Electronic Music 2010 Forward Ever, Backward Ever

“Forward Ever, Backward Never” is the title of a Mayday compilation from 1992, back when people still believed wholeheartedly in the revolution that had been triggered by electronic dance music and culture.

The movement was indeed going strong then, what with structures that were still flexible and amenable to expansion and improvement, a pioneering spirit that spurred creativity, and even an economic trend showing a steep upwards curve. Under the circumstances, everything that had come before that naturally appeared irrelevant.

But a number of the developments over the 18 years that have elapsed since then would have seemed impossible in 1992. On the one hand, it soon became apparent that musical progress wholly cut off from any reference to the past would have to remain a pipedream. Nothing changes faster than the latest club sound, and the innovative capacity necessary to keep driving that sound forwards could never be mustered. So, when forward motion was wanting, one could always look back at everything which, in the forwards rush, had not yet been thoroughly processed.

And so it is that the sound of 1992, which was presumably already hopelessly outmoded by the end of that same year, resurfaced, albeit in fragments, in the year 2010 – by which time we’d long since grown used to retrievals of this sort. The cycles in which these older currents are taken up again have become shorter in our day, and reach further and further back in time. So it was that the older generation was confronted with its own past, out of which the younger generation forged its present, as both quested for something new.

2010 was, in consequence, a year of consolidation. The point was no longer to reinvent the wheel, but to remodel it. The music people were partying to in the clubs last year wasn’t all that different from that of the many years previous, only those many years previous were now heard in a modernized fused version, in which the only signs of progress were nuances discernible only those by those with a certain background thanks to their age or auto-didactic efforts.

The Crisis

The crisis in the music industry continued to set the pace of events, inducing many to stick to the beaten path to short-term success, others to manage rather than refine their merits in the interest of lasting success, and still others, oblivious to success and failure, to seize the economic slump as an opportunity to sow their wildest creative oats.

In any case, the democratization of the means of production in this age of cheap soft- and hardware and easy market access bred a spate of copycat music and slim pickings, as everyone vied for the dwindling half-life accorded by the media in their proportionally growing thirst for new subject-matter. Still, one could rest assured that on every conceivable aspect there’d be more podcasts available, more SoundCloud sets and web discussions than one could possibly ever get through.

Club culture, on the other hand, proved virtually crisis-proof. The party crowd ultimately couldn’t care less about the current burdens on creative minds. They just wanted to party the way they always have, and of course why shouldn’t they? All the volcanoes in Iceland could have erupted at the same time, the clubs would still have found enough DJs to keep the show going. Big clubs going bust, like the Matter and Fabric in London, remained the exception, to which clubs that were just as big down in Ibiza or in other cities didn’t even react – or need to react, for that matter.

With its (inter)national force of magnetic attraction, Berlin’s club scene, so vividly depicted in Tobias Rapp’s 2009 book Lost and Sound, may have lost a major player in Bar 25, but it got over that loss in no time. Other open-air spaces and some new venues were snapped up in a flash, and a bunch of the easyJet-setters flying into Berlin eventually settled down to become active and integral parts of the whole thing, not only as DJs and producers, but also as organizers and club owners.

As a result, the ranks got even tighter, and there was rumbling and grumbling in the peanut gallery. National media coverage of the scene, which had become irksome, lost credibility after its first clumsy attempts to comprehend the culture with knee-jerk outsider information finger-wagging at a cesspool of iniquity, for by then the culture was doing fine without any help from the press.

The leading media and a handful of public figures who felt duty-bound to comment on the Love Parade disaster kept their sights trained almost vindictively on the hedonism of the scene for way too long, instead of targeting the organizers’ incredible incompetence, and thereby dug themselves in even deeper.

Mouse TV

The analog vs. digital war raged last year not only in the music industry, but also in the clubs. Panasonic decided to stop producing its legendary Technics SL 1200 turntable, i.e. the equipment that had marked DJ and club culture for decades.

The defeated analog faction explained the move as proceeding from unworthy considerations of convenience and the low or even non-existent cost of music procured on promotional and filesharing platforms, while the digital faction pointed to the unworthy considerations of inconvenience and the limited mixing possibilities of vinyl and associated hardware.

Most of the clubs ended up opting for middle ground and embracing digital playback systems on which audio files could be played with the feel of a record or CD player. But only a few DJs made use of the mixing potential of such equipment, which only further hardened the fronts.

Regardless of that, performers pushed themselves even more to the fore as integral parts of club lineups, and analog equipment figured even less prominently in their performances. Live acts, could be better integrated than DJs into the many events in which electronic and traditional rock music were intermingled in the programme and in the audience, which ultimately benefited everyone. Often on the bill were universally acclaimed Paul Kalkbrenner, Modeselektor, who seemed to be virtually the only ones far and wide in Germany to capture and relay the countless bass movements in the English scene, and the Viennese band Elektro Guzzi with their original rendition of techno on a classic setup of bass, guitar and drums.

