By Jacob Katel
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As is the case in all major American cities, you can hear almost any sound in Miami, from cheap crunk and tribal house to meat-market salsa and roots reggae. Even subcultural disciplines such as IDM and electro have supporters who blare the music at select out-of-the-way clubs. But I have had some difficulty finding a place where I can hear techno.
For the past few months I have been bombarded by rap music and dance-rock in the nightclubs and on the streets. When I retreat to my place, I listen to techno. Occasionally I hear flickers of the latter during the Poplife party at I/O, the Spider-Pussy party at Soho Lounge, and a handful of other places. But, for the most part, techno has become a hermitic experience for me, which has probably limited my impression of its sonic qualities. At home I am moved by the synth washes and melodies of songs such as Superpitcher's "Happiness." But hearing electro producer Anthony Rother's optimistic "Back Home" through Club Space's massive sound system during the Phuture party this spring yielded an entirely different, much more powerful experience. It reminded me techno isn't only warm and opiate, but also capable of communicating a range of emotions, all while you move along to it on the dance floor.
My observations might be meaningless to those whose minds aren't on this type of music. I'm not the only one who has been thinking about techno, though. The May issue of Spindevoted several pages to Kompakt, the Berlin record label that has become a flag-bearer of the new techno sound. When Kompakt's top artists Superpitcher and Michael Mayer released their debut albums last year (Here Comes Loveand Touch), both discs earned reviews in major magazines. But it's not only press-generated hype; my New York friends tell me Ellen Allien draws sellout crowds whenever she travels from her native Berlin to play there, and Damian Lazarus (owner of the label Crosstown Rebels, which recently released the mix compilation Rebel Futurism) is one of the top DJs in London.
To typify all of these artists as techno producers is somewhat misleading. Allien, for example, first came to prominence during the electroclash fad two years ago, owing to her brilliant 2003 album Berlinette. (Her new album, Thrills, is scheduled for release June 7.) She usually makes midtempo electro, sometimes singing over her tracks in German or broken English. The songs loll along whimsically, never nearing the fleet and swift styles of Tiefschwarz. In contrast, Lazarus's mixes are melodically consistent to the point of approaching a kind of minimalist house: no wailing divas, no gospel-inflected keyboards, and no histrionics.
Superficially the current techno renaissance appears to be driven by a white funk aesthetic similar to the funk-rock of Franz Ferdinand. Historically it takes its cues from the Detroit scene of the mid-Nineties, an era centered on black producers such as Carl Craig, Jeff Mills, Underground Resistance, and Drexciya. Craig makes the kind of sumptuous, passionately complex tracks with which Kompakt built its empire (his recent EP, the beautiful Just Another Day, unfortunately escaped the attention of indie hipsters who jock Kompakt and little else); Mills, in comparison, records music that is hard and furious. Underground Resistance and (the now-defunct) Drexciya crafted industrial-size electro straight out of a sci-fi cult movie. And though internationally regarded as the home of techno, Detroit artists have always exhibited a startling range of sonic diversity.
Another dance music cliché is that Americans are the innovators, while Europeans streamline and advance theories. In the case of Kompakt, et al., this is somewhat true, but the music is still unbelievably fresh. Canadian producer Mathew Jonson's 2003 EP Behind the Mirror (which I downloaded from the Internet) is so focused that it seems to consist of pure rhythm stretching out for miles like an interstate highway. Superpitcher's "Tomorrow," a 2001 track on the Kompakt 100 compilation released last year, reaches melancholy, trancelike heights in its overlay of synth keys.
Unless a trashy pop casualty on the scale of Peaches comes along, the best chance you'll have to hear this music at a nightclub will be through progressive house DJs. Like John Digweed -- who devoted much of his recent Fabric 20 mix to acts such as Adam Johnson, Superpitcher, and the more commercially oriented Josh Wink -- Sasha spends plenty of time mixing tracks by Carl Craig and French producers I:Cube and M83 (whose new disc Before the Dawn Heals Us is easily one of the year's best) into his new Fundacionmix, set for release June 21. Similarly Chris Fortier's new three-CD mix, Balance 007, incorporates Jonson, Kiki & Silver Surfer, and, again, Craig into his set.
Sasha is playing at crobar Monday, June 6, in a reprise of his Back Door Bamby appearance from July 2004; Fortier hits Nocturnal June 11. Both will probably churn out plenty of main-floor stompers; after all, that's how people in Miami like it. If we're lucky, they'll drop a few techno tracks for those eager to hear something new.