[14 January 2010]
Those in the know will recognise Mathias Kaden for his strand of techno that is both minimal and not. That’s because he likes to subject his bleeping monochrome soundscapes to a flurry of polyrhythms. But when you listen to “Swahili” on his Lucidas EP (2008), you’ll notice that Kaden has extended his fondness for percussion to a taste for color. Its techno beat is restrained from becoming forbidding, as its razor-sharp edges succumb to the elastic bounce of the synthesiser. Its rhythmic potential is realised by the warmth of African drumming while the odd paroxysmal flare of a jazz chord and flute loop channel do the rest to shatter any trace of grey. The result is an entrancing piece of aural theatre, one that undulates between the harshness of industrial reality and the intensely socialising affair of a tribal dance. In short, it’s edifying music, and no flash in the pan, thanks to similar treatments that make up Kaden’s debut album on Berlin label Vakant.
For the past decade, Kaden has been drip-feeding EPs and remixes on the self-described philosophy that timeless quality triumphs over trend-chasing quantity. Perhaps that explains why he is practically chief international diplomat for Vakant. Now he has the LP Studio 10, which took him nearly two years to perfect. And thank goodness for that. Like “Swahili”, the album is resolutely different from his oeuvre thus far. It finds Kaden at his most melodic and most willing to explore other genres.
To realise this swing in the weathervane, he hired a bunch of session musicians and friends playing real instruments as well as vocalists. But with this new development comes a risk. Certain tracks like opener “Intro Ducing”, with their spit-polished production and melodious sheen, teeter on the brink of clichéd dance track, to be heard principally on ubiquitous dance/chill-out compilations. That they don’t for the most part comes down to Kaden’s measured use of color, with an emphasis on texture, to build quirky sound collages. On “Lowrey”, for instance, we hear the fleeting appearance of a squelchy Lowrey organ, its selective application sufficient in making atypical an otherwise standard broken-beat number with a pummelling sub-bass. “Panic Stricken”, meanwhile, would make ripe Bargrooves material, were it not for a deliciously facile dialogue between the guttural Ian Simmonds and Martin Ruddloff’s flugelhorn. What we have instead hails St Germain.
As if the yang of his darkly musical output has found the yin of a more sensual genre, Kaden also dabbles in new age music. “Kawaba”, featuring the ethereal murmurings of Japanese singer Tomomi Ukumori, sounds like pure Kitaro but for the cavernous layering characteristic of Kruder and Dorfmeister. “Kawaba” works because it draws out the electronic elements endemic in new age music, makes them dank and murky, and so fit for play in a nightclub. “Re Menor”, on the other hand, is unadulterated triteness. With its gentle guitar strums resonating into a sort of windswept soundscape inhabited by a weeping violin played by Claudia Ander-Donathand, the song beckons to make the roster of Café Del Mar.
Kaden also revisits familiar territory. On “Chazz”, he showcases his taste for musique concrete, as heard on 2006’s Synkope EP. What sounds like paper-tearing, a bang of a spoon on a bowl and steady drips of water are weaved together to form the track’s rhythmic embroidery. Add to it a jab of the Lowrey, deep-throated vocal mumblings, a bleep of brass and you have a veritable sound collage set to a pounding house beat and onomatopoeic bassline. It’s a potent brew.
Then there is “Mascleta”, a rhythmic assault yoked to pulverising techno that summarises Kaden’s oeuvre pre-“Swahili”. The track begins with a polyrhythmic melange of echoing handclaps, shadowy hits on tom toms and the odd clatter of metal. Sounds steadily build up with an ominous synthesizer sequence bringing things to a boil. Another synthesizer then buzzes into and out of focus, completing this sonic rendition of something like the happenings at a ship-building plant.
Final track “1981” is Kaden’s homage to house music and its instrumental poster child: the Roland TR-808. Featuring a revolving bass reel over the pitter-pattering of said drum machine plus the frivolous murmurings of Gjaezon, “1981” is a track you’d expect to find on a Superclubb compilation. In other words, you’ve probably heard it before.
Kaden said in an interview that in using vocalists on the album, he endeavoured to find a union between electronic dance music and traditional song composition. On “Panic Stricken”, for instance, Ian Simmonds’s guttural croon offers much more than the vocal flotsam that so readily creeps into dance numbers like “1981”. Tomomi Ukumori is also undoubtedly the main attraction on “Kawaba”. Gjaezon’s universal rallying cry on “State of Stasis”, on the other hand, is an interesting if not entirely original attempt at setting spoken word against a gyrating electronic mix. Its lack of charisma, though, makes Gjaezon’s extended meditation more annoying than vital. On all other tracks that feature vocals, namely “Intro Ducing”, “Re Menor” and “1981”, the voice provides no more than window-dressing.
Even so, with Studio 10 Kaden has successfully extended his most accessible record yet, a gesture that came through extending his own bounds. The LP also stands to fulfill Kaden’s aim at producing a timeless record. You would be hard pressed to say whether the album was produced in the ‘90s or today. You can either look at this as a lack of originality, with some of the material fodder-in-the-making for big name compilations that never seem to charge ahead, or as a sign of continuing relevance. With outstanding production values on tracks like “Lowrey”, and “Swahili” before it, my betting is on the latter.