Somewhere along the way, techno got skinny. Things were lush, then they got small. This is pan-European unity, microhouse-style.
Somewhere along the way, techno got skinny. These things change with fashion -- I can remember just a few years ago (OK, maybe five or six) when the best techno was fat and sassy. We're talking stuff like Plastikman's Consumed and Luke Slater's Wireless, albums full of music that pushed itself out of your speakers with the kind of propulsive impact that can crush skulls.
Things were lush, then they got small. Labels like Kompakt rose to prominence with house that sounded like it had gone on some sort of Slim-Fast diet. The full, elaborate sound of the mid-to-late-'90s was slowly transformed into something increasingly intricate and almost delicate. The traditional sounds that compose house and techno were altered in fundamental ways. Kick drums, hi-hats and rim shots were morphed to reduce their attack and sustain, turning full sounds into something skeletal, and more obviously artificial. The new "microhouse" (a term coined by Philip Sherburne in 2001) sounds like nothing so much as house and techno music dismembered, with only the absolute bare bones remaining to create an impression. Although the genre lacks a great deal in the way of power, it possesses significant subtlety in its ability to create complex percussive effects and elaborately arpeggiated melodic movements. Artists like Mathew Dear and John Tejada have used the new form as a platform for some surprisingly emotive work. Plastikman himself, Richie Hawtin, is responsible for perhaps the most important microhouse record ever made, in the form of his cut-and-splice masterpiece DE9: Closer to the Edit. (Of course, Hawtin's early Plastikman material, as well as much of his Plus 8 output, ably foreshadowed the current minimal house renaissance.)
Riley Reinhold's Traumschallplatten (literally, "dream sound plates") is dedicated to distributing the best of an international array of techno producers working primarily in the microhouse genre. Elektronische Musik - Interkontinental 4 presents a fine cross-section of the genre as well as a heartening example of pan-European unity.
The artists on this disc range from across the European Union and even Canada (a country which is definitely closer in spirit to its European cousins than its boisterous southern neighbor). Italy, Poland, England and Portugal are represented, in addition to Reinhold's own Germany, which provides the bulk of artists. Interestingly, there do not seem to be any sort of geographic divisions in the music, at least based on this (admittedly scanty) selection. Considering the fact that the music has few vocal elements (usually only brief samples or snippets, if anything), a track from Portugal (Zentex's "Napa") can be put next to a track from Poland (Off Pop's "Grammaphon") with little or no disharmony. Inside Europe it would be difficult to get any further apart, both geographically and culturally, than Poland and Portugal, and yet these nations' house music producers have found a common language for mutual appreciation.
Once you get used to the basic idiom, there are wide variables in execution. Adam Kroll's "Aeugler" has a pleasingly fat bass drum under a conventional glitchy melody line. Nathan Fake's "Dinamo" is positively epic, an eleven-minute-long exercise in acid-drenched glitch that builds slowly from a fog of shuffling static into a massive psychedelic storm. Reinhold himself makes an appearance, alongside Steve Barnes, with "Murder in the Clouds", which sounds like a pencil eraser being tapped against a turntable stylus, albeit in a much more funky manner. Acut's "Morgenmuffel" manages something a bit more moody, channeling the Art of Noise's "Moments in Love" to good effect.
Although it may not seem like it from here in the good old U.S. of A., house music has come as close as anything -- including rock and hip-hop -- to creating a kind of universal music. The ease with which specific idioms and ideas in the house music vernacular can cross cultural and linguistic barriers is a satisfying testimonial to the enduring power of a pulsating 4/4 beat. That the latest permutation to sweep the globe just happens to be startlingly minimal is no real surprise -- I'm sure the wire-rimmed fashionistas who rule the techno world will be on to a totally different bass drum sound in another five years. Which is a good thing.