There was a time when indie kids thought of techno as strictly machine music, constructed on the assembly lines of Detroit. Yet much of what was best in last decade’s minimal techno (shortened first to ‘minimal’ – despite being often anything but – and then, self-parodically, to ‘mnml’) felt verdant, organic, even improvised; produced by the children of the mid-1970s Chilean Diaspora (and released on labels such as Perlon and Cadenza), it related more to Tropicália than to Fordism. Meanwhile, another strand of techno and house was becoming humanized, poppier and more immediately emotive. This had much to do with Cologne-based record label Kompakt: founded in 1998 and initially specializing in ‘microhouse’, a term coined by Philip Sherburne at the beginning of the decade to refer to the whittled-down dance music du jour, the label quickly diversified, releasing annual collections of ambient pop and – with well-received albums from The Field, Gui Boratto and Matias Aguayo, among others – succesfully guiding techno into hipster circles.
Falling somewhere between these two tendencies, Pantha du Prince (Hamburg producer Hendrik Weber) makes what has been called Romantic techno. The chimes that echo through his glinting minimalism sound blown by the wind rather than programmed. Somewhat overbearingly, he has titles to match – his second album was titled This Bliss (2007), and new tracks include ‘A Nomad’s Retreat’, ‘Bohemian Forest’ and ‘Behind the Stars’. (The main influence in this respect is surely Wolfgang Voigt’s Gas project, for which the Kompakt co-founder’s stated aim was to ‘bring the forest into the disco and vice-versa’.) Continuing this emphatically Romanticized framing, Weber’s new album, Black Noise (2010), is based on electronically manipulated field recordings he made in the Swiss Alps alongside Stephan Abry (one half of Kai Althoff’s band Workshop) and Joachim Schütz.
Nothing on This Bliss came close to the ethereal, roaming stand-out ‘Saturn Strobe’, built around an extraordinary string arrangement by the Scratch Orchestra’s Robert Skempton. While Black Noise droops in the middle and lumbers sometimes under its Caspar David Friedrichisms, like its predecessor there is one great track: the joyous ‘Stick to my Side’. Intriguingly, the album’s last three tracks – ‘Welt am Draht’ (World on Wires), ‘Im Bann’ (Entranced) and ‘Es Schneit’ (‘It’s Snowing’) – drift somewhere else entirely, recalling the early ’90s shoegaze band Slowdive, or the liquid, dubby ambience of The Orb and Seefeel.
Black Noise makes definite moves towards the indie mainstream – Weber’s earlier releases, for example, were issued by the Hamburg-based Dial imprint; this one is with London’s indie stalwart Rough Trade. The listed collaborations are also telling: Noah Lennox (a.k.a. Panda Bear from Animal Collective) provides a vocal on the hymnal ‘Stick to my Side’; and I’ll take Rough Trade’s word for it that Tyler Pope (of !!! and LCD Soundsystem) plays bass on single ‘The Splendour’ (it sounds to me like a Casio preset). Many end-of-decade music round-ups have emphasized how the last ten years have seen a broadening of indie tastes, from Strokes-influenced Velvet Underground rehashes to reference points that – in 2000, at least – would have seemed alarmingly catholic. This expansion effectively comprised the construction of an indie mainstream, one whose dominance allowed it to be both more tolerant in appearance and more influential in its gravitational pull. Certain record labels – Kompakt included – have been beguilingly effective in jettisoning techno’s more abrasive, less palatable aspects, though this retooling may well have forgotten the urgency that made it worthwhile in the first place.