[2 July 2007]
Few people in recent electronic music history have enjoyed the kind of meteoric rise that Ellen Allien has experienced. As per usual, it’s an overnight success well over a decade in making. Since the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989 and the city’s subsequent unification, through to the birth of modern German club culture—and her first DJ gig in 1992—Allien has been a witness to some of the most defining cultural moments in recent European history. The popularity of techno in the newly unified republic created an atmosphere of innovation and utopian social ideals that carried through from the earliest days of Kraftwerk on to the present, as techno experiences a resurgence in both critical regard and popularity across the world. Although Detroit is without a doubt the birthplace of modern techno, Germany was still the scene of its conception—and now the music has returned home.
Allien’s BPitch Control label stands near the top of the country’s blossoming scene. Although—at least in terms of Anglo-Saxon perceptions—Kompakt remains the most visible label, BPC runs a close second, maneuvering into pole position by sheer force of Allien’s formidable will. By either coincidence or design, Spring of 2007 has seen a handful of techno releases directly spearheaded by Allien and dedicated primarily to her distinctive brand of minimal yet funky techno. This newfound ubiquity is hardly unassuming, however, as the breadth of quality music on display (if not the questionable packaging decisions) leads listeners to believe, if anything, that they have not yet begun to plumb the true depths of quality German techno available for our enjoyment.
BPC has never hewn as closely to the strict minimal template as Kompakt, and as a result their output has been, if not exactly inconsistent, slightly scattershot all the same. The third installment of the label’s Camping series finds this rule more or less intact. “Minimal” for BPC is less an overriding sense of purpose than a methodology, through which the company releases records in a number of different styles and genres—impacting on funk, hip-hop, electro and contemporary progressive. Some of it doesn’t work, and the melange of disparate approaches sometimes results in something more silly than not: Tomas Andersson’s “Go To Disco” rides a fairly cool hi-hat pattern but flounders on the self-parodic vocodor verses. Similarly, Jahcoozi’s minimal grime—harsh and yet strangely anemic—simply sits at such an abstruse angle to the rest of the label’s output that it’s hard to really see to whom this would appeal, if anyone.
But there are easily as many hits as misses scattered throughout. Sascha Funke contributes the spectacularly moody “I Love This Tent” (imagine Pole trying his hand at more straightforward house rhythms). Paul Kalkbrenner’s “Der Senat” is a dark, anxious example of minimal techno that builds on staccato minor-key riffs to surpassingly profound effect. Allien herself shows up twice: once with a slinky, sensual remix of “Where Is Germany and How Do I Get There?” by Safety Scissors (this track seems tailor-made for cramped and sweaty basement parties), and again, with frequent collaborator Apparat, for the brand-new track “Red Planets”. This latter track, along with Ben Klock’s “Similar Colors”, provides the best distillation of what exactly BPC is dedicated to: surpassingly compassionate, multi-textural electronic music that bypasses the traditional dialectic of “minimal” and “mainstream” to reach a more nuanced sense of rhythmic and melodic expressiveness. Whereas a lot of times even the best minimal can seem deracinated, BPC offers a refreshingly complex view of the future.
Allien’s selection for The Other Side is a more satisfying compilation, even if the comparison is kind of unfair: whereas Camping 03 is merely a label comp, with all the limitations thereof, The Other Side is meant solely to represent Berlin, and has the luxury of pulling from throughout the city’s musical history. So, yes, modern minimal techno is well represented, with Allien & Apparat’s excellent, energetic “Way Out” and Monolake’s contemplative “Invisible”. But onetime Berlin resident David Bowie pops up as well, with his essential German-language version of “Heroes” (“Helden”). Canadian expatriate Richie Hawtin is represented with a Plastikman track, “I Don’t Know”, off 2003’s Closer. The most striking thing about Allien’s Berlin selection is just how many of the tracks are culled not from Berlin natives but from people who found their ways to Berlin from elsewhere: Bowie and Tricky (represented on Terranova’s “Bombing Bastards”) are both Brits; Miss Kittin (“Neukoln 2”) is Belgian; Ricardo Villalobos (the epic “Ichso”) is a Spaniard; Carl Craig (whose remix of Rhythm & Sound’s “Poor People Must Work” appears) is an American.
