I’d never been to a Bunker party before, and I was shocked (in a good way, of course) to see such a draw for house and techno in Brooklyn--some regulars told me this was the biggest crowd they had seen yet. The pumping, high-energy vibe that opener Derek Plaslaiko had going in the back room got the night started out just fine, and the floor was already full, but my crew was more drawn to the subtle-but-freaky funk of Eric Cloutier’s set in the smaller front room. I mean, my man put on “Psychotic Photosynthesis” right when we walked in the door, and proceeded to fully live up to that promising start. No small feat. As those of you who have followed his recorded mixes know, this guy is someone to watch.
The fact is, however, that the size of the crowd and the general sense of excitement was due to the headliner--as far as I know (though I could be wrong), this was his first American appearance. I don’t really need to add to the hype surrounding not only Dettmann, but the whole OstGut/Berghain/Panorama axis of Berlin techno that has been taking dance music by storm in the past year or so. Chris Hobson’s review at Resident Advisor of Dettmann’s first commercially released mix typifies the eager praise the whole outfit has been getting:
Chances are we’ll look back at Berghain 02 as a defining movement when techno got out of that locked groove, and started moving forward again.If I were Marcel Dettmann, this kind of talk would make me very nervous. But Dettmann showed no trace of nerves Friday night; he may not have executed flawless mixes all night (what great DJ does?) but he presented his set with complete conviction.
The reason this is worth caring about is because what he presents does indeed break away from the “locked groove” of today’s dance music. My use of the rather obvious term “maximal techno” is, of course, a simple inversion of “minimal techno,” but the difference between what Dettmann does and what minimal techno has been doing is complex.
In an interview, Dettmann describes the music he plays as “futuristic, anarchic, uncompromising,” with “character, soul and a kind of hypnotic, industrial feeling,” while maintaining “clarity, deepness, and simplicity.” These words could easily be empty platitudes, but in Dettmann’s case, this is pretty much exactly what he sounds like.
Let me put it another way. In conversation with the Berghain’s enigmatic owner, “Michael,” Philip Sherbune arrived at a compelling idea: the music associated with the OstGut label and the Bergain club is nearly a sonic equivalent of the Berghain’s space itself. As Sherburne writes,
Housed in a disused power plant, the Berghain complex is an intimidating, post-industrial behemoth boasting a cavernous main room; the more intimate Panoramabar upstairs; cement floors, ceiling, walls and staircases; and dark, meandering passageways and cubbyholes, which unlike their counterparts in the United States, offer zones of total autonomy.If you’ve heard one of the several recorded sets by Dettmann, you’ll know what I’m getting at. In this musical world, BPMs are quick, but not overwhelmingly so, and beats are simultaneously unrelentingly hard and rhythmically fluid. Sounds are almost exclusively synth-based. You will probably never hear a vocal house track from Dettmann, but words are not limited to pseudo-mystical commandments issuing from the pitched-down voice of the God of Mnml; instead voices and instruments make allusive, arresting appearances. A breakdown is not a call for lighters-in-the-air swayage; it’s a moment of rupture, an explosive overflow of complexity and intensity.
Beyond stylistic descriptions, what’s especially critical in Dettmann’s conception is a careful interpretation of dance music’s history. In a great interview, on Beatportal of all places, he emphasizes this aspect of his approach:
For me it was the same--when I listened to pop music for the first time, I listened to Depeche Mode and I used to think, “what did they do before?” So I think it’s important to know what comes before, to understand it.
I listen to records that came out in the late ‘80s--Chicago stuff, Detroit stuff, so many fucking great records that I never listened to before--and when I find some artists that I’m really interested in, I want to hear all their stuff.
I think it’s really important to know where it comes from, the whole techno music stuff--is it Kraftwerk, is it funk, jazz stuff? I think it’s good to know.Dettmann cites Robert Hood, Jeff Mills, and Joey Beltram as his “techno heroes.” It’s worth considering the relationship between the style(s) these figures represent and what is now called “minimal.” Philip Sherburne has suggested that there was some kind of bifurcation in dance music in the late nineties, with Detroit techno persistently “working within the margins of traditional song form,” while European producers began to make “an art out of producing microscopic variations on a single rhythmic theme.” He goes on to suggest that this new minimalism took two approaches: skeletalism, “the imperative to carve everything inessential from dance music’s pulse, leaving only enough embellishment (syncopation, tone color, effects) to merit the variation,” and massification, which “attempts to create extreme densities with a relative paucity of sonic elements.”
On the other hand, Robert Hood’s minimal blueprint on records like Minimal Nation (a favorite of Dettmann’s) isn’t “traditional song form,” but it doesn’t seem to me to fit this rubric either. His tracks, from earliest to latest, are far from the loop-obsession of post-Hawtin minimal, and they are more than just an unchanging framework for the superimposition of sound effects. Hood’s tracks are infused with a developmental flux within the groove itself, and often incorporate interruptions of voice or melody into an unpredictable structure.
In that same Beatportal interview, Dettmann connects the genealogy he traces directly to the music he plays and produces:
What I think is that this kind of techno music was always there for me. And for so many people, some young people, they aren’t growing up with this kind of music, so when they discovered this kind of classic flavored techno, the raw stuff, they don’t know it before. They only listened to some minimal stuff before, so they think “Oh, that’s new…”
That’s not new! It’s the classic way of techno for me. For me it exists the whole time, since I first listened to techno.This isn’t just talk; Dettmann’s Berghain mix includes (somewhat controversially) Risqué Rhythum Team’s 1986 Chicago house record “The Jacking Zone” and Kevin Saunderson’s “Just Want Another Chance.” Last Friday he dropped Armando’s acid classic “Land of Confusion” near the end of his set, and yes, it brought the motherfucking house down.
It’s safe to say that the entire OstGut/Berghain/Panorama collective makes a similar effort to historicize their work; think of the wistful spoken interlude in Shed’s Shedding the Past on “the feeling of the intensity and purity of club and rave in the early days,” or hell, just listen to the Detroit-influenced harmonies of his productions (or check out this housey mix on mnml ssgs). The folks upstairs at Panorama, including Cassy and Steffi holding it down for the ladies, have consistently made room for old-schoolers Moodymann, Theo Parrish, Shake, Rick Wade, Daniel Bell, and so on (you've got to hear Steffi's live set here).
Remarkably, this “defining movement” in techno, this “move forward,” is really a throwback of sorts, a return to the origin points of house and techno. But this is only a regression in the sense that the songs of the Sex Pistols and the Ramones were retrograde imitations of Chuck Berry and the Ronettes. In reality, just as punk restructured rock music from the ground up, recalibrating its approaches and effects to maintain only its most salient features, the new maximal techno brings us back to zero.