If you have no advance knowledge of who Pyrolator is, throw on Neuland and try to guess his age. 26? 31? Nope. How about 54. Kurt Dahlke, the German-born producer behind the 34-year-old moniker, is old enough to be many electronic artists’ dads, yet Neuland shows absolutely no sign of it. Those who know Pyrolator may be even more surprised by what they hear. It’s a sleek, thoroughly modern album of A-level tech-house music, and it’s also the first Pyrolator record after an unheard-of 24-year hiatus. That’s right: Pyrolator released Neuland’s most recent predecessor, Every Second, before the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Most musicians come out of “hiding” as if they’ve been cryogenically frozen — continuing to play what’s familiar to them and consequently appearing like a great fuddy-duddy. But Dahlke spent his non-Pyrolator years engineering electronic records, playing in bands (Der Plan, Fehlfarben), and exhibiting his art in and around Portland, Oregon. Still, Neuland comes with precious little precedent in his own work, solo or otherwise. In keeping with Germany’s new wave and industrial movements in the ‘70s and ‘80s, Pyrolator made electronic music that was stiff, steely, and more than a bit freaky. But this is a man who has been keeping up with both his trends (and also his skills) since the last Pyrolator album in 1988. Quite frankly, if the artist’s name weren’t emblazoned on Neuland’s cover, it would never be recognized as Dahlke’s handiwork. What a wonderful thing, however, for an artist to buck expectations this way.
Neuland plays like a road map of electronic artists and styles within the confines of techno and house. “Am Ufer” begins the album as an unmistakable homage to Kompakt’s Total artists like Justus Köhncke and Jürgen Paape with shimmying, exultant keyboards that sound uniquely German. From there, Neuland moves to forceful dub (“Hamtramck”), epic techno workouts that recall Download and Underworld (“Myrtle & Knickerbocker”, “Another Drippy Day”), and Morgan Geist-like metropolitan minimalism (“Char”). “Vostok” could be the record’s standout: a beefy, quiet-loud techno anthem with the kind of dynamics that World Cup Soccer could embrace. You can almost picture the fans jumping up out of their seats, hands toward the sky, as those huge synthesizers combine with blasts of bass and perfectly straightforward drum programming.
Like Download’s III, the straight techno record by Skinny Puppy’s cEvin Key, Neuland is poised to age well in a way that Dahlke’s other records with DAF, Der Plan, and Fehlfarben have not. It covers most of the bases that a current techno devotee would appreciate, and Pyrolator invokes them with the chops and grace of an old hand sporting new energy. I sometimes get the feeling that Dahlke wrote Neuland more for others than for himself, but that just may be because his songs evoke what people like so well. He isn’t making music others haven’t made before, but he is certainly breaking ground in his oeuvre, and doing it beautifully.