Marcel Dettmann and the Return of Maximal Techno

I was putting off writing an entry on Marcel Dettmann’s appearance at last Friday’s Bunker party at Brooklyn’s Public Assembly, figuring that a recording would soon become available as the next installment in the Bunker’s excellent podcast series. However, the recent appearance of what promises to be an epic five hour set from Jus-Ed makes it suddenly clear to me that these podcasts are delayed by about a month. I hate to add to the anticipation for those of you who have already been impatiently awaiting Dettmann’s set, but let me get this out of the way: you will not be disappointed. In the meantime, you might as well get your house on for a month with Jus-Ed--I sure will.

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.

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.


  1. this really is a great write up on dettmann. lets hope his bunker set was recorded...

    and being the person who wrote that RA review, let me just say i completely 100% agree with your take. as i wrote elsewhere in the review, 'It’s a forward-looking variety of techno, but it’s also rooted in what’s come before.'

    and, for the record, the jus-ed set is brilliant...

  2. hope you had fun buddy! you know how much i've been influenced by your take on dj-ing, so i don't think i need to underline how much we are in agreement :)

    there's a great quote on the back of the clone classic cuts sleeves: "the best servants of the new are those who known the old, love it and pass it on to the future" - thomas mann

  3. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but I heard from Plaslaiko that for one technical reason or another, Dettmann's set was not recorded. I guess it will have to live on in NYC techno lore.

  4. dettmann's set was not recorded. the recorder got unplugged and we lost the entire thing. true shame and tragedy, if you ask me.

    however...i did record john roberts' set from the front room. :)

    and thanks for the kind words!!

  5. shame that i missed it. i was at ed's show though, so i can vouch for that :) shuja you need to get your ass down to bk again for move d and anthony parasole. ed's going to be there too.

    i don't really think what's going on at berghain is that forward looking, though, to be honest. it's a sick party that i've had the pleasure of attending for a ridiculous amount of time, but really this sort of thing has existed in berlin for some time. the reappropriation of industrial and institutional spaces for the life performance and reproduction of music described as "futuristic, anarchic, uncompromising,” with “character, soul and a kind of hypnotic, industrial feeling,”"

    i mean this jeff mills and rob hood, in essence.

    tresor was built in a bank vault, e werk was built in a factory, the new tresor is in a factory, and there are some undergrounds in REAL bunkers in berlin.. eventually it just becomes a tourist destination removed from the reality. the reality is, Friedrichshain is about to become home to a brand new glass and steel big-business and media district (right across the river from watergate) and as it is, Berghain and Panoramabar are filled with international party tourists (myself included i suppose) despite the seemingly strict door selection policies... I think the scene is very vibrant and honest, however, despite this, but it does seem a little anachronistic or 'disneyfied' to me.

    the berlin-detroit axis made more sense when both cities were actually war-zones. however, let's look at berlin today compared to detroit... at this point the old relationship doesn't really make sense beyond 'theming'.

    beyond any of the locations or the sound of the music, what i feel was the best aspect of the berlin scene is the combination of people which comprise it.

    as for the music of berghain, etc, it's definitely still awesome, because it's just raw, visceral dance music, but i can't help but think that it is a dinosaur on display.

    the 'future' described, i am afraid, is the future of 1991, not the future of 2009. not to say i don't enjoy it, but i just wouldn't call it very foward-thinking.

    real anarchy for instance would be something like the abolition of the office of the disc jockey entirely, perhaps a parametric music which unfolds and builds itself based on spatial and collective human input. there needs to be a radical paradigm shift in production technique and social values similar to what occured in the 60s and 70s with jamaican dub music, where the recording studio became an instrument that allowed for the deconstruction of the popular song and the delamination of the recording from the physical space in which it was recorded.

    i enjoy dettman's thing inasmuch as i enjoy what it is based on, but the future he describes is not my future, and not really his either IMO.

