After the pioneering work found on his last two mix CDs, it seems like an odd time for Richie Hawtin to return to the little red raver. Plastikman, the red tribal dancer and a symbol of minimalist, floor-filling techno, has been resurrected by Hawtin for Closer, his latest studio album. In the five years since Plastikman has graced an album cover, Hawtin has become a symbol of sorts himself. His profile -- baldhead, rimmed glasses and forward-thinking gaze -- has reached iconic status. What's with the mid-'90s flashback?
Since Closer is the sound of somebody on a bad trip, flashbacks seem more than appropriate. It's not the stripped-down set of jackin' techno beats Plastikman might represent. Staying far from the dance floor, it's a tense and disjointed soundscape, sort of a messed up edition of Back to Mine that sits and stews rather than gently moves forward. Hawtin has said this album is like being lost inside his head; this journey through shifting textures and broken beats makes it pretty clear that it's an odd place to be.
The album's focus on atmospheres and moods, and subsequent lack of four on the floor propulsion, is immediately apparent. The first track, "Ask Yourself", doesn't even drop a real beat until minute four. The track starts off with the filtered voice of Hawtin discussing the source of his ideas, random snippets in this head, and then a hum like overhead airplanes slowly reaches a crescendo. The grandiose build-up hints at the direction this album will eventually take. Even when the beats do kick in, most tracks only have a skeletal, disjointed pulse. Much of the album relies on droning synth lines or short percussion samples to create the dominant, listless mood.
Though it lacks Hawtin's typical adrenaline, this album doesn't stray from his trademark minimalist approach. Instead of intricate rhythms, Hawtin focuses on creating moods and tones, and he once again shows how to get the most out of relatively few tools. "Headcase", a potboiler where beats swarm at the listener from all sides, creates a sense of disassociation, just like the start-stop rhythms of "Slow Poke". Hawtin's skilled production even makes it appear that time itself is bending in some places, like during the stuttering blips of "Ping Pong". A general sense of unease permeates the album, created with just a few minor tweaks.
Hawtin also utilizes different tones to color his songs, including his normal range of bubbling and bouncing drumbeats mined from the Roland 909 database. Crunchy cymbal samples from "Mind in Rewind" are as sharp and biting as bent sheet metal, while the resonant tones of "Ping Pong" sound like stoned members of Blue Man Group banging on PVC piping.
It's only when the vocals kick in that this trip seems to be getting a little too long. Whether it's the trite rhyming of "Disconnect" or the growling, monster-like voice that's heard on most samples, the words distract from the rest of the album. The growls and grumbles represent something new for Hawtin, expanding on the bits of samples he's included in past tracks, but they don't serve as good narration. Something akin to "Artifakts," a song that included reassembled bits of friends' conversations, would have been more effective. Though the lyrics are intended to further the disconnected and disjointed mood, the delivery falls short.
Hawtin also tends to meander a little bit, drawing out many of his tracks. It's one thing to fashion soundscapes of dirges and discontent; it's a whole other thing to make the music uncomfortable. With a few tracks approaching the ten-minute mark, many of the repetitive effects lose their focus and become boorish, especially since they weren't made to be dance floor friendly. The fine line between artfully disjointed and overwhelmingly jarring is crossed a few too many times.
Still, Closer succeeds in bringing listeners into the altered state that Hawtin intends. He has described the Plastikman idea as trying to make people feel lost inside their head, and this album takes that idea of altered consciousness a step farther then he has before. It's refreshing that Hawtin has chosen to take a more textured and personal approach to music. Made during a sojourn to Hawtin's studio in Windsor, Canada, when he decided to bunker down and record, Closer is an ideal soundtrack to isolation. Oddly, the circumstances and the music make it one of his most personal statements to date.