Electronic Music 2017 Difficult Times and Free Sounds

Errorsmith
Errorsmith | Photo (detail): © Camille Blake

Tropical drums, Berlin hedonism and plaintive pleas – in 2017 electronic music in Germany showed itself once more to be pleasantly multifaceted - and the community to be politically aware and socially involved. Thomas Venker looks back over the year.

It would have been preferable to start looking back over the events on the electronic music scene in Germany in 2017 without having to put them into a global, socio-political context - as was also the case in last year’s article. Unfortunately, however, it cannot be avoided, particularly when confronted with such things as the worryingly large number of seats won by the Alternative für Deutschland (Alternative for Germany) party in the German Bundestag (12.6% - 94 seats), the constant tweeting of the American President and the atomic bomb ambitions of the North Korean leader. The effects these events have on all forms of art and music production are simply too jarring – when the world is in such an agitated state, so are the arts.
 
It may well, for example, become a matter of course for them to get involved in important solidarity campaigns, as was the case with “Plus 1 - Refugees Welcome”. This initiative consisting of Berlin concert promoters, clubs and artists asked all those people who enjoy the benefits of having a guest list ticket to make a donation and was, in fact, able to surpass the €200,000 donations mark in 2017. So far, donations have been transferred into the accounts of 13 Berlin initiatives that actively support the refugees.
 
As a reaction to the state of society in 2017 one act in particular has explicitly moved its message into attack mode – Zugezogen Maskulin. Although this Berlin duo made up of Grim104 and Testo is mostly seen as belonging to the hip-hop scene, the electronically adept production of their album Alle gegen Alle justifies their inclusion in this review - especially as the demarcation lines between the genres are much fuzzier these days. Alle gegen Alle (All Against All) is an uncompromisingly stirring and accusatory work of the times we are living in, which does not look the other way when confronted with things that have gone wrong in Germany and the world, but directly addresses them and calls for resistance - all with a fantastic, stimulating flow.
 
In a much more subtle, but no less valuable, way the compilation Tropical Drums of Germany compiled by Jan Schulte (released on Music For Dreams) clearly criticises the new tendencies in the world towards social exclusion. In his role as a curator, the Dusseldorf musician, clearly refers, on the one hand, to the reissues and new discoveries of African, South American and Asian musicians who, in recent years, have been released on labels such as Music For Memories, EM Records or Awesome Tapes From Africa. On the other hand, however, he also adds his own perspective by turning his gaze to Germany and embracing an open and unprejudiced, intercultural, artistic dialogue. The artists performing on Tropical Drums, such as Om Buschman, Total Art of Percussion, Argile, Rüdiger Oppermann's Harp Attack, Ralf Nowy or Sanza, embark on an introspective journey into world music.

United against all odds - the club as a communal cosmos of values and attitudes

From Jan Schulte it is not far to the Dusseldorf Salon des Amateurs, the bar affiliated to Dusseldorf’s Kunsthalle, which, thanks to central protagonists such as Lena Willikens, Vladimir Ivkovic, Detlev Weinrich and our man, Jan Schulte himself, managed to attract worldwide attention. The Salon des Amateurs stands for a certain sound – the sound of stylistic freedom, which does not care a damn about origin or genre affiliation or any other form of rules and restrictions. Places like this are of extreme importance for the social interaction of artists and music lovers. As is so often the case, however, this only becomes clear to everyone when these places are threatened. The Salon des Amateurs, on the verge of ruin ever since it opened, has been threatened with (temporary) closure for several months due to upcoming major repairs to the building and the costs that they are going to incur. People immediately started to express their solidarity and benefit parties were held (with acts like inter alia, John Talabot, Sassy J and MESH performing for the Salon, along with the residents). Unfortunately, however, these performances were only able to offset a fraction of the heavy burden - what is really needed here is a form of urban politics that has a commitment to culture.
 
