It's an ongoing source of humor mixed with anxiety for me that I haven't been to most of the key places where dance music originated. Blame it on my residence in NYC, but I've always been a homebody and this always seemed to be like the best place to be an introverted outrovert. Regardless, reading the assorted "dance music press," it's easy to build up caricatures of scenes and clubs in your mind--ones like Fabric, Beghain, and The Golden Pudel--you seem to hear about constantly. Then again, for a genre that's as isolated and individualistic (at least in the states) as techno, it's interesting to consider the perceptions we gain of the places where the music we love was created without ever seeing or experiencing them, let alone the producers whose music we critique. But isn't living in the imagination kind of the definition of being a techno fan. I mean, unless you're a successful DJ or have money to burn, you'll never see all the famous clubs and DJ's that RA and MixMag tell you you must see.
Personally, I see this as a gift somewhat as I'm certainly not itching to check out Watergate or like, ever step foot in Ibiza. That said, alongside Hard Wax and the underground party scene, there has been one outpost that has captured my imagination for decades and I'm only beginning to understand why, even if I don't know a goddamn name on their upcoming line-ups.
(Imaginary) Memories of Tresor
I think I first saw that circle-in-a-circle logo for Tresor when I was a teenager on the bumper of someone I didn't exactly think was the paragon of cool. And for a long time, it might as well have been interchangeable with the Einstürzende Neubauten logo because besides the fact that they were eerily similar, they often appeared side-by-side on guitar cases and the like growing up. As far as I was concerned, these were just aggro individuals who had gone a step past Marilyn Manson in their musical development (meanwhile I was listening to Phish, so, glass houses and the like). Nonetheless, even when Tresor-released records began to enter my collection, I still had a perpetual side-eye towards the label, though not knowing really a thing about it or why I felt that way.
Most of the people I spoke to leading up to this piece admitted that they tended to think of the club night instead of the label, in some cases totally forgetting that there is a Tresor label . For all intensive purposes, Tresor is sort of the ur-club-turned-label and has provided a template of sorts for others looking to crib from. The fact that they are coming at the A&R side of things seemingly from the side of releasing the music they book (and that works) at the club itself is at least in part why the label has lasted twenty-five years, a fact that is largely taken for granted amongst techno fans. Just look at Fabric: Create amazing club that the punters are all about; Start a mix series born out of the DJ relationships you've developed; rain in the cash...and then get tragically shut down...and then re-open. Owning a club sounds STRESSFUL.
There are a number of documentaries on Tresor, all of which focus almost exclusively on the club's 90s heydays up through its temporary closure in 2005. But what about the label? Has there ever been one quite like it or as long-lasting? Some cursory research will reveal that Tresor was created as a subsidiary of the Interfisch Records imprint, which was home to the likes of Clock DVA, X-101, and Cosmic Baby. Interfisch had created a label and club called UFO to showcase the "new sounds of House, Acid House and early Techno" in 1988, thriving until 1991 when the Wall came down, opening up East Berlin for the first time in forty years. Now, as the legend goes, Tresor was born out of the discovery by Dmitri Hegemann, with the help of Carolina Stolber and many others, of an abandoned department store containing a massive vault that was an all-too appropriate playground for a populace who had been confined for decades when it came to artying And while there was plenty of new German music to get down to, it was clear from the label's and club's start that its focus was decidedly on Detroit. Indeed, the label is more than a bit proud to play up the fact that they provided the first meeting grounds for the likes of Mark Ernestus, Moritz Von Oswald, Thomas Fehlmann, and many others to rub shoulders with Rob Hood, Juan Atkins, UR, and many others, including Blake Baxter who was something of the club's poster child for its first decade. Viewing docs like SubBerlin: The Story of Tresor do a wonderful job of communicating just how unique the club's original location was, a building that had taken up most of a city block during the Weimar days, but the basement seemed to contain an energy and require a total commitment to the music for a person to even begin to have fun. And that sounds like my type of my party.
Reading and watching Tresor's history is a fairly illuminating trawl through techno's past twenty-five years charting the growing exchange between American and European operators and the migration towards a more Euro-centric dance music world. And while Tresor could be in equal breaths be accused of bandwagon-jumping, prolonged cultural appropriation, and being zeitgeist-y af, theirs is a legacy I oddly feel I've taken for granted (and I'm fully expecting to learn some dark, terrible secret about the organization once I hit publish that's just the worst). As they are quick to in the press release for their twenty-fifth anniversary compilation Dreamy Harbor, "it is worth dwelling on how the cultural conditions that birthed Detroit techno – economic neglect and broken industry – were mirrored by the disused bunkers and impromptu parties of post-unification East Berlin, where techno found new, vigorous expression." Indeed, watching footage from youth either in Tresor or in cities like Detroit or New York in 1991 and it's clear that techno's planar logic was becoming a way for people to catch a ride all the way to spiritual and emotional enlightenment. Or just to simply exorcise what ails ya through movement.
