[9 January 2008]
Minus is one of those rarified few labels from whom I will buy anything, sight unseen. Thankfully, they don’t put out much. They have earned this allegiance by dint of their singular identification with Richie Hawtin, AKA Plastikman, perhaps the most distinctive techno producer of the last decade. The quality of Hawtin’s work is such as to inspire modern cult devotion of a kind seemingly at-odds with the stripped-down, strikingly minimal music itself. Certainly, music like this inspires just as much in the way of contemplative intellectual appreciation as fervid emotional response—but for those who love techno, I mean really love techno, this is as close to the Godhead as you’re likely to get.
Minus was founded by Hawtin in 1998 to replace his earlier label, Plus-8. Plus-8 has specialized in harder, more intense dancefloor techno of the kind that had been popular throughout the mid-‘90s. But Hawtin moved away from that kind of music, pioneering a far more minimal and intuitively stark sound than had been previously heard. As such, he was a pioneer for the minimal “microhouse” sound that emerged from Germany in the early years of this decade. Tellingly, Hawtin himself eventually relocated from his native Canada to Germany. His last significant release was 2005’s DE9: Transitions a mix album of such monumental intricacy that it left me wondering just where the hell Hawtin could possibly go from there. After you’ve broken sound down into the smallest components possible, disembodied blips traversing the spectral void, what is left?
EXPANSION / contraction begins with a new track by Hawtin under his Plastikman guise. There has always been an interesting line between Hawtin’s work under his own name and as Plastikman: whereas Hawtin’s work has been surpassingly cerebral, Plastikman has always carried more of an emotional heft. 1998’s Consumed took the notion of minimal house about as deep into introspection as it could go, ultimately arriving at a primal, psychedelic intensity. One of Hawtin’s rare missteps came in 2003 when he released Plastikman’s follow-up to Consumed, Closer, an album that—despite some strong tracks—failed to live-up to the high expectations of its predecessor, while also incorporated some regrettable vocals into the mix. (As a lyricist, Hawtin makes a fantastic DJ.) Anyway, “Risk Assessment” contains no vocals, and for this we should be thankful: what it does contain is deep, slinky minimal house, menacing and playful in equal measure. It’s a testament to just how expressive a musician Hawtin is within this blank context that the track comes across as anywhere near as playful, not to mention sexy, as it does.
The playful mood continues throughout the disc. Heartthrob is the nom de plume of Mr. Jesse Siminski, and his “Roundabout” follows up on Hawtin’s tone with an acid-influenced jam that recalls early Plastikman while also looking further backwords to Trax Records, via cheekily-stacked handclaps. Dubfire, of Deep Dish—yeah, that Deep Dish—shows up with “Emissions”, a fun echo-drenched track that also looks back fondly on Mr. Hawtin’s catalog (dig that crazy bouncing ball!) while also injecting just a touch of Deep Dish’s trademark deep house chug. I must admit that I had to check the liner notes twice before I realized that this was that Dubfire, but I’ve always liked Deep Dish and I’m glad to see them (at least one of them) unafraid to branch off into new territories.
Gaiser’s “Mute” is anything but, presenting one of the album’s busier canvases. I have to admit that the track grated on my nerves, however, owing to an unfortunate high-pitched cymbal noise that seemed to be transmitted at exactly the frequency of a headache. I can’t really hold my sensitivity against him, however, so I’ll move on to the next track without a grudge. Marc Houle’s “Porch” is practically a romp by the sedate standards of minimal techno, with ascending and descending synthesizer riffs wobbling over the course of the track with the reckless abandon of a sleepy kitten.
The album’s high point, however, comes with Troy Pierce’s unfortunately CD-exclusive “Oxytocin”. Minimal in sound if not in intention, the track manages to create an epic effect despite its straitened resources. Over the course of ten minutes, discrete melodic riffs are layered one atop each other until the entire thing resembles a menagerie of precisely calculated white-noise. It builds to its eventual climax and then, over the course of the last few minutes, slowly decelerates, slowing all the while each disparate element is allowed to devolve into seemingly chaotic randomness. JPL’s “Isolate” comes on afterwards like a breath of fresh air, a refreshingly straight-forward house beat clearing the cobwebs of intellectual rigor from the disembodied wreckage of “Isolate”.
It’s a nice note on which to go out. EXPANSION / contraction is hardly a definitive statement, but it is a nice retrenchment and restatement of purpose from one of electronic music’s most focused intellects. Whether or not this indicates anything in the way of a new direction for Hawtin or his label, it’s good to see there actually is a way forward.