[9 August 2005]
I’ve never quite been sure what I’m supposed to do with the highly specialized subgenre of minimal techno. On one hand, it tends to lend itself well to dancing, given that there’s a very good chance that the beat you hear at the beginning of a song is the same beat that you’ll hear at the end—there’s very little variation, and nothing that constitutes anything approaching a left turn, in the rhythms inside a single minimal techno track. Put simply, you’ll never trip over your own two feet trying to dance to it. On the other hand, that sort of lack of shift can become tiresome on the dancefloor, pushing many to prefer headphones as the proper way to enjoy these minimalist sounds. Via headphones, the music becomes a meditative exercise, as the steady beats drone on into infinity, eventually becoming background noise for whatever situational sound the listener might also be experiencing.
Of course, there’s always the third option: the car commercial.
Listen to “Incoming (There’s No Way Out)” off of Switch Off the Soap Opera, the latest LP from techno-minimalist stalwart Peter Grummich, and there’s a very good chance that a Lexus comes to mind. Or perhaps a high-end Mitsubishi. As an album opener, it’s got that mix of constant beats, mellow synth-pads, and come-and-go rhythmic elements that the big executives at Automaker Central love so much. Even as “Incoming” is the first track, however, it is hardly representative of the rest of Switch Off the Soap Opera; rather, the other 70 minutes are custom-made for those trusty headphones.
The defining characteristic of much of Switch Off the Soap Opera is a reliance on slightly off-kilter beat/synth-pad combinations. Where a beat might be completely steady and ready-made for a good old-fashioned head-nod, the melodies behind that beat are most likely fighting the beat in favor of something a little bit more freeform. Conversely, there are some off-kilter beats here that, surprisingly enough, fight against more traditional melodic (though usually still rhythmic) elements that are desperately trying to keep those beats on the rails. It’s this treading of the line between off-kilter and traditional-to-the-point-of-generic that allows Switch Off the Soap Opera to remain a compelling listen throughout its entirety.
Treading that line most skillfully, then, is the title track itself, which contains one of the aforementioned straightforward beats, a beat that quietly, subtly dominates the entire track. As that beat glides along, seemingly unaware of any possible peril that might be around it, a masterfully gated synth line shows up, making the track feel oddly unbalanced. As some more abrasive, power-drill style rhythmic elements appear, the track becomes the aural equivalent of seasickness while still retaining an inherent danceability. It’s through the study of this sort of oddness that a song that barely changes over the course of over five minutes can manage to retain the interest of its listener, and Grummich appears to know this as well as anyone. When a song veers too close to the edge of sanity, as later tracks like “Camp Tipsy” and “Bread and Butter” occasionally do, Grummich is sure to quickly introduce or re-emphasize something that grounds it. On the other hand, just as the listener becomes overly comfortable with a track rooted in straight-up dance, Grummich surprises by replacing a sound (“You Don’t Know”, where an icy keyboard is replaced by a warm piano) or providing an aural kick in the pants via a beat change (the end of the creepy “A Roboter” is nothing short of discombobulating).
As if to emphasize that he is an artist not to be pigeonholed, Grummich ends the CD with three exercises in beatless ambience. “Awaking Naked” is a rather lovely set of chord washes, while “Alien Radio Duststar” and “The Kids Playing in the Park” feel rather like two parts of a single abstract journey into space, complete with lots of bleeps and, um, “spacey noises”. Together, the three tracks complete the portrait of Grummich, an artist as multi-faceted as any in the modern electronic scene, though subtly so. The different sides of his musical persona aren’t so much completely different as they are one aesthetic viewed from many different angles. Switch Off the Soap Opera is more interesting than it is exciting, really, but it’s absolutely worth a look from anyone for whom the words “minimal techno” don’t inspire recoiling in horror. At the very least, it’s so much more of an accomplished album than its car commercial of a first track implies.