The more the focus shifted away from the DJ’s customary position to traditional performances, the more clearly it emerged that it had become all but impossible to begin a career as a DJ without producing music oneself.

What was/is House?

2010 was another growth year for house, in which the continuing references to the legacy of disco played an important part, as did a return to the roots of house music.

As the above-mentioned technological advances made it easier to produce and distribute music, there was yet a further increase in the spate of edits and bootlegs of well-known and obscure titles alike. But house and disco sound could no longer be told apart anymore, as back in the pioneering days when house was still regarded as an evolutionary stage of disco music, and not as a superseding phenomenon that had taken its place.

The decisive poles were deepness, disco in all its variants and forward-looking historical consciousness, which were most successfully represented in Germany by Running Back, Permanent Vacation, and especially by the Hamburg-based producer Tensnake, who released on both labels and whose international success seemed to suggest that the potential that lies in these genres is as yet far from exhausted – especially by analogy with minimal and the time lag abroad before it built up the momentum it still has in many countries.

The nationwide renaissance of the Old School, however, automatically engendered a highly traditionalistic approach to the genre. Indeed, most of last year’s productions confined themselves to reconstructing the tried-and-tested sound models of US productions from the late 1980s to the mid-’90s: very few producers succeeded in using modern means to imbue those models with the freshness, soul, emotion and individual stamp that make for the unflagging fascination of the originals. Meanwhile, established labels like Dial/Laid consolidated their status, among other things on the strength of Efdemin’s album. The capital attracted notice with the first successful undertakings by labels like Retreat and producers like Hunee, but it was above all the lively Eastern German scene revolving around Workshop and Mikrodisko that generated individual and creative international impetus.

With many house tracks well below the 120 BPM mark, the term “auteur house” was used to categorize what tended to be rather “introspective” music by successful international newcomers like John Roberts or Nicolas Jaar. But that designation has long since been outgrown by the idiosyncrasy of a DJ Koze, who diversified with original remixes, a label of his own and confederates from the first heyday of German house like Isolée and Jackmate.

Triumph of the Techno Bastions

The techno success stories of 2009 segued right into the next year.
Ostgut Ton shored up their status as the international style-defining executive of the Berghain empire, and continued to transport the serried ranks of Berghain’s resident artists to international renown on the strength of albums by poster boys Shed and Marcel Dettmann, as well as a deluxe compilation in which all the label’s artists worked field recordings from the club into their own tracks.

This commitment to putting out an elaborate product, also manifest in the venerable Perlon label’s Superlongevity compilation, contrasted with a number of techno releases whose sound and design emulated classics from the milieu of the Berlin institutions Basic Channel and Hard Wax and affiliated labels. There were a whole slew of handmade discs without any credits, put out by artists who wanted to remain anonymous – though it wasn’t always clear to what extent the eschewal of marketing strategies was a matter of heartfelt conviction or just another form of marketing.

Dub techno sound, initiated by Mark Ernestus and Moritz von Oswald, remained an inescapable leitmotif of 2010 for labels like Prologue and Stroboscopic Artefacts.Ernestus himself, however, turned his attention to African rhythms, as did his proximate milieu with T++ and Shackleton. Meanwhile, von Oswald, after convalescing for a while from a stroke, successfully put his sound on stage with a trio.

Other artists abandoned the somewhat random minimal techno of previous years for a massive and straightforward basic sound that took its bearings by the darker techno productions of the 1990s as well as the post-punk and industrial aesthetic of the 1980s. With his label CLR, Chris Liebing, for example, managed to free himself from the spirits of Schranz dance music he had once conjured up himself. And where elements of fashion and performance art influenced artistic considerations on the rising tide of >electroclash, some Berlin-based labels like Sandwell District now directly alluded to sound experiments and artworks by such bands as Throbbing Gristle and Cabaret Voltaire, and transposed the latter’s spadework into their own music.

But 2010 was also a good year for the synthesis of highbrow and club culture. The Electroacoustic Salon started up by Stefan Goldmann at the Berghain was good to go last year, and the producer himself branched out into club-geared productions as well as a ballet composition premiered as part of the Time Warp rave at the Mannheim National Theatre. Cologne-based past master Wolfgang Voigt, with a similar penchant for experimentation, returned from the art world to electronic music, albeit not without attempting to combine the two pursuits with new approaches. Kreidler, Oval, Alva Noto and Hauschka, likewise reporting back after pursuing other trajectories, all went new and much-noticed paths in a club climate that was not as fixated on total dance floor compatibility as in years past.

Last year’s music may have often sounded low on sunshine, but at least other ideas didn’t have to stay in the shadows any longer.