Plastikman: Kompilation

[12 January 2011]

By Timothy Gabriele

Ritchie Hawtin was once the preeminent voice of minimalist techno. He still is, I guess. It’s just that the field has exponentially crowded since Plastikman’s more prolific years. The 303-wielding genius son of a Canadian auto-worker discovered Detroit techno early, revolutionized it quickly, and left a trail of releases that is intimidating by anyone’s standards. His pedigree has been around for longer than many of today’s younger club kids have been alive, and he has cut six albums and 17 singles as Plastikman alone, which is not to mention the bazillion other monikers and collaborations he’s stamped his name on.

Thus, there’s a reason why Kompilation is called Kompilation and not Greatest Hits (Or Classiks or some other variation with an inappropriately placed “k”). No eight track single disc collection could do justice to all of the phases and best ideas of Hawtin’s Plastikman alter ego. Inevitably, those coming to Kompilation expecting a career retrospective will be miffed by the absence of a favorite track (I’m particularly fond of “Korridor” myself), but as a collection, Kompilation is nearly flawless, functioning nicely as teaser, overview, and history lesson.

Plastikman embraced and vaunted all of techno’s most criticized and lamented angles—coldness, sterility, dehumanization, repetition, sameness, rejection of melody, and the favoring of production over performance. Furthermore, Plastikman’s brand of minimalism renounced house’s histrionics almost to the point where Hawtin’s output could be considered stoic, a functionalism that nearly bleeds the subject dry, indistinguishable from a recurrent loop in the ways in which Barnett Newman could be indistinguishable from drywall. That it was still able to extract an emotional response from his music nonetheless is a considerable feat. Even more impressive, Plastikman was able to pull the installation, art music, into the club and leave his audiences thirsting for more.

Plastikman is not a sophisticate’s music. It’s quite easy to understand, in fact. “Helikopter”, for instance, offers up exactly what it promises, with a four-to-the-floor drum pattern that patterns cyclically, phasing in and out like the gears of the aforementioned air transport. In the tradition of the industrial and post-punk pioneers of the late 1970s, Hawtin heard music in found mechanical sound and tried to replicate it using rudimentary machines, but here, Hawtin disposes of the dust and grit and builds his model directly from the crisp promotional video aspect ratio. It wasn’t a music that sought to expose the secret organic mess of industrialization a la post-punk. Rather, it dispelled the rhetorical agitprop and questions of control/agency altogether and found quiet glory in the pure automatization of late capitalist production, the churning out of military equipment and records equal gears in the same engine.

“Kriket”, like “Helikopter”, attempts to electronically simulate a field recording, buzzing with insectoid noise for two minutes before dizzying rhythm machine fills and backwards masked noises come in. The track assumes an unlikely vitality and urgency until it is abruptly cut off and robo-crickets come back in. Like he was scoring a nature film, Hawtin captures the thrill of the hunt and then shows how sudden it’s over. There’s little interest in narrative here, fascinating as it may be. Plastikman regards process first, even the inhabitants of the animal kingdom are machines of a kind.

Cuts like 1993’s “Plasticine” and 1994’s “Spastik” illustrate how Plastikman’s slow build was always far more about scarcity than austerity. Anti-pop as Plastikman was, the project was never as inapproachable as latter-day mnml-ists like Ricardo Villalobos, Basic Channel, and Wolfgang Voigt, who investigated the limits of listen-ability at times. Hawtin was always more about focus than reduction. The low volume of notes in the recordings made each individual note more important, particularly when they’d plateau as they do in the transcendent last few minutes of “Spastik”. A wash of hypnotic and subtle gradations in phasing and panning, the fractional slivers of the song eventually rise in tension and culminate in a climaxing THX sound on its way out.

“Marbles” resembles 808 State’s “Flow Coma”, but recorded underneath a club banging it out, stuck in a maddening locked groove without a key to get out.  “Panikattack” is so cold it flutters, inviting its listeners in both title and iteration to seizure. The monotonous single pitch bass makes this reviewer think of Atari and Intellivision games such as Night Stalker, whose drama was underscored by a lone ominous and flat note played ad nauseum. “Contain” is probably as close to noir blues as minimalism is legally allowed to get. The sinister bass and drum machine finger-snap alternates amidst pretty Mayday strings in a finely sculpted tonotopic echo chamber, giving the track an eerie resonance that deviates from the rest of the selections, which practically shun reverb.

The album ends with “Ask Yourself”, the only cut made in the current century,  and it is even more divergent from the Plastikman path in its application of sinister low-end vocals. The lyrics demand answers from the self, which seem to be nowhere to be found amidst the “voices in your head” and “echoes of your indecision”. Here, the brain’s entire cognitive infrastructure is reduced to a construct of outside influences, not so much a conglomerate frankenself, but a decentralized network of selves pulling and tearing at each other, a metaphor for the current postmodern condition in which post-Hawtin techno is most certainly implicated. Kinda makes you long for the simplicity and cold sterility of “Helikopter”, doesn’t it?

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