If one thing has become 100% clear in my taking a closer look at the history of Tresor, it's that they are insanely proud of being one of the early hubs for an ever-growing international community, but more importantly, that they do seem to share a special connection Detroit. In looking over the label's 296-and-counting releases, you can watch the history of techno in the form of records as they were put out unfolded,. While you see a solid amount of the bandwagon-jumping that is to be expected of any label--especially a club label--it's kinda astounding how much they've stayed true to Detroit. I mean, Tresor was not a cool label in the 00s and yet, when I listen to my Neptune's Lair, Shifted Phases LP, or Harnessed the Storm (yes, I realize I just named three Drexciya projects and I do not care, all hail our aquatic overlords) or marvel at Scion's paradigm-shifting Arrange and Process Basic Channel Tracks mix, it's much easier to overlook all the mediocre Beltram and Atkins records they released. Ever since 2011's signing of Sleeparchive's Daniel Bell-meets-Basic Channel brand of dub-bleep techno and the A Man Dies in the Street EPs in particular, the label has seemed to finally catch up with the Tresor club itself as something of a global hub for techno diehards (though I'm not sure just how cool the club is these days as I've never been to Berlin!). And while the label can't seem to resist marquee name snoozefests like the Juan Atkins & Moritz Von Oswald Borderland project, if that means more Scan7 EPs and Transllusion reissues, then sure, that's cool.
The original Tresor club was closed on April 16, 2005--Richie Hawtin played the closing party, OF COURSE--but has been re-opened in a new location, a renovated power plant on Köpenicker Straße in Mitte since May 24, 2007. I have no idea if I would ever try to go to the club itself if I happen to finally find myself in Berlin--I don't think I know anyone who's been oddly enough--but that's not what this is about. Whatever you think about the corniness of the club and its culture, the label has managed to be irrepressibly relevant more often than not for twenty-five years and that's no small achievement. Owning a large chunk of their discography is pretty much essential if you want to have a serious techno collection (and I've provided a helpful cheat sheet at the bottom of this article to get you stated!)
According to my Discogs app, I have at least sixteen records released on the Tresor label in my collection. I recently became particularly aware of this number as I started to see it shoot upwards over the past several months due to phenomenal new releases by old hands like Terrence Dixon and Porter Ricks alongside picking up older and well-priced releases, all of which have enriched my understanding of the label besides it being a reliable source of Detroit techno. It wasn't long before Scan7 and Drexciya albums put out by the label started to make their way into our crates alongside downloaded copies of their UR-related output. But I've also become more familiar and appreciative of the music of such continental producers like The Advent, Surgeon's full-legnths, and Neil Landstrumm, artists I likely would have continued to ignore if their names didn't appear on releases bearing the often-trustworthy Tresor logo.
I've always maintained a curious stance towards German techno in particular as the metronomic quality inherent in the culture was instrumental in informing the work of Kraftwerk which in turn inspired the Belleville 3 (and so on and so on). But coming to techno since 2005, I'm learning I managed to pick an extended fallow period, at least when you talk to the old dogs, that paled to the preceding two decades, a period where the Euro-fication of dance music truly took hold and not typically for the better. Commenting on their absence from techno since 2000, Porter Ricks' Thomas Köner remarks, "Maybe it’s good that we are so slow with everything. We were saved from the damages that took place in the last 10 or 15 years in the scene...If you spent your weekends in the clubs, you could see the change in the eyes of the people. They became merciless, in a way, in their desire to be entertained." It's hard not to hold some suspicion towards the tradition of German techno when you see Sven Väth, well, being Sven Väth or the general sanitary quality the music often has right down to the packaged techno tours presenting a clean and mess-free clubbing experience. Note for the youngsters out there: If your clubbing adventures don't get messy and downright gross at times, you're not doing it right.
This mass commercialization feels at odds with the dirty and rugged sound still being made by Detroit Dons like Omar-S, Big Strick, and Kyle Hall, not to mention a few hundred others just in Detroit alone (and then made slick and palatable for the masses by some white dudes.) And for that matter, when it comes to covering contemporary American dance music, why the hell do publications only look at Brooklyn?
Nonetheless, having watched my share of techno docs (which at least put faces to the names and places I read about) it's clear as daylight that Tresor and so many other lauded strains of German nightlife traded in the kind of techno-music-as-spiritual-experience that I could dig, at least during its 'heyday.' When looking over the 296-and-counting official releases put out by Tresor, it's hard not to marvel at a label who has managed to count Daniel Bell, Joey Beltram, Jeff Mills, Si Begg, Christian Vogel, Eddie Fowlkes, Juan Atkins, Neil Landstrumm, Surgeon, Pacou, The Advent, Matthew Herbert, and so many others amongst its ranks. Now, that said, the 00s were a bit of an adjustment for the label because while those Octave One, Joey Beltram, and Pacou records were definitely selling (or at least I imagine so) and the dedication to industrial and classic techno now looks downright strategic, the label seemed more interested in what were fast becoming the heritage acts of techno rather than its vanguard. Or is that a fair assessment? Again, looking over their 00s output from today's vantage point is nothing short of impressive, but it's been this decade where they've seemed to release more of the music they actually love than what might turn that has resulted in some of their strongest records to date.
