Kenny Larkin, a wildly inventive luminary in the second wave of Detroit techno, returns with a renewed sense of focus and purpose to deliver one of his best albums to date.
There’s a moment on “Drone” where it finally happens: Kenny Larkin just starts panting. Six tracks in, and it’s amazing that he waited this long on Keys, Strings, Tambourines to let loose with the literal component of the primal sound of sweat that permeates this masterful comeback. This album isn’t just a comeback for Larkin, whose playful techno creations took a back burner for the past few years to forays into acting and stand-up comedy, but for the kind of second-wave Detroit madness that Larkin was partially responsible for in the first place. It’s not for nothing that this release is his first for Planet E, Carl Craig’s recently resurrected label. So no, the pants here aren’t out of place, but rather a natural by-product of excitement and passion.
Contrary to the stereotype of techno and house makers as anonymous, shadowy beings, Larkin’s never been opposed to cultivating a personality and an image. Through sound and vision (just check out the album cover for 2004’s The Narcissist), one can understand Larkin as a highly sexualized alien force, content to throw his mind and soul into some spectacular creations. To this day, I’d be hard pressed to find a piece of ambient house or techno that stands up to “Tedra”, off his 1994 classic Azimuth. The Narcissist saw Lark placing his faith in this persona to a fault, as productions tended to move a bit too close to lounge keyboard ephemera, but Keys is back to that techno-shaman mien. Perhaps acting has taught Larkin how to be himself in his productions again.
“Androgenous” starts things off with a bang, as Larkin wastes no time laying on the thick batter of massive synth sounds. The percussion pays homage to the rigidity of the old school Roland machine sequencers -- heck, there’s even the 808 cowbell sound poking its head out in the mix. Yet beneath the loops and repetitions, there’s some clear soloing going on here in the form of a buzzing, organ-esque synth, detuned just the right amount to suggest the disorienting sensory overload utopia from which I suspect Larkin’s soul originates. Lark’s more minimal tendencies come straight out of the cyber-jungle on cuts like the aforementioned “Drone”, an exercise in breathing maracas, panting, and descending bass lines. The dubby pad stabs on “Wake Me” are on the opposite end of this scale, soundtracking some very precise audio architecture. “Wake Me” is a William Gibson novel of a track, traversing surreal highs and reaching menacing bass crawls.
The lounge house pianos are back again, but much more urgent this go around. Once again, the self-evident live vibe and Rhodes work on “Vibin’” is sure to raise heart rates a bit. “Glob” is a love letter to everything great about Larkin’s ambient productions, featuring ascending vibe chimes and luminescent pads raising the whole production to the level of the sky church. Speaking of religion, the first single, “You Are…(Light)”, features Larkin reciting passages from cultural phenomenon/literary snake oil The Secret. Neither book nor documentary version of The Secret convey the kind of otherworldly life-force energy that Larkin does with some delayed synths and his own choked-up declarations. Whether or not Lark actually believes in The Secret is really beside the point -- think of this more as a supernatural soul being observing human practices.
It’s an odd experience, seeing videos of Larkin doing standup. There has to be a split side of his brain that makes the observations about exotic items at a Chinese restaurant. Certainly this derives not of the same muse who laid down something as hazy and funky as “Cirque de Soul”, or as crucial as “Androgenous”. Regardless of where acting and comedy take him, it’s good to see that Lark can still dedicate time to making heart-thumping music.