Techno has found hipsters, and it's lost its hips; Speedy J and Chris Liebing push back.
Hipsters have hijacked techno from ravers. What started in Detroit as a soulful, futuristic cousin of house music that Germans appropriated and turned into "machine musik", that Spaniards turned into tribal grooves, that Italians turned into funky loops, and that Britons turned into avant-garde experiments set to a beat -- has crawled into the crevice of one word: minimal. Change through technology is inevitable, and is what makes techno by definition the most progressive dance music. But ever since several years ago, when electronic music glommed onto "glitch" in a major way, sounds in techno have become increasingly precious. With the advent of software-based production, producers have practically disappeared up their own arses crushing, chopping, and otherwise mangling sounds with the latest plug-ins.
To be sure, marvelous sounds have emerged from this ethic; one need only hear Akufen, the first Clicks & Cuts compilation, or Richie Hawtin's DE9: Transitions to realize the possibilities of shredding time into bits. But now that the novelty of glitch has passed, lesser producers have simply shortened their sounds. Gone are the manic loops of the '90s, which is good in that techno no longer sounds like African drummers enslaved to play one-bar patterns, but bad in that the percussion is gone. For rhythmic inducement, dancers now must hang on for dear life to even the smallest hi-hat -- or, failing that, pop another pill. True, raves are largely a thing of the past, but the term "techno" now connotes clubs filled with track jacket-clad hipsters holding expensive drinks. Techno isn't sweaty anymore. It has found hipsters, and it's lost its hips.
How did this happen? How did music of passion, depth, and release become a soundtrack to repression? Maybe it's growing up, ravers exchanging fat pants for sport coats, and glow sticks for iPods. Maybe it's new drugs, with the cheap thrills of cocaine replacing the embarrassing emotions of ecstasy. Dancefloors, too, have tired of pounding, repetitive loops. But when any artform swings so much to one extreme, it loses range and diversity. Left and right, major techno DJ's are jumping on the minimal bandwagon. Perhaps that's because minimal techno dominates not only what's out in record shops, but also what's booked in clubs. Are techno DJ's moving with the times, or are they trading their identities for euros?
Thankfully, Speedy J and Chris Liebing have (mostly) not fallen prey to trends. Each has pursued a long, distinguished path through techno. Speedy J is Dutch producer Jochem Paap, who got the nickname due to his DJ skills. In the early '90s, for Richie Hawtin's Plus 8 label, Paap produced banging acid techno anthems like "Pannik" and "Pullover". Since then, he has released albums that run the gamut of electronic music, from melodic ambience (G-Spot) to heady downtempo (A Shocking Hobby) to hard, loops-based techno (Loudboxer). Paap is a producer's producer fluent with technology and extracting sounds from it: "I'm a musician and I can paint any picture I want to do".
Until recently, Chris Liebing has been known for one thing: hard techno. Many techno enthusiasts will say that the hardest techno set they've ever heard came from Chris Liebing. Liebing rose through the techno ranks in the early '90s through studio production, DJ'ing in Frankfurt, and working for influential trance label Eye-Q. Although Liebing is probably the foremost name in hard techno today, his recent Techno Division Vol. 4 mix curiously contains two discs, one of minimal techno and one of hard techno (hard techno DJ Marco Bailey has released a similarly split double mix set, while Mistress Barbara, known for hard and funky techno, has gone wholesale minimal with her new mix CD Come with Me…).
Collabs 3000 is a collaboration between Paap and Liebing. The two first met when Liebing asked Paap for a remix on his CLR label. Further encounters found Liebing mixing out of Paap's live sets and the two eventually joining forces on a live show that features improvisation using laptops, samplers, controllers, and effects. Metalism takes this collaboration into the studio, and is unapologetically hard. The album combines Paap's deep atmospherics with Liebing's dancefloor expertise, resulting in a listen that's as good for the head as it is for the feet.
Though unmixed, Metalism is paced like a live set, starting quietly and building to a peak before coming back down. Album opener "Lego" is three minutes of ambience that blossoms into ominous echoes and machine noises. The kick finally drops with "Modish Ride", a straightforward track with buzzing hi-hats and filtered atmospherics. "Triflon" follows, and is the biggest surprise here. It's the closest thing to "minimal" either Paap or Liebing has done, with glitchy, twitchy sounds over a laidback house groove. Things heat up with "Hilt", a schaffel track that brings to mind robots dancing with their shoulders. The album peaks with "Tunox" and "Acid Trezcore". The former rumbles with a filthy bassline that erupts out of nowhere as compressed snares and kicks hammer away. The latter was allegedly made during a Netherlands-Germany football match, which would explain its delightfully hostile vibe. No holding back here -- it's all hard-nosed kicks, muttering synths, and insistent ride cymbals.
From here, the album gradually backs down. There's another schaffel track, a menacing ambient interlude, a percussive workout, and a softly pulsating finale. But the album's highlight is a live track tacked on at the end. It's a seven-minute snippet of a Collabs 3000 performance, which typically spans four to six hours. Judging from the uproarious crowd noise, the excerpt comes from peak time. After three minutes of high-speed, banging techno, Paap and Liebing bring things down to a crawl, something impossible to do with turntables. Metallic atmospherics hover in the air as sounds reenter. A stab comes in, then a percussive loop, then full-bodied ambience. The layers move faster and faster, the whole mix viciously poured into filters that dive down, then climb higher, higher, higher… boom. Kick drums, sheets of ride cymbals, and shuddering stutter edits rain down on the dancefloor. 16 bars in, the rides drop out, but they irrepressibly return 12 bars later. The rides eventually yield to chugging express train rhythms. The body knows what to do with grooves like that -- no drugs are necessary. You can bet your life that people were sweating at that party.