[16 August 2007]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Most small, independent electronica/dance music labels stake their reputations on one or maybe a couple of the specific subgenres the culture continually generates. The famous German indie Compost is no different. Over its dozen or so years of existence, it’s developed a reputation for classy, smooth downbeat, drum’n'bass, nu-soul, and nu-jazz. With the establishment of the Black Label Series in 2005, the label sought to change or at least expand that perception.
Compost puts it succinctly when it says in its press material, “The aim was to put Compost back on the dancefloor map and into the crates of the world’s leading international DJs.” In keeping with the more purist, DJ-centered scheme, Black Label releases were limited to twelve-inch vinyl EPs. The music was definitely more techno, more danceable, and cutting edge—without betraying the label’s tasteful image. Sure enough, the series was a success, championed by none other than some of the world’s leading international DJs.
It was only fair that at least some of the Black Label material see the light of day on CD, and 2006’s Black Label Series Vol.1 compiled 13 highlights from the first eight EPs. It was a vibrant, almost always thrilling mix of danceable rhythms, left field sounds, even catchy arrangements. How could a second volume possibly top it?
And yet it has. Drawing on Black Label EPs numbers 9-18, Black Label Series Vol.2 narrowly tops its predecessor for danceability, variety, and sheer fun. Impressively, only a couple of the artists from Vol.1 are featured here, with a new crop of forward-thinking knob-twiddlers more than picking up the slack. Even more so than its predecessor, Vol.2 features a preponderance of old-school, analog synthesizer sounds, playing into recent electro and retro-inspired trends. Yet not even Patrick Pulsinger’s “The Clap”, with its tightly-wound bassline, chattering drum machines, and crass sexual references (“Everybody / Got the Clap from you”), comes off as a rehash. It could almost be straight out of Chicago circa 1988, but it has something else that’s clearly 21st Century. Maybe it’s the odd flange effects or the squealing electrofunk synth lines. Anyhow, it’s familiar-sounding yet totally fresh.
The same could be said about most of the dozen tracks here. Shahrokh SoundofK’s “Chicago” starts off with a sampled electric guitar riff and sounds like a lost early Fatboy Slim classic, until a Funkadelic-style space battle takes place in the middle, squiggly synths and lazer cannons dueling it out and blowing your mind. Studio R featuring Capitol A’s “A&R” is the rare track that seamlessly mixes rapping with heavy electro house, working its way up to an ominous synth swell that reminds you of Michael Jackson recording “Thriller” with Prince and New Order instead of Quincy Jones.
The compilation continues to present vintage sounds in new ways. Swiss musician Zwicker (aka Cyril Boehler aka Tweak) gets in a pair of excellent tracks. “I Get My Kicks At Nighttime”, with smooth rhythm guitar and growling live bass, is another of his generation-spanning masterpieces, Chic-meets-Duran Duran-meets-progressive house. “Kumquat” shows he can be just as effective at pulsing, low-key techno. The highlight of the set, though, is Spanish duo Wagon Cookin’s “Start To Play”. Atop an irresistible electro-disco foundation, with an ingratiating bass line, tense synth arpeggios build to a crescendo before the track breaks down. A soulful voice commands, “Let’s get it movin’… / Until the organs in your body start to play / Until the last call… / Until you feel the goodness of the vibrations / In your heart and soul”. As the rhythm kicks back in, a spoken-word voice lays it down for you: “Right here we keepin’ it funky—a little less melodic, because the funk is what you want.” You’ll be left with no other choice than to agree.
True, not everything on Vol.2 measures up to these lofty standards. TJ Kong & Numo Dos Santos’ electro-disco-samba “Circus Bells” is just as likely to get on your nerves as to get them pulsing. Move D’s “Your Rolling Hills” nearly renigs on Compost’s stated goal; it’s a too-pleasant, too-straightforward slice of smooth nu-soul. But near-perfection is a tough standard to meet, and that’s what most of Black Label Series Vol.2 is. There’s so much to uncover in each track; no two sound alike, yet they’re all rooted in a love of classic ‘80s and ‘90s dance music. Crucially, there’s very little retro to it, though. It’s like the past made over into the future, and it cements Compost’s position as one of the few truly envelope-pushing electronica labels around.