  6. point taken on the berlin-detroit relationship, but having never been to berlin, i can't really respond to your charge of "disneyfication." i don't know however if "removal from reality" needs to be read as a problem, isn't it the point of dance music (and aesthetic experience generally) to be a burst of utopian un-reality?

    generally though i think your critique needs elaboration. the jamaican dub model has already set the stage for dance, which already operates on a much less hierarchical economy of cultural exchange than that of most other media. your speculation on a new "paradigm shift," while compelling, remains entirely vague.

    i wonder if, say, move d or jus-ed or efdemin (just trying to get at the style i know you champion, adam) come close to what you're anticipating in a way that dettmann does not. to me, it seems like david moufang's relationship to larry heard and kenny dixon is essentially the same as dettmann's to mills and hood.

    i would call attention back to the analogy i ended with; while mills/hood are the main reference point for berghain/ostgut in terms of sound, i feel that something like mid-70's punk is a more effective parallel to their approach (and that of smallville/uq/dial etc). i don't think that punk improved on what chuck berry and phil spector did, or even really changed the blueprint all that much, but it forced a complete overhaul of the ideals of rock and pop music after years of bullshit, setting the stage for post-punk (duh) and synth pop.

    and we all know what those helped set the stage for, right?

  7. i'm not attempting to champion any style here. i enjoy a lot of different music, both new and old, but i'm just careful about what i call forward looking. (and maybe i should be more careful about what i call not-forward-looking? :p)

    ed does his own thing and he's been doing it for years. moufang's approach to music making is and has been as unique as any for 20 years and his music is either refreshingly unique (eg 'honey' w ben brunn) or it's an obvious homage to previous innovators (eg 'theo', 'felix', 'tribute to mr fingers') there's nothing wrong with paying homage to the old masters.

    my point is twofold and simple

    1. i just don't find what ostgut is doing is really that forward-looking. it is a very, very loyal continuation of the past. it's fun and conceptually rich, but forward looking, maybe not so much. friedrichshain has had the reputation as the punk neighborhood for decades now, and the appropriation of the powerplant is not quite the same relationship as it would have been in the past. basically, in the past these empty industrial behemoths would have been infiltrated temporarily and illegally, and here, the building is actually owned. so already it becomes a kind of museum to the past, institutionalizing the underground. look in any 'rough guide' to berlin and you'll see berghain at the top of the list.

    so i suppose the obvious question this begs is, are 'forward-looking and popular mutually exclusive?' my answer to that is not necessarily, but this scene is pretty retrospective IMO.

    which brings me to point 2:
    i think we're all archaeologists. i'm not saying i don't appreciate that there is a place in the world (and occasionally in BK) i can go to hear cavernous industrial berlinized detroit techno with a punk attitude, because i do, and you know that i can be quite the archaeologist myself with what i buy and play. so that's not the issue here.

    as far as the vague shift i am talking about goes, it's not so much as a critique as a curiosity. i'm reasonably happy with things as they are, but i can't help but wonder where we can go next- nothing wrong with that, right? i'm doing my own experiments, musing, etc. i apologize if it comes across as preachy.

    i mean imagine what it would be like to have never heard of a drum machine before and to go to a party in an abandonded factory just after your entire country and culture has completely and utterly transformed and see some dude from detroit improvising cold, electric, frenetic, staccato rhythms with a tiny little box, making a mob of crazies on novel drugs go absolutely wild?

    i'm just trying to imagine what could be so basically revolutionary as that, today.

  8. great and insightful text, thanks a lot for sharing!

  9. DETTIPUS REX: Berghain at the Rex (Paris)

    So, against the advice of several close friends, I decided late last Friday to catch a bus out of the small Normand town I'm currently living in and make the 3 and a half hour trip to Paris. The reason being that a couple of reputed German DJs I'd read quite a bit about were making a rare appearance at the Rex Club. This was the first time I'd gone to such extremes to see a DJ, and really, it was pretty badly planned... I only decided to go 20 minutes before the last bus, so I was going alone on very little sleep, taking very little with me, had never been to the Rex Club before, and had no place to sleep in Paris if things didn't work out. My plan, if you could call it that, was to get to Paris at about 11, spend an hour finding the Rex, then spend 6 hours inside the club, and finally, take the first train out of Paris in the morning...

    Halfway there I began to think I'd made a mistake. I was getting more and more tired, and the prospect of staying up another 8 or 9 hours didn't seem possible. However, when I got to Paris things got a little better. I found a coffee shop, had coffee, and then a few beers on the street. I arrived at the Rex at about 12:30, where I found a modest line waiting to get in. Earlier in the week, I'd taken the precaution of signing up for the guest list on the Rex's website. I went to the other side of the entrance and told my name a bouncer with a clipboard. I should have paid 15euro to get in, but for whatever reason, I was told to go directly past the ticket office into the club (I'm thinking it had something to do with my accent, or it was just some sort of club promotion designed to make me feel like I could afford to buy everybody a round of 9euro beers...).