Edit (7/31/17): Since publishing this piece, the T-Mobile Electronic Beats site has published an excerpt from Paul Hockenos entitled Berlin Calling: A Story of Anarchy, Music, the Wall, and the Birth of the New Berlin that provides a far more-detailed accounting of the early days of the UFO Club and Tresor and is well worth the read here.
Porter Ricks: The Return
For me, my interest in Tresor started in earnest last December when Porter Ricks, those legendary purveyors of lysergic, liquid dub, came roaring back into life and released their first recorded statement since 1999 on the label, the dense-and-varied three-tracker Shadow Boat. Drawing a history of oceanic compositions and water-insured music is a rather daunting affair and one outside this article's scope. But it has served as an apt metaphor for quite a few writers and producers from the turn of the twentieth century through the 90s with David Toop's Oceanic Sound to Drexciya's underwater kingdom and aquatic anthems and of course, Porter Ricks (not to mention that Yacht Rock and Seapunk have become "things" in the past decade). Comprised of acclaimed sound artist Thomas Köner, who had started working as a sound engineer on film before embarking on his sonic research, and Andy Mellwig, who was a mastering and cutting engineer at the damed Dubplates & Mastering from '95 to '98, it would be surprising if we weren't still talking about Porter Ricks in 2017. Ignoring their preceding credentials for a moment, during their period of activity began in 1996 and ran only three years, what they accomplished in that period is stuff of pure legend. They released immersive yet thorny EPs and albums that attracted both the "safe house" set and us more adventurous sonic travelers. I honestly have no idea how I stumbled upon them in college, though I'm certain it was a result of an all-night binge on the also-legendary Oink torrent network. I do know much of what I listened to in the spring of 2007 was from their sophomore self-titled album, which has largely been downplayed by critics in the past decade. That release saw them moving, rather tellingly, from the estimable Chain Reaction to the sprawling and far more stylistically varied Force Inc. Music Works label family, where they also released on the Mille Plateaux label.
1996 was a major banner year for dub techno. Like perhaps the most important year it the genre's history. Just look at the twelve records released on Chain Reaction that year alone. At the time the label's owners and genre godfathers Basic Channel were busy both investigating an even more stripped-down version of their sound with the Maurizio project while also cross-pollinating dub techno with Chicago house and roots reggae via Main Street Records. And though I'm not clear on how involved they were in the day-to-day proceedings--Ernestus did found the Hard Wax record shop and distribution company in 1989--their label was beginning to attract a nexus of artists who are still shaping the sound of electronic music to this day. While Vladislav Delay, Fluxion, and Shinichi Atobe would all release either their debut or very early material in the years up through the label's shuttering in 2000, the class of '96 includes the likes of Vainqeuer, outstanding one-off's from Pelon and Helical Scan, early transmissions from dub deviant Torsten Pröfrok in the forms of the banging Resilient and Erosion one-offs, and his longstanding partner in crime (and Ableton) Monolake. And it's no coincidence that half of that dozen records were put out by either Porter Ricks or Vainqeuer, who remained with the label for another year and continues to ply his weightless brand of dub techno. But I think it's hardly hyperbole that the most notable and timeless recordings from that label were in the form of Porter Ricks' three twelves and Ship-Scope by Atobe, the last release before Chain Reaction shuttered operations just as dub techno became overwhelmingly formulaic.
Oh, and case you were wondering, according to Köner, that era really was as good as it seemed.
There was a period when this utopian scenario was almost true—when we felt that you could do almost anything in a club, as long as it was any good. There was no rigid expectation from the audience as to how it had to be delivered. But this didn’t last very long. It was almost palpable, the decline of this in the new millennium.
I remember periods where we didn’t even have beats in our club sets, but people kept dancing. The beat wasn’t even necessary, because it was a biokinetic experience—that’s our metaphor for the dance and the body and all its expressions. From today’s point of view, this would be totally impossible.
Porter Ricks' story is in some ways similar to that of dub techno in that they utilized the studio to the utmost devastating effect in creating their immersive sonic environments, both either hitting a creative impasse or halting public operations in 1999 or 2000. However, as recently revealed in an interview with P4K's Philip Sherburn, Porter Ricks actually remained active all these years with Köner eloquently commenting, "It’s more like if you boiled water on a low flame and eventually it starts making bubbles." They may have ceased actively producing music for extended periods, but as that interview attests, the two never stoped exchanging ideas and continually added fuel to the theoretical questions that energized so much of their past and current development.