As excellent as the Time Out compilation is, it’s packaged with a rather odd DVD tour of Berlin. I can theoretically see the appeal, and it has apparently proven quite a successful format: eminent musical figures offer both a musical and visual tour of their native cities. But at the same time, I can’t see ever watching the Berlin DVD more than once (the jury is still out on whether I would have bothered to watch it in the first place if I hadn’t had to review it). It’s sort of fun, I guess, to see all the different record stores where Allien shops, and the spas where she receives her massages, and the stand where she eats her curried schnitzel (ew!), but unless you’re planning a vacation, it’s probably of little interest. As it is, it’s hard to avoid the implication that this is something of an infomercial for Berlin’s upscale hipster tourist industry. (The video avoids most of the obvious tourist destinations, but does make a brief stop for a historical tour of a WWII-era bomb shelter, converted into a museum.) Yeah, it’s fun to run into Richie Hawtin hanging out in the park, and I won’t try to tell you that Allien isn’t easy on the eyes, but that’s about the only reason I can think of for sitting through the entire DVD. (Notably, there is no mention anywhere on the DVD’s packaging as to whether or not those retailers featured in the tour paid for the privilege of their exposure.)
If Camping 3 is patchy and The Other Side a slightly exasperating package, Allien’s contribution to the venerable Fabric series is definitely more satisfying: if you buy only one Ellen Allien-related album this year, it should be this. Without any particular mandate other than producing a really good mix, Allien has provided an excellent simulation of her live presence. Starting relatively slow and building in intensity over the course of over an hour, the mix satisfies on just about every level.
Old-school house godfathers Larry Heard and Mr. White show up with “The Sun Can’t Compare”, a refreshingly retro slab of acid (think, say, Soul Jazz’s Can You Jack? compilation). From there Allien segues into the intense tribal techno of Estro’s “Driven” and the deep progressive Pilas remix of Damian Schwartz’s “Tu Y Yo”, ramping up through the massive peak-hour sound of Don Williams’ “Orderly Kaos”. After this initial adrenaline surge, it calms down for a while, with the minimal electro of Artificial Latvamaki’s “It Is Now Either” and Cobblestone Jazz’s spooky “India In Me 2?” Finally, back up the (figurative) hill towards the climax with the surprise appearance of Thom Yorke’s absolutely essential “Harrowdown Hill”, a track whose stately, elegiac mood fits like a glove at the heart of this mix. (It’s hard not to imagine crowds going nuts at the first sound of Yorke’s voice.) Allien’s own “Just A Woman” shows up, as does BPC stalwart Ben Klock with “Journey”, before segueing into the magisterial Plastikman remix of Hertthrob’s “Baby Kate” and finally finishing with the awesome, emotionally powerful “Arcadia”, by Apparat—familiar faces all, but that’s hardly a bad thing.
Each release reveals a slightly different aspect of Allien’s most potent skill, that of collaborator and impresario. Whereas Camping 3 is certainly a fine testament to her direct skills as a label head, it suffers from many of the same problems as many label compilations: a lack of focus, an occasionally annoying eclecticism of the type that is probably more effective when strung out over a number of disparate releases than jumbled onto a single disc. The Other Side offers an excellent and surpassingly wide-ranging mix of influences and touchstones, even if this self-same wide range probably saps some of the focus from an otherwise stellar collection (it goes without saying that it’d be a much better deal without the silly DVD). Fabric 34 is the strongest of the three, and as such presents some of the best electronic music currently being produced today in as attractive a format as you are likely to see. As much as we enjoy sitting in the comfort of our homes and dissecting the intellectual quotient of modern techno, there is no escaping the fact that its true home is and will always be the dancefloor. In a crowded field of faceless DJs, Allien stands out for her intelligence, wit and taste—to have enough music readily available at your fingertips to produce three thematically related but subtly distinctive compilations in short order with no real overlap, and to make them all fairly essential listening ... no mean feat, that.