now it’s practically a Zen koan to sensuality (albeit executed with a cheeky German vocal reminiscent of A Number of Names’ famous “Shari Vari”).
Jonas Bering’s “Glass” approximates the experience of standing in the middle of a vast cathedral and hearing a cacophony of bells resound while listening to Daft Punk on your headphones. Ferenc’s “Tracatra” is deadly-smooth like a jungle cat. “Frozen World” by Peter Grummich is an uncharacteristically dense construction of echoing synthesizers and shuffling snares, with a satisfying pinch of acid enlightenment thrown in for good measure. The disc closes with The Field’s “Action”, a pulsating track built almost wholly off a string sample from one of the most famous R&B songs ever recorded—I won’t rob you of the pleasure of recognition, but the familiar refrain is repeated until it becomes a voiceless mantra, a battering ram of emotional poignancy that threatens to overwhelm the listener.
At its core, this is what techno is all about: the abnegation of the self, the act of unconditional surrender before a greater musical power. There is no room for ego in the world of techno, because the music demands selflessness and asceticism. At its very best, the music of the Kompakt label surpasses the circumscribed notions of limited emotional capacity at the heart of computer music and embraces the possibilities of spiritual rigor through precision and discipline. In some ways it’s an impossible ideal, but it touches something deep in the hearts of the faithful. For an irreligious congregation, techno represents the most profound mystical communion possible.