Remarking on the effect their music had in their debut year, Köner says, "Of course. In the beginning, it was like a big bang, a very intense appearance on the scene. Our interest was not to be determined by our talent, which we obviously have in some respects." And even dropping the needle on Type's 2012 reissue of Biokinetics today or playing the files a decade ago, there is a truly ineffable quality to that initial trio of recordings collected on the album, one that makes it instantly challenging in understanding why they were able to find success so quickly. But to wager a guess, that first Porter Ricks album represented not a complete reimagining of the dub techno template, but a maximization of it, the sounds gaining a textural intricacy that made the music seem almost 4D, instantly familiar and understandable while still warranting countless listens to uncover the many aural treasures contained within. Additionally, by tapping into a topic as elemental and all-encompassing as water with its wind-tunnel ambience and undersea sonar frequencies, listeners were greeted by sounds that seemed at once familiar but impossible to place. It never ceases to evoke a truly singular sensibility as the listener slowly finds themselves becoming hypnotized by the quivering pulsations of opener "Port Gentil" that begins not with a bang, but with a throbbing sequence that soon sweeps up the listener as the undertow that is the muffled kicks of bass soon catches a wind, taking the listener on an intensely relaxing journey with a quasi-melodic motif keeping pace alongside. "Nautical Dub" takes things further as bulbous pads emerge like soap bubbles that can't be popped while "Port of Call" Is like a charging storm, unrelenting but replenishing. Twenty years later, we're still unpacking both their debut album and the other, even richer material from that first chapter of the duo's public existence. It begs the question just what the lasting influence will be of the drastically denser yet more lucid new material.
Now, keeping in mind Köner's comment about not being determined by talent or what was pleasing in that first iteration of Porter Ricks, when looking over their discography, it's hard for the ten inch released on the Barooni label entitled Zebu not to jump out at you. And not to be a complete dork, but further signaling to the listener that change was afoot, whereas their previous track titles evoked real ports and other clearly aquatic themes, Zebu cattle serve a similar role in landlocked areas as water does, providing sustenance and fuel. Personally, I inherited this record from my dead best friend around the same time I picked up the Biokinetics reissue and, well, I'm going to let Discogs user alternating_bit say his bit on how this release was generally received:
I remember when I bought this years back after falling in love with the Biokinetics material I was actually disappointed. I wanted more 'Port ______' material and wasn't open-minded. Thankfully Andy Mellwig & Thomas Köner WERE open-minded when they put together this unique 10". This record is more of a cerebral massage than 'techno' piece... I guess it is properly categorized as techno/experimental above. But just like other Porter Ricks content, its get-yourself-lost-in-the-groove loopyness is pleasingly dark and hypnotic. Both tracks clocking in just under 6 minutes each, I wonder what would happen to the brain if it was released as a proper 12". This is not my favorite Porter Ricks, but I certainly have grown to love and understand it over time.
Yeah, that kinda sums up the general reaction to a lot of what followed on from what could be seen as the more traditional sound of the Chain Reaction days, as wonderful as it is. For just listen to Zebu. Where is the deep, engrossing aquatic dub and what is this slithering, slinking work of weirdness? Had they departed the water and found their way upon ground? Of course, when I put it on a few months back, I was astounded at my younger self's short-sightedness. Here are two vexing, challenging pieces that do away with everything we thought we knew about the aquatic dub duo, trading in the liquid for something in-between that and a solid; thick, viscous, and completely intoxicating. Mud always comes to mind. Still, as it was a ten inch released at the end of '96 on a boutique label, many of the Porter Ricks faithful probably didn't start bugging out in earnest until they released the first iteration of the duo's extended relationship with Force Works, the immaculate Vol. 2. And although they likely didn't experience a full fan exodus when the EP contains such hypnotic dub techno workouts as "Redundance 3" and "Redundance 5," though both works signaled a metallic hardening of the group's fluid sound, it's not surprising that this period of the group's output isn't as well-documented as their '96 releases. Having developed a personal aesthetic that traded in the techno dirge of Excepter and Pole's broken dub constructions, the relentless downtempo chug of "Redundance 4" remains an utter revelation to me as the duo were able to detach the rhythmic backbone a bit from their compositional corpse, allowing them to more intricately adorn the body rather than submerging the whole thing in their processing plant.
With hindsight being 20/20 and all, seeing Vol. 2 and Zebu as early instances of Porter Ricks refusal to play along with expectations, it still never ceases to amaze me that the two tracks on the Explore still confound to this day. The A side "Exposed" sees the two producers further investigating the downtempo delta, though this time the beat and overall atmosphere of the track is considerably less hard-hitting than "Redundancy 4." What really sets this piece apart from any other piece of downtempo dreck released at the tailend of the 90s is the wriggling electric guitar that sits comfortably in front of the mix, weaving together parallel melodies in a way that should sound cheesy, but to these ears at least, does not. However, that's just a warm-up to the real star of the show here, which is what first caught my ear back in that indulgent college funneling of as much music as possible into one's dome. I first regained interest in Porter Ricks while chatting with an old friend around 2010 when he was deep under the spell of what seemed to be Biokinetics. It wasn't until listening to a radio show of his a couple years later that I heard "Exploded" for the first time in probably seven years, making even less sense then than it did when I first encountered it. When confronting my friend about the inclusion of the song in his mix, shocked that a seemingly uncool piece of late 90s post-dnb thrash techno would find cache with a fellow sonic traveler. As he remarked gleefully, "It's like a mosh pit on the dance floor." Truer words...
