Electronic Music 2013 Romantics in the Bass Drum Cycle

Digital Natives celebrating good old vinyl: the Rose Records team in front of their record collection.
Digital Natives celebrating good old vinyl: the Rose Records team in front of their record collection. | Photo (detail): © Rose Records

Electronic music came full circle in more ways than one in 2013. Uh-Young Kim observes the house renaissance, established musicmakers riding high on their past achievements, while others venture south in search of alternatives. It was also the year club culture learned to laugh at itself.

In 2013 a generation change pointed up the cyclical historicity of club music more clearly than in previous years. The young fellows are here now, and they sound like the old fellows – who are still here too. Those who found all of that too familiar could unearth fresh sounds overseas, e.g. in Africa. Some producers reoriented themselves towards highbrow culture, if only to dodge the threat of insecurity looming over the music industry, though also because it has become more a matter of course these days to play theatres, opera houses and museums, which in turn made guest appearances and even put on world premiere productions in party temples like the Berghain. Meanwhile, despite all the vying for government contracts, for the favour of the dancefloor and for social media clicks, the electronic music scene in 2013 finally learned to laugh at itself.

The young Romantics

As soon as the bass drum kicks in, the high hat thrashes away and the telltale house chords resound, daddies with hipster beards and outsize record collections let out a groan: heard it all before, it’s all old hat. But of course revivals are especially for those who never got a chance to experience the sound back in the day: very young digital natives, capable of getting all excited about the disco age, fully equipped with the requisite Internet skills to market their own music and, above all, committed body and soul to the mantra “strictly vinyl”.

The medium dictates the message: after years of the streamlined aesthetics of laptop-generated tracks, a more analog, grungy, soulful sound is back in again. The shooting stars of this new scene are Max Graef, whose remixes are internationally much in demand, and Damiano von Erckert from Cologne. Erckert’s Love Based Music topped the album charts at online shops and in the record boxes of such electronic music greats as Gilles Peterson and Four Tet. These young Romantics release on vinyl-only labels like Berlin’s Box aus Holz or Leipzig’s Rose Records.

Their lovingly designed LPs sound like long-lost tracks by such heroes of yore as Moodymann or Kerri Chandler: Chicago-school house with more or less discreet distortion effects, pumping kicks, soul and disco samples, romanticized through the next-generation glasses of those born late. So for a new generation of DJs and producers deep house re-emerged triumphant as the ideal sound in 2013 – 20 years after it was first formulated on the East Coast of the United States. Since then, that sound has been further refined and hybridized time and again in German club music from Frankfurt, Cologne, Hamburg and Berlin: house as the continuation of soul and disco with melodic elements and human imperfectionisms.
Damiano von Erckert: Housem

This charming dilettantishly produced house fits in well with the renaissance of disco classics as edits. In these alternative versions, the original is reduced to its basic elements, re-arranged and tailored to the needs of the dancefloor. The quality and quantity of edits grew exponentially in 2013, since they can be put together in a trice and swiftly distributed via Internet platforms like Soundcloud. It’s bon ton nowadays for DJs to play self-produced edits at their gigs.

The old wild ones

Meanwhile, there has been no real changing of the guard. The young have not superseded, let alone ousted, the old. Rather, they coexist, and ideally back each other up and invite one another to their sets. Newcomer Damiano von Erckert, for example, DJed at Hans Nieswandt’s 50th birthday party. Nieswandt, the pioneer of club culture, godfather of house and author from Cologne, was appointed at year’s end artistic director of the newly founded Popular Music department at the Folkwang University of the Arts in Bochum. A DJ at the top of an academy – now that is a bold and very exciting move for everyone concerned, given Nieswandt’s wide-ranging knowledge, global contacts and, not least, his artistic personality.

DJ Koze’s album landed way out in front among last year’s best releases. While Amygdala features tracks genetically rooted in club culture, the music is more suited for coming down after the party, for home listening after all the din and clamour, with Stefan Kozalla’s usual idiosyncratic sound palette. Whether Amygdala was indeed musically a step ahead of, say, Westbam’s Götterstraße, an album that flopped despite such high-calibre guest stars as Kanye West and Iggy Pop, or Moderat’s II with its ethereal model of the singer-songwriter in the club, is definitely debatable. But DJ Koze’s pole position may actually say more about the reception than about the music itself – in other words about who is still buying, reviewing, and compiling lists of albums.

There’s no getting round Modeselektor, Berlin’s cuddliest duo of producers, anymore – even if they haven’t put out an album since 2011. Through their participation in Moderat and their work on the Monkeytown and 50 Weapons labels, on which they brought together such diverse acts as Mouse On Mars and Addison Groove from the UK, they remained a regular talking point, not least thanks to their loyal and growing following on the web.

For them, as for the Innervisions crew around Dixon and Âme, 2013 was another year of standstill and consolidation of past achievements: much has been accomplished, but the wheel need not and cannot be reinvented here either. In the case of DJ Dixon from Berlin, longevity pays off: users of Resident Advisor, the leading online magazine for electronic music, voted him the world’s Number 1 DJ.

