Few words in the realm of dance and electronic music are more fraught with peril than "artist album". Many a gifted DJ/producer/remixer has stumbled when it comes to drawing together a full-length collection of their own work. Creating individual tracks and assembling DJ sets are no easy tasks, but compared to putting together an entire album, they're child's play. Just ask BT, a brilliant producer whose last album Movement in Still Life was a jumbled mess, or Paul Van Dyk, whose Out There and Back paled in comparison to his DJ mix releases.
Enter Timo Maas, the German DJ/producer who conquered clubland a few years ago with his slashing remix of Azzido da Bass' "Doom's Night" and has since gone on to remix everyone from Fatboy Slim to Madonna. Loud is actually Maas' third album (behind 2000's 12-inch and remix compilation Music for the Maases and last year's DJ set Connected), but his first "artist album" -- and so represents a debut of sorts, even though Maas claims to have been making music for 20 years. What will the mad genius behind the squelching death ray basslines of "Doom's Night", the giant funky scissor attack of "No Trance", and the bone-rattling Teutonic techno of "Der Schreiber" do with an uninterrupted seventy-plus minutes?
From the get-go on Loud, it's clear that Maas intends to take his trademark "wet, percussive" style and push it in a more mainstream direction. And at first, this approach works brilliantly. The opening track "Help Me" cleverly borrows horns and theremin from the fifties sci-fi thriller The Day the Earth Stood Still and makes great use of a sultry lead vocal from R&B diva Kelis. When melded with a bouncy house backbeat and a classic "wet" Maas bassline, the results are catchy, dancefloor friendly, and unmistakably Maasian all at once.
Elsewhere, however, Maas' forays into more conventional song structure tend to falter, thanks mainly to weak vocals and corny lyrics that overshadow some interesting instrumental arrangements. "Shifter" starts off promisingly with the kind of pulsating electro bass riff that only Maas seems able to create -- then it devolves quickly into a cheesy electro-funk workout featuring MC Chickaboo, whose vocals are exactly as silly as her name would suggest. Fans of the Basement Jaxx/Daft Punk school of electro-revivalist shlock will probably enjoy "Shifter", but Maas may hear cries of sellout from his hardcore trance/techno followers. "To Get Down" is a little better, and is already a big hit in the UK, where its anthemic techno-stomp chorus evokes shades of early nineties Madchester. But here again Phil Barnes' characterless delivery of mindless lyrics (What comes around just goes around / This is the sound, it's time to get down") undermines the potential fun of hearing Maas in fist-pumping mode. Dreary British trip-hopper Finley Quaye is thankfully relegated to the forgettable "Caravan", and vocal chameleon Martin Bettinghaus fails at impersonations of both a generic American rock star ("That's How I've Been Dancin'") and well, I'm guessing Beck, but he winds up sounding more like Praga Khan on the otherwise very groovy "Ubik: The Breakz".
Fortunately, half of Loud is vocal-free, and it's here that Maas' music really shines. Fans may still be surprised, however -- only three tracks sound remotely like his prior "big room" anthems. My personal favorite is the archly titled "Old School Vibe" -- a raver's wet dream of chunky bass, big dive-bombing synths, and even some very old-school trance riffs and melodramatic chord progressions. The track's title and its by-now cliched components seem to suggest that Maas is having us on here, proving how effortlessly he can throw this sort of techno-trance mayhem together -- but what the hell, it still works, and Maas still does peak-hour builds better than almost anyone. "Like Love" builds nicely into a trippy soundscape of alien synths and movie-soundtrack strings, but what I like best about it, and the propulsive, ominous "Manga", is Maas' knack for conjuring up weird sound effects that no other electronica producer has ever conceived of. The oscillating, insectoid buzz that leads off "Manga" isn't as in-your-face as that whipsawing death ray on "Doom's Night", but it's just as ear-catching, and it's an example of the sort of thing that makes Timo Maas such an extraordinary artist in the too-often formulaic world of dance music. He makes synthesizers live and breathe in a way no one else can -- which may be what he's trying to get at when he describes his music as "wet".
Elsewhere on Loud, Maas expands his sound even further, slowing down the pace to surprisingly good effect. "Hash Driven" gives a nod to the Asian Underground with a hip-hop beat and a groovy East-meets-West mix of sounds, while "Hard Life" and "Bad Days" are nicely understated pieces of ambient electronica, with characteristically rich lower registers and uncharacteristically pretty keyboards and synths. The standout among all the departures, however, is "O.C.B.", which mixes trancey synth effects and Middle Eastern drone with a rock 'n' roll beat and a great guitar hook (yes, you heard me -- a Timo Maas track with a guitar hook). Others have ventured into this sort of midtempo electronica territory, but hearing Maas' rolling basslines and sticky synths do it is a revelation. More, Timo, please.
Maas must be given full credit for branching out so much on his debut "artist album" -- instead of limiting himself to more club anthems, he's tried a little of almost everything, and brought his own personal touch to all of it. I still think he stands accused of trying too hard to cross over to a more mainstream audience, however -- the final proof perhaps being that all the vocals on this album are sung in English, even those delivered by the German Bettinghaus. Even this might be forgivable, but they're by and large bad English lyrics, suggesting that Maas' command of the language isn't good enough to allow him to exert much quality control. Still, there's enough vintage Maas on Loud, and enough successful experiments, to make Loud one of the best artist debuts in dance music this year.