Continuing in their deconstruction of what the public had come to expect from them, Porter Ricks next left was an equally disparate one-two punch in the form of Spoiled. Seemingly taking fun-with-alliteration as an aesthetic challenge to craft some of the most unusual and hypnotic music of their career, the title track A side plays like a haunted house version of Biokinetics. The tempo and elements are there, but something is terribly off as a submerged vocal sample keeps threatening to break through before being thrown off-phase, struggling to regain its posture. That the duo would at least hint at the formula that made them famous on the A only makes the B side of "Spoiled" all the more confusing. Essentially creating the genre of disco dub house, the track rolls into town on a standard, punctuated bassline before echoed rhythm guitar begins to introduce familiar ideas in wholly new forms. Snatches of distortion on both the bass and guitar suggest that something more ominous might be around the corner, but it never comes, leaving the listener with a ten-minute functional disco house track that they could feasibly mix with Basic Channel.
Up next was the Vol. 1 three-tracker that saw the driving dub techno of "Redundance 1" affixed with a buzzsaw-like lead line that served the role of a melody without ever falling into clear tonality. Closer "Redundance 2" saw the two achieving considerable development in their sonic arsenal as they constructed a beat that flapped back and forth like a flag in the win, all the while a persistent third keeps banging against the ship's side to disorienting effect. And while both are stand-out tracks that bear perhaps the closest resemblance to the newly released material, it's the beatless middle track "Version" that is the real star of the show here for me. Perhaps one of the more menacing ambient tracks I've even encountered, it shows just how articulated and realized the project truly was, even if others were beginning to lose faith as the self-titled album that collected many of the singles along with the bass kick-less funk of "Scuba Lounge" and the isolation chamber acoustics of closer "Decay Chart." It is not an easy or especially even album, but it is a great one and one that the remaining output in this first period of Porter Ricks' recorded releases fails to match, though the blinding Trident EP sure comes close (especially that title track, hoo dog!)
I didn't even know Porter Ricks released a split album with Techno Animal in 1999 on Force until stumbling upon in the wild one day and before I knew it, I was uncontrollably shelling out the $30 to own it. And to be candid, I was a bit disappointed at first to find an uneven collection of mostly downtempo numbers that seemed to take inspiration from the then-declining illbient scene. Yet, tracks like opener "Polytoxic 1" paint a picture of what Pole could have sounded like if he hadn't encountered that fateful Waldorf-4. As the trio of Justin Broderick, Damian Bennett, and Kevin Martin go b2b with Mellwig and Köner for eight tracks, the songs can at times begin to blur into one another, even on the inchworm techno of "Polytoxic 2," the beatless blur of "Phosphoric," and the blinding techno beat of "Ionic." If anything, this album closed the first chapter of the Porter Ricks story with an ellipsis or question mar as critics understandably haven't known what to make of their post-Biokinetics output. In that Sherburne review, he comments that their proper return, last December's Shadow Boat could have easily been mistaken by fans for being from 2000.
Except not. That first chapter of Porter Ricks was marked by an endless curiosity with sound and its relation to dance music forms (and vice versa). Plus, as they remark themselves, what began as a conversation had turned into a 9-5 job, replete with DJ gigs and Nine Inch Nails remixes. "This was totally not what Porter Ricks was about. It really started as a conversation about sound and music and how it is perceived," as Köner notes. Throughout the interview, both men seem at pain to emphasize the dialectical nature of their process, one that puts the dancefloor experience in opposition to nuanced sonic experiences, and this tension couldn't be clearer than on the new material. As Porter Ricks never officially disbanded, that actually released a curious remix for Ryo Murakami in 2014 before releasing their proper reintroduction in the form of the three-tracker Shadow Boat last December (which you can hear in the below mix...sorry for the self-promotion but a writer/marketer/DJ needs to eat).
I'm not usually in the habit of regretting records that I've sold, but I've been pining to revisit Thomas Köner's 1992 ambient arctic work Permafrost, which was also reissued by Type back in 2010. That album's wind-swept ambience and chilly field recordings were almost too evocative for my younger self, creating a sense of infinite isolationism that still leaves my bones chilled. It also makes me think of a quote in which Köner notes, "Our solo work delivers the details. So occasionally we have to go back to our corners and study and research these details to be able to bring it back into the Porter Ricks project, and into the dialogue." For while they might voice displeasure at the lack of risks being taken within contemporary dance music and worry that "the idea that you can create your own language and your own form of expression that is very personal and subjective, but still totally global and addresses everybody who is willing to listen" is no more, they're still doing their own thing and better than ever before (while inspiring people like myself to do the same, to challenge dance music orthodoxy).
