Techno’s turn toward minimalism in recent years has drawn hordes of acolytes, among them producers and club-goers alike, but unsurprisingly, it has generated its fare share of ambivalence as well. The idea that all excess material can be cleared away leaving only the essential to remain is one that tempts many with an absolutist bent—which is to say many that conceive themselves as `conscious’ individuals. But minimalism’s claim to the essential, in music as in other arts, is a tenuous one. It is prone to copiers and falsifiers who fail to understand its premises and see only an attractive style that seems easily replicable.
Emptiness is a part of minimalism, a productive part, emphasizing aspects of space as well as drawing attention to the different sounds and materials, how each functions and how they can combine to dizzying effect. However, at a point emptiness becomes plain emptiness, hollowed out by repetition of form. The inimitable, Ricardo Villalobos first and foremost in this instance, continue, push off onto their own plane of existence and leave the would-be-emulators behind, while everyone else is left to channel their creativity into new shapes, to draft their lessons from minimalism into new hybrids or to abandon its premises all together.
One of the things I like most about minimal techno is that it seems to thrive on inaccessible emotion, shadowed regions, the not easily expressible which is at times discomfiting, at others exhilarating. This mysteriousness is at the core of Ellen Allien’s latest full-length, Sool, a release which is an exploration of the BPitch Control label-head’s attraction to the oblique magnetism of minimal electronic music. She collaborated with Berlin artist Agf on its production and the result is, as she herself puts it, “curiosity, room, and architecture. Sketches; drawing; adhering.” The statement is, like the music, immediate in its abstraction. It draws attention as it creates distance. Allien rejects the fiction of a coherent work of art in favor of slivers of perspective, ideas about minimalism expressed in various shapes and sizes, works with various functions, moods and personalities.
Sool opens with a field recording made on Berlin’s U-Bahn as it arrives at Alexanderplatz. The recording is embellished with sounds that blend into the banal noise of daily travel before overriding it and producing a subtly meditative atmosphere that is enlarged by the following track, “Caress.” Along with the electro-pop ballad “Frieda,” “Caress” is one of the albums warmest moments, a droning dreamscape sculpted around a 4/4 beat and the various repetitions of the title word. As is the case throughout Sool, it is populated by auditory phantoms, disembodied voices fragmented and fractured, taken apart and reassembled with an inscrutable logic. “Elphine” spins the weirdest of these voices, childlike and otherworldly, around an infectious bassline which is punctuated by some spacey synthetic whistling. The result is a playfully sinister mélange sure to set bodies in motion.
Elsewhere, things are darker and function like mechanical trips through rectilinear urban landscapes. “Sprung” and “It’s,” which were released in longer 12-inch versions aimed at the dance-floor, are spare and disorienting, the first a study in the subtle inflections of wide-open, paranoia-tinged space, while the latter pushes forward on the back of a relentless bassline, pummeling through sporadic explosions of noise and repetitive clicking. They are mesmeric and unsettling, intimations of a black-pulse, vital and constantly at work. What they conjure feels startlingly inhuman, charged with a hermetic, remote otherness.
There are a lot of electronic albums being released this year, far more than necessary. What is epic on the dance-floor doesn’t easily translate or transform into the type of material that engages one in sustained listening in the outer world. Sool does. It is difficult listening at times precisely because of this. Far from being background music, it demands attention to detail and requires that one meet it halfway, that she steps out of her own world and into Sool‘s. Zauber is, more or less, the German word for magic, and on Allien’s track by that name one is confronted face to face by the spells cast by her explorations of minimalism. It is synthetic and organic at once, a moment of subdued quietude in the midst of mind-bending tangents. Images and remembrance, it is perhaps Ellen Allien’s most haunting and fertile definition of minimal…aside from Sool as a whole, the fractures between its definitions, its immediacy and its provocation to thought. Ideas composed of beats and space.
AGF – Words Are Missing
Alex Smoke – Paradolia
Portishead – Third