Though his name means nothing to most American dance music fans, Laurent Garnier is a pivotal figure in the history of techno and acid house. A Frenchman who started his DJ career in England, Garnier was among the first jocks to introduce Detroit techno and Chicago house to the UK’s nascent acid house scene. He then went back to Paris and did more or less the same thing there, founding the seminal Paris club Wake Up and launching his label F Communications, which has become synonymous with the Parisian house and techno scene.
Part of the reason Americans don’t know much about Garnier is that we have short attention spans, and he hasn’t released anything since 2000’s Unreasonable Behaviour, his last of three albums of original material. Now, to coincide with the release of a monumental five-CD (or three if you get the American version) collection of Garnier’s DJ sets, Mute is reissuing 1997’s 30, widely considered to be the best, or at least most influential, of his three artist albums. Whether you agree with that assessment depends largely on your point of view — if you’re a casual fan, you’ll probably prefer the more fully realized musicality of Unreasonable Behaviour or the frenetic latter-day acid house of A Shot in the Dark, but if you’re a DJ, the sparse production and expansive, slow-motion arrangements of 30 are hard to beat. Here more than on any other album, Garnier the DJ dictated the choices of Garnier the producer, resulting in a minimalist collection of tracks that many a techno DJ still carries in his or her toolbox.
The best-known track in this set is “Crispy Bacon”, an acid-laced slab of brittle techno with synths that sizzle like an electric chair. “The Hoe” and “Flashback” were also popular tracks back in the day, but their minimalist vibe holds up less well than “Bacon”‘s menacing pulse. More interesting are the tracks on 30 that all but Garnier’s most devoted fans had probably forgotten about — tunes like “For Max”, with its staticky, robot vibe and hypnotic downtempo groove, and “Feel the Fire”, which borrows a page from fellow Parisian Ludovic Navarre’s St. Germain project to conjure up a sparse-yet-soulful ambient house jam.
Other non-techno tracks on 30 yield mixed results. The closing cut “Le Voyage de Simone” is a stunner, a brooding ambient piece with a beautiful female vocal (cheekily credited to Garnier himself on the album credits), but its companion piece, the opening “Deep Sea Diving”, is a little too obviously Eno-esque for its own good, all reverberating bass throbs and subliminally muted synths. “Sweet Mellow D” is an ambient track that threatens for nine minutes to break out into techno, but never quite does, which makes it by turns mesmerizing and frustrating; “Theme From Larry’s Dub” is yet another ambient joint noteworthy mainly for Garnier’s typically sparse, subdued attempt at a Jamaican beat and some spastic flute work from somebody named Malik.
One of the weirder but more interesting tracks on 30 is “Midsummer Night”, an uncategorizable blend of ambient synth chords and skittering percussion patterns that sound arrhythmic and almost abstract as the track opens, but eventually settle into something resembling a consistent beat, as Garnier cleverly layers everything into a symphony of high-hats, clicks, tom-tom beats and squelching synth stabs. The result recalls the minimal techno experiments of Richie Hawtin’s Plastikman, though executed with greater warmth and less claustrophobic density of sound.
The rest of 30 is all about techno, as the track “Kallt!” announces over a defiantly primitive 808 beat. Here and on the vocoder-led “I Funk Up”, as well as on the aforementioned singles, Garnier’s sound is for purists only, dance music stripped down to its bare essentials and carved into the chilly ones and zeros of pure electronic music. Kraftwerk sound like Sly & the Family Stone by comparison. Which, depending on your point of view, makes 30 either a groundbreaking classic or an artistic dead end. Or, I suspect, both.