The three tracks on their return EP took four years of work and it's evident in both the first and hundredth listen. This is detailed music and while the charging tempo on the title track might make it seem that we're getting the good ol' Porter Ricks back, for this writer, it further complicates that original narrative, synthesizing the recorded experiments from 97-99 and the past fifteen years of dance music and sound design. Shadow Boat is not an especially easy listen, though it's also not hard on the ears and settles easily into the background. But when listened to with intent? Let's just say I've owned the EP since it came out, have recorded one mix with the B1 and have plans for that A side and B2, but still feel like I hear a slightly different track each time. I tend to think of cybernetic coral when listening to the EP's A side to be frank as the structure remains the same but the life contained within is always shifting, moving around and resisting tactility. "Bay Rouge" on the flip is a considerably more straightforward piece, a lurching swamp dub number that builds slowly and unfurls deliberately, leaving a slippery trail of mucus behind it. Continuing the gradual turn-down that stretches throughout the EP, "Harbor Chart" also takes its time assembling its components before a hi-hat hit on the two and four and cavernous bass hits provide the engine for the dubbed-out dread that plays out.
For as versatile and engaging as Shadow Boat was, it still remained a question whether Mellwig and Köner still had an engaging full-length in them. Well, Anguilla Electrica provided the definitive answer to that last Friday when it was released and its opening title track sees a not unfamiliar electric guitar adding a bit of foreboding ambience to this ever-shifting number as while the structure and beat remain constant, new environments arise and disappear, revealing music in motion, unafraid of where it might take the listener. The initial shuffle of "Shoal Boat" serves to partially misdirect the listener as a more traditional 4x4 beat is grafted atop it as a nebbish bass line pushes things forward. Taking things down to a crawl, the sludge-y dub of "Prismatic Error" provides a welcome change in pace on the album's first disc, ending its first half adrift at sea and content to be so. The ASMR-like bass rattles and alien distortion on the opening melody of "Scuba Rondo" gets the show decidedly back on track, covered in barnacles and anemones that it shakes off at the halfway point, revealing a sleek an dynamic dub destroyer. If you've picked up this album hoping for a Biokinetics retread, then I would suggest you just listen to the lovely "Port of Tangency" on repeat as it's the closest this album gets to the gaseous melodies and submerged joy that first made the group a hit. Like the other tracks on this album, it appears to both appear fully formed and reinvent itself ten times over the course of its playtime. Sonically evoking the grainy texture of its title, "Sandy Ground" provides a comparatively short ending piece that features layers of similar yet different dub chords, each sparkling and shaking, never resting still even when the piece is supposed to form as some time of ending statement for the album. However, as both this album and their recent Rødhåd remix make very clear, Mellwig and Köner are as unhurried as they are purposeful, meaning we likely have much to look forward in the near future.
Terrence Dixon Tear-Down
Of course, releasing two of Porter Ricks most arresting releases begins to make more sense when you take in Tresor's most recent output. For while that Jonas Kopp full-length certainly has its fans, I'm pretty sure I've already settled on my single of the year. There is no feeling I relish more than hitting play or dropping the needle on a piece of recorded music and immediately thinking that something is wrong with the very record player itself. Such was my reaction when Simon at 2 Bridges excitedly did just that with an unusual Terrence Dixon twelve entitled Like A Thief In The Night released on Tresor just a few weeks back. And I say unusual not just because of the music contained within, but because Dixon has always been more of an album artist on the label, releasing arguably his two most realized works, From the Far Future and the more varied From the Far Future Pt. 2. It's hard not to think about the former album once one gets her/his bearings as "Frequencies Different" roars to life under a bed of distortion, a triumphant Dixon miniature melody looping away incessantly, trying to push the track to a place it will ever go.
Upon first hearing the EP and each time I revisit it, I always remark (whether to another person or myself) that it sound like Terrence Dixon if he had been listening to The Automatics Group on repeat. Just like that project removed certain frequency bands from otherwise recognizable pop-EDM summer hits, we can hear a kick and the cyclical churning of Dixon's melodies, but it seems like it's been made alien, other to what we've grown accustomed to. "Confusion of Another Kind" is, well, another confusing track that stretches its neurotic central loop to near the six-minute mark, bringing in sheets of echoing noise to further disorient the listener, transporting them to a dystopian Detroit where the curt second-wave techno that Dixon made his name on has somehow devolved, a withered reflection of its former rave-up glory. What was once a call to action is now something much more non-specific and dread-wrought.
