Modeselektor: Happy Birthday!

Happy Birthday!
BPitch Control

Well, a couple years make all the difference. Modeselektor released their debut album, Hello Mom!, in 2005. The album crept slowly out of obscurity to become one of the most talked-about electronic albums of that year. The buzz only grew with the release of their contribution to Bpitch Control’s Boogy Bytes series earlier this year. I wasn’t the only critic who found a lot to like in their beguiling mix of crunktastic blip-hop and austere European house. The fact is that Modeselektor came along at exactly the right time to make a huge impact. Their sound, uniquely poised between the hard dancefloor techno of their labelmates at Bpitch Control and the much more whimsical French disco house of folks like Vitalic (not to mention the obvious influence of Daft Punk), was poised to hit it big. The critical popularity of Kompakt’s austere micro-house waned and the cognoscenti started to sniff around for something that would make them dance, but most importantly something funky and fun. Not so much of the ascetic minimalism, more of the booty-shaking and party-popping. Lo and behold, Modeselektor appeared and all was good.

And sure enough, there is a great deal to like here. The best thing about Modeselektor is that they aren’t afraid to be as eclectic as they damn well please. Considering how striated so much of the electronic music world remains to this day, it’s always a breath of fresh air to see artists unafraid to mix things up. Considering how popular it is, it’s amazing you didn’t see it more often until very recently, but for the longest time most people in electronic music seemed to think that if they stepped out of their little boxes they’d get electrocuted. This is why until very recently electronic music operated as a series of disparate cliques that rarely interacted: every year a new clique would gain prominence as the “popular” sound du jour, but inevitably these scenes would run out of steam based on their own highly limiting sense of aesthetic propriety. This is the logic behind the successive but in no way overlapping popularity of trance, progressive house, UK garage, electroclash and microhouse.

If I had to guess as to whether or not one specific thing actively put an end to (or at least minimized the impact of) this self-defeating (and, frankly, boring) division, it was probably the mash-up craze of 2003-2004. People liked having their peanut-butter mixed with their chocolate. If you went out to a club, who says you’d want to hear six solid hours of progressive trance? Sure, each genre still has its partisans, but the cliquishness and division in the electronic music world did little but advertise an overall insularity. Is it any wonder that electronic music dropped out of favor in the early years of the decade? There sure wasn’t much fun going on, not when everyone was so deadly serious about establishing strict genre definitions above having a good time.

Modeselektor represent the perfect antidote to this divisive atmosphere. Finally we have a return to the classic catholicism of the genre’s mid-’90s golden years. The album opens up with a fairly conventional techno track, “Godspeed”, before dropping down into a leftfield crunk jam, the TTC enabled “2000007”. If you had told me as little as five years ago that we’d be jamming out to a bunch of French people rapping over Southern hip-hop beats produced by two German dudes, I would probably have thought you were crazy — but here we are. Somehow, it works: they’re having fun, we’re having fun, everybody’s having a grand old time. Throughout the album you get the feeling that Modeselektor are just barely managing to take themselves seriously enough. Even more “conventional” techno pieces like the title track, or “The First Rebirth” retain an almost impish sense of silliness that propels them forward.

They get a lot of their ballast from unexpected juxtapositions. “Let Your Love Grow” is built on a sample from, of all things, Orbital’s “The Box (Part 1)”, from 1996’s In Sides. It’s a great track, and it’s just as great to see a band as awesome as Orbital getting their props from the new school. Modeselektor take the stately, enigmatic original and turn it into a bass-heavy ragga jam, with vocals courtesy of Paul St. Hillaire. “Sucker Pin” is as straight-forward as anything else on the album, a hard-stomping gorilla of a track, reminiscent of Motor. But then up pops “The Dark Side Of The Sun”, featuring a rap from Puppetmastaz — straight-up hyphy that could have wandered in off the street from DJ Shadow’s last album.

And so it goes. We’re not surprised when “Edgar” rolls around and it sounds like a spot-on approximation of mid-’90s Aphex Twin, contrasting twinkling keyboards with hard beats and controlled static. “Hyper Hyper” sounds like an acid remix of some weird pop dance hit like “Sandstorm”, amped to the Nth degree by a massive boost of adrenaline courtesy of MC Otto Von Schirach. So after all this it only makes sense when they pull Thom Yorke out of their magic bag for the album’s penultimate track, “The White Flash”. Yeah, I said Thom Yorke — they did a remix for The Eraser’s “Skip Divided”, and he returns the favor with a suitably disembodied performance. Kind of spooky, but kind of reassuring at the same time, like the best Radiohead.

In another less-enlightened era, Modeselektor would be pilloried for their inability to cohere, their dogged refusal to adhere to anyone’s idea of what German techno music is “supposed” to sound like in the year 2007. Perhaps the album does suffer a bit from being all over the place. It doesn’t have the ebb and flow of a truly classic album, even if there isn’t a bad song to be found. I can live with that.

RATING 7 / 10