    Inside, the French DJ Deep had already begun his set, and even at 12:45, the dance floor was almost half-full, although I decided to take a seat and give the Rex a look. Soon after, I met a few other, and we decided it was a good idea to visit the smoking "stockade" in the back of the club now, instead of later. It was harder to get into this area of the club that it had been to get into the club itself, and so, I didn't really see much of DJ Deep's set, although I'm pretty sure I did hear him playing Dettmann and Klock's track, "Scenerio", at one point.

    I was talking to some people near the bar, when one of them mentioned the DJ had changed a few minutes ago. I left mid-sentence, and went straight to the little amateur DJ coop in front of the DJ booth. After a couple of minutes of strategic dancing, I manage to bump just enough people off the ledge to end up right up against the glass in front of the left turntable. Klock was spinning mostly vinyl, but occasionally using the CDJs, and mixing with an E&S DJR 400 (http://www.electronique-spectacle.com/djr400.htm). It was a bit difficult to follow the mix because I was unfamiliar with most of the tracks, and the mixboard didn't have a crossfader, but from what I saw, Klock is all about precision: he turns knobs as if he was obliged to do so, with no hesitation, and to great effect. The BPMs were constant, with heavy bass on all 4 beats, which Klock pulled out at least 6 or 7 times, bringing the crowd into a frenzy each time.

    Dettmann was standing in the back of the booth, talking to the booth cronies and bouncing his head pretty much all the time. After about an hour of solo mixing, Klock invited Dettmann up to the decks, and for a good hour and a half, they shared the space, each manning one turntable and mixing off each other. The first track Dettmann played was a white label call "Ezekiel", which featured Samuel L. Jackson's voice from Pulp Fiction, something that I wouldn't have thought could work as well as it did... Dettmann's mixing was quite different from Klock's, in that he seems to hesitate and seize. His fingers hover over the mixer, then lurch around, half turning knobs with a bit of indecision. It's like someone's giving him directions, but at the last second possible, which makes his mixing all the more surprising.

    The two traded off, talking to each other and laughing in-between transitions, or talking to the group at the front through the open window of the DJ booth. They both seemed to love what they were doing. After each transition, Dettmann redebuted his "Dettmann Dance", which is a variation of the Robot, I think, and involves oscillating closed fists in a hammer like motion and pivoting your hips from side to side. The reviews from those at the front were overwhelmingly positive, and the DJs didn't seem to mind any form of interaction, although when someone started blowing bubbles into the DJ booth and a few landed right on the vinyl, I almost saw Dettmann cringe...

    At around 4:30 or 5, Dettmann took over for the night, although Klock made a few return appearances. He played well past closing time, until about 6:30 or 6:45, towards the end, bring it down to a much more minimal or house feel. At the end of the night, there were about 50 exhausted people applauding and trying to standup straight. The DJs graciously accepted the dancers' praise, and then, after collecting their records, made their way out the front door of the club and hailed a taxi. I hit the train station, and three hours later, I found myself at home unable to sleep.

    Now, whether or not this was a "forward-thinking" experience or not, I can't claim to have an opinion. For me, being my first time to the Rex (and in general, being pretty new to the whole club music scene), novelty abounded; the music was well taken care of, and despite the fact that most people I talked to had no idea who was spinning, the dance floor moved! In my humble opinion, I have to give it an overwhelmingly positive review...

  10. "in the past these empty industrial behemoths would have been infiltrated temporarily and illegally, and here, the building is actually owned. so already it becomes a kind of museum to the past, institutionalizing the underground. look in any 'rough guide' to berlin and you'll see berghain at the top of the list."

    "I think the scene is very vibrant and honest, however, despite this, but it does seem a little anachronistic or 'disneyfied' to me."

    so fuckin right! i am a person who lives in berlin, all the hype comes from the people who have never been to berlin, and they are just ruining it..

  11. Adam, I don't know if you've seen this or not, but it's musing pretty hard in some direction...


    I doubt it works out all that well everytime, but the idea's pretty fascinating, and the method's unorthodox... If the right people took up this sort of thing...

  12. oh yeah, and...