A DJ friend panned this release as another example of Dixon engineering a fascinating concept but not equipping it with the sonic boosters and extended structure needed to make it work on the dancefloor. And he is right. While I am no Hegelian, the dialectic between club-focused music and the more transportive and diurnal qualities of dance music are best when placed in opposition, forced to reconcile themselves into a form that works in both places. And yet, this EP arguably works on neither the dance floor or in an isolated listen. But I'm not buying it. Whether mixed with other non-dancefloor-primed techno that has its eyes on the ground or in the stars or taken on its own, Dixon has created a monumental work that makes the whole noise techno movement seem downright silly. Dance music is best when cast in new forms, when it tries new ideas at full tilt, either to burst in flames or head for the stratosphere. Perhaps the strongest argument in favor of Dixon's accomplishment is the beatless title track that kicks off the B side, a seemingly aimless piece of atmospheric dread that manages to call to mind both the most tense and cinematic of Piero Umiliani's compositional libraries and the amorphous digital dissolutions of Oval. Ending the EP on something of a question mark is "The Test of Time" which trades in the bell-rich loops that made the second From the Far Future so compelling. Unlike that work, there is no soaring drums or breakdowns to help guide the listener in making some sense of both the EP and the track, especially once seemingly aimless and jarring synth stabs enter the mix before the whole thing disappears in under four minutes.
There are those who will utterly hate this EP and those who will overpraise it, but it speaks volumes that a label as established and well-known as Tresor would take such a risk with such a venerable voice. Then again, with the recent signing of emotive house producer Bnjmn, who made him name releasing on the Amsterdam powerhouse Rush Hour and more recently the other banging label in that town, Delsin (who was last seen releasing the fantastic Norken EP), it's clear that Tresor is trying new things and stepping outside of their techno comfort zone a bit. Personally, as a digital marketer and branding consultant, for a twenty-five year-old institution to release an EP like Dixon's or to mark their quarter-century of existence with a compilation that looks definitively forward in regards to dance music's progression, I'm more than a bit impressed by what Tresor the label is accomplishing at the moment.
Only in Dreams
And thus it only makes since, with Tresor being the primary throughline here, that we take a quick look at the rather intriguing twenty-fifth anniversary comp it released at the start of the year. For as the label has moved from Detroit and Germany to the UK and the EU as a whole, all the while attracting talent from across the world to play in its club and maintaining a direct line to the Detroit elite (while not really giving any play to the young guns, at least on the label side), this compilation is almost certainly not what you're expecting it to sound like. This is a globalized Tresor, a label well-aware of where it's been and yet perhaps unsure about where it's going as there's no definitive message or statement to be read here, but rather it plays like a notebook brimming with ideas, some that land and some that don't.
Housed in the type of PVC sleeve that PAN made fashionable and released to relatively little fanfare back in January of this year, I first took note of the Dreamy Harbor comp for its staggeringly solid and somewhat surprising track listing, pretty much the opposite of what you expect with these kind of self-promotional releases. I mean, if Gigi Masin can kick off the Dekmantel tenth anniversary series of twelves, it's not a far cry to include Jon Hassell on Tresor's twenty-fifth anniversary compilation. And if you're in the least familiar with the label, you'll know that the label comp has been something of a long-standing tradition for them (be it the Kern series or Detroit<->Berlin-themed comps), giving them a chance to offer a summary of where techno has gone and is going at that moment in time while highlighting some of the voices that would help Tresor crystallize its nascent brand.
I don't typically pay much mind to record press releases outside of scanning them quickly to see if they contain any unusual insights into the music contained within and the press release for Dreamy Harbor is one of the more unique ones I've seen in some time. The copy associated with the release achieves quite a bit in little words, connecting the conditions that "birthed Detroit techno -- economic neglect and broken industry" with "the disused bunkers and impromptu parties of post-unification East Berlin, where techno found new, vigorous expression." Taking it up a notch, the label notes with techno's status as a worldwide industry, the label and dance music fanatics alike face a new political chapter, one in which the nationalism and bigotry that has become visibly au Courant. It thus argues that "contemporary creatives should take inspiration from Tresor's story, an extraordinary experiment born from improvisation, resourcefulness and social neglect that uplifted the spirits of inner city communities for a quarter-century."
Despite the fact that my eyes just rolled into the back of my skull, that doesn't change the fact that Dreamy Harbor is a damn curious statement by a club and label that often, but not always, played it safe. Most of the twelve songs that make up the 3xLP near or surpass the ten-minute mark, making many of the tracks more akin to ambient techno than the hardcore rave-ups for which Tresor is famous. For that matter, considering that Tresor is both a club and label known for indulging in the most heavy of techno, the compositions on display feel decidedly unrushed in a way not unlike the new Porter Ricks material. Each track exists for as long as it needs to, or at least many of them do.