Alternative: global pop

New trends emerged in electronic music last year from forays abroad, recombining and hybridizing musical aesthetics from faraway places like Africa in particular. Dub connoisseur and techno pioneer Mark Ernestus (Hardwax, Basic Channel etc.) rounded up some top-notch instrumentalists from Senegal for the Jeri Jeri project. Showing all due respect for the source material, he built on their intricate percussive grooves and put it live on stage. Ernestus succeeded in doing with West African polyrhythms what he’d already done with Caribbean dub reggae, coming out with an inspired modern take on rich music traditions using technical know-how from decades of experience and an inquisitive outsider’s perspective.
Jeri-Jeri with Mbene Diatta Seck, Ale & Khadim Mboup: Bamba

In 2013 Alex Barck of Berlin-based Jazzanova presented the fruits of his time-out in Réunion. He had quit the big-city hubbub and moved with his family for a year to this paradisiac island in the Indian Ocean. His Reunion album incorporates his experiences in uncharted waters and his encounters on the island, e.g. with singer Christine Salem. The influences on these scintillating fusion house tracks come from jazz and maloya, the traditional music in Réunion.

Similar lines of influence intersected in the project Pupkulies & Rebecca plays Tibau. The trio from Berlin underlaid the wistful songs of Cape Verdean musician Tibau Tavares with their melodious techno-pop sound. Producer Janosch Baul spent some of his childhood on these islands off the West African coast and still flies off to the archipelago now and then. Their performance in Cape Verde of the songs they’d put together with Tibau went down well with the local audience, rather like a gig at an after-hours club in Berlin.

After Wankelmut’s remix of One Day/Reckoning Song – the original is by Israeli folk singer Asaf Avidan – hit the charts, other players in the still new techno pop scene around acts like Klangkarussell mix world music approaches with their electronic mass-appeal sound. This style has often been disparaged as an aesthetic based on a certain predictability and the use of readymade sounds. But in the offing there seems to be a way out of the preset tunnel, an alternative approach some musicians are taking with a light and simple touch.

Megacity clash and voodootronics

The mega-project Ten Cities provided particularly persuasive proof in 2013 that new insights and exciting sounds can be drawn from the music world of the Southern Hemisphere. This initiative of the Goethe-Institut Kenya juxtaposed European and African club cultures in ten cities, including Cairo, Berlin, Johannesburg, Lagos and Lisbon.

Another large-scale project, Heimatlieder aus Deutschland, involved the likes of Gudrun Gut, Murat Tepeli, Symbiz Sound and Thomas Mahmoud remixing songs from Berlin’s immigrant communities. Exciting interfaces between electronic and traditional music also materialized on a smaller scale: after Jan St. Werner of Mouse On Mars attended a Candomblé ceremony in Kreuzberg, he invited percussionists Vladir Jovendal, Juninho Quebradiera and Leo Leandro to his studio to interweave their Afro-Brazilian rhythms with abstract electronic sound patterns. The upshot is an album called Black Manual, a shimmering clash of textures that exerts a magic pull on the listener.

Poking fun at DJs

Club culture arrived once and for all in a phase of self-admiration in 2013, albeit not without garnering some caustic digs on the web. While Jürgen Teipel’s book of interviews Mehr als laut (“More Than Loud”) had little to add to the extant literature on the history of DJing and stories of DJs, various blogs and YouTube videos brought to light some of the things we take for granted in nightlife-as-usual. The “Serato Face” blog, for example, showed photos of prominent DJs, including such German bigshots as Paul van Dyk, staring blankly at their laptops whilst disc-jockeying, and thereby exposed digital DJ tools like Serato and Traktor as rigid tools of the trade without an ounce of passion. A blog of “producers and DJs looking depressed” presented a collection of press photos of nocturnal luminaries like Ricardo Villalobos and Michael Mayer contemplatively looking away from the viewer and striking risible postures of gravitas.

After all, clubbing ought to be primarily about having fun. That can be gathered, albeit sometimes in an unintentionally comical way, from the Boiler Room, which has which has meanwhile also hit Berlin. In the Boiler Room, which has become a global institution in club culture, DJ sets with audiences are filmed head-on and livecast on the web. Star DJs and their entourage can show off all their coolness, intimacy and ecstasy here and rock the youth of the world online in the comfort of their digitally equipped rooms. Techno DJ Ben Klock from the Berghain-Stall got caught out on one such video.

His Boiler Room set occasioned no end of hilarity when the video recording was subsequently “shredded”, a recent trend that involves replacing the original soundtrack to a music video with new and unflattering sounds in sync with the images: the upshot is an elaborate audiovisual remix parodying a musical performance. In the shred video “Being Boiled”, at the high point of Ben Klock’s set the dancefloor goes wild – though not to his techno grooves, but to a sappy schlager song. The clip went viral. Ben Klock rehabilitated himself shortly thereafter, however, by deliberately playing this very schlager in a club and having himself filmed in triumph during the song.

So now the show can go on.