Our old friend Vainqeuer opens the comp, something to note since his releases have become increasingly sporadic and spread apart. Here he really goes for the weightless vibe as the twelve-minute track delicately hovers, soft pads entering the mix to add a degree of tension but the producer never concedes, turning a masterful exercise in dub restraint. As "Sensei (edit)" by Shao returns the listener to more familiar, propulsive grounds, it soon becomes clear that the tracks on this comp can be split between the loping and atmospheric and the planar and charging. Shao falls into the later camp and like many on this comp, uses the extended play time to not rush a thing, building tension and then releasing it and repeating it all over again until the track reaches its natural terminus." Another old friend turns in what may be the album's highlight, an edit of the decidedly more amped-up original which is stripped of its bass and ride cymbal drum pattern and forced to just be as saxophones and marimba-like rattles congeal around a backing sixteenth-note hi-hat pattern.
The Juan Atkins & Moritz Von Oswald track that follows is unfortunately, but predictably the stinker of the bunch, but chances are if you're doing some work you won't even notice it. "What Lies Behind Us" by Mønic is a decidedly different tale as this future label stalwart turns in what is one of my favorite tracks of the album, a delicate wood-block led piece that evokes the cyber paranoia of electro while giving it that techno bump. Fantastic. Long-time Interfisch and Tresor affiliate TV Victor turns in the next non-techno track, this one coming off a bit less ethnographic and engaging and a bit more nondescript hotel lounge waiting music, though it's certainly not unpleasant. We're then treated to Italian maestro Donato Dozzy is certifiable acid mode, banging a minimal yet driving bassline for seven minute straight without once boring the listener.
Leave it to old gun Thomas Fehlmann to get things truly back on track with the driving "Silverness," a track that can best be described as a post-disco house romp through the desert of the real. It's tight. Things only get more interesting, in the digital version that is, with the appearance of the not super well-known Austrian Claudia Anderson who gives Dixon a serious run for his money with her slowed-down techno IDM inching along as a voice enters the mix as if to guide the listener through this aural odyssey. Following that transportive track is no other than motherfucking Jon Hassell himself who shows that eighty years of age ain't no thing as he shows you how to create a trance-inducing, yet endlessly detailed piece of fourth world magic (if it can even be called that.) Marcelus, an artist whose released two banging twelves on Tresor already, turns in a song unlike any I've ever heard from him, although "Shine's" found percussion field at least puts it in the same ballfield. Centered around a pacing, light drum loop, Marcelus sets about teasing melodic drama and introducing new characters to create a film noir-ready soundtrack that is as engrossing as any page-turner. Closing things is the three-and-a-half minute run of gamelan-inspired bell arpeggiations, chanting voices, and sampled vocal snatches by Daughter Produkt, a duo comprised of Annie Hall and a total nobody named Gerald Donald who may have been one half of Drexciya and the producer behind that Shifted Phases LP I keep mentioning. I would never have guessed this was in part the world of Donald and it's a decided dose of exoticism in a compilation full of fourth world gestures. To be honest, I'm still trying to figure out what this all means for dance music, but nonetheless, when it comes to disposable label comps or club labels, Tresor has managed to avoid the many pitfalls that subsume such endeavors.
Essential Tresor Releases (that I've heard)
X-101 -X-101 (1991)
X-102 - Discovers the Rings of Saturn (1992)
3MB Feat. Magin Juan Atkins - S/T (1992)
X-103 - Atlantis (1993)
Jeff Mills - Waveform Transmissions Vol. 3 (1994)
Robert Hood - Internal Empire (1994)
Infiniti - The Infiniti Collection (1996)
Scan 7 - Dark Territory (1996)
Surgeon - Basictonalvocabulary (1997)
Scan 7 - Beyond Sound (1998)
The Advent - Sound Sketches (1998)
Drexciya - Neptune's Lair (1999)
Surgeon - Force + Form (1999)
Scan 7 - Resurfaced (1999)
Tobias Schmidt - Dark of Heartness (1999)
Drexciya - Neptune's Lair (1999)
Drexciya - Fusion Flats (2000)
Drexciya - Hydro Doorways (2000)
Matthew Herbert - Letsallmakemistakes (2000)
Terrence Dixon - From the Far Future (2000)
Daniel Bell - The Button Down Mind of Daniel Bell (2000)
Drexciya - Digital Tsunami (2001)
Drexciya - Harnessed the Storm (2002)
Octave One - Off the Grid (2007)
James Ruskin - The Dash (2008)
Scan 87 - The Resistance (2012)
Terrence Dixon - From the Far Future Pt. 2 (2012)
Sleeparchieve - A Man Dies in the Street Pt. 1 & 2 (2013)
Peter Van Hoesen - Life Performance (2013)
Transllusion - The Opening of the Cerebral Gate (2014)
Transllusion - Mind Over Positive and Negative Dimensional Matter (2014)
Mønic - Four Sides of the Trust (2016)
Marcelus - Vibrations (2016)
Porter Ricks - Shadow Boat (2016)
Bnjmn - Body Reflections Pt. 1 (2017)
Various - Dreamy Harbor (2017)
Terrence Dixon - Like a Thief in the Night (2017)
Porter Ricks - Anguilla Electrica (2017)