It might, however, be better not to build one’s hopes up too much.  For example, in Hamburg, where the Golden Pudel Club was threatened with closure after a fire during the night of 15th February 2016, local politics was unable to improve conditions for supporting cultural institutions. Even before the fire, the conflict between shareholder, Wolf Richter, and the other owners, Rocko Schamoni and Schorsch Cameroon, had already escalated - Richter wanted to place the property on the real estate market with the aim of making a maximum profit. This was an ambition that was contradictory in the crassest possible way to the ideals and promises of such a socially oriented institution like the Golden Poodle Club and the values and attitudes it represents. In the end they managed to save the day without any support from the municipal authorities and only thanks to the solidarity of the Hamburg cultural scene and the amazing support it received from all over the world. The Golden Poodle Club, located in Hamburg’s port district, was thus able to open its doors again on 17th August and since then has once again managed to put a respectable program together with entrance tickets at unbelievably favourable prices, since almost all the artists are prepared to perform for a fee that just covers their expenses.

A Neanderthal called Konstantin

Such acts of solidarity are probably something quite alien to DJ Konstantin of Weimar’s Giegling label (he is also part of the ambient house duo Kettenkarussell). In an interview with the music journalist, Laura Aha, (published in the music magazine Groove) he made sexist comments about his female DJ colleagues. We quote from the article by Aha:
“He finds it unfair that female DJs are currently being promoted so much, although in his opinion, they usually play worse music than men. According to his logic, it is much easier for women to succeed as a DJ, as the few women who are interested in working as a DJ are being disproportionately pushed. He furthermore supported his point of view with pseudo-scientific evidence of a “natural” desire for power and craving for recognition that is, in his opinion, inherent in the male of the species.”
 
It was not long before DJ Konstantin was swamped by a wave of social media indignation for these outrageous statements and was suitably condemned for them. Unfortunately, the condemnation and the cancelling of his performances that came with it did not last very long and he was soon back performing on the club scene despite his deafness to criticism. He did, in fact, actively try to discuss the issue with many DJs and producers, but he did not actually withdraw from his position publicly – he merely relativised it as a form of exaggerated provocation.
 
In contrast, the musical and social reality in the clubs and at the festivals fortunately looks different despite the utterances of a Neanderthal man like Konstantin. Never before have so many female artists influenced the electronic music scene as is now the case. And it is the sets of DJs like Helena Hauff, Lena Willikens, Avalon Emerson, Courtesy, Black Madonna, Jennifer Cardini, Honey Dijon and Umbruch (the list could go on forever), that particularly open up new horizons in electronic music.

The magic of a different sound reality

The news of the death of the Frankfurt DJ and producer, Heiko Schäfer, on 17th May 2017, came as a complete shock. Under his imprint, Heiko MSO, Schäfer, as part of the Frankfurt-Offenbach scene, played a key role in shaping the German techno and house scene in the 1990s with protagonists such as Roman Flügel, Ata, Sven Väth and Ricardo Villalobos. The labels he promoted like Ongaku, Playhouse and Klang Elektronik played a central role in putting Germany on a par with the USA and England as one of the motherlands of electronic music.
 
Schäfer only found out he had cancer shortly before he died. In the few remaining weeks of his life, he devoted himself to his music with all his energy and recorded 12 mixes that were published on his behalf after his death. The soundtrack composed by him for the film adaptation of the Sven Regener novel Magical Mystery was also released posthumously. In the novel Regener portrays the wild techno years in Berlin after the wall came down. Schäfer’s mix, which consists mainly of works from the catalogue of the Ladomat 2000 label and his own labels (including tracks from Roman IV, Forever Sweet, Ego Express and Losoul) testifies to his great talent, tracks that embrace the significance of living out one’s own identity. And yet, they are arranged in such a way that in his mix they eventually become part of a different sound reality.

A summer festival season of anniversaries

The summer festival season, which Heiko Schäfer had faithfully attended since the 1990s, was marked by anniversaries this year. The Melt! festival in Gräfenhainichen celebrated its 20th anniversary with a line-up that left hardly any electronic music wishes unfulfilled - Bicep, FJAAK, Aurora Halal, Konstantin Sibold, Jennifer Cardini and Richie Hawtin were just a few of the artists performing there.
 
Although the Berlin Atonal festival can only look back on five years in its current reincarnated form (it existed before between 1982 and 1990), it has already established itself as one of the leading addresses for contemporary electronic music in the crossfire zone where drone, ambient and ambient Techno collide with each other. This year's highlights included performances by the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, Jasss, Pan Daijing, Regis, and a joint appearance by Ena and Rashad Becker.
 
Although Cologne’s c/o pop will not be celebrating its big (20th) anniversary until 2018, the festival started its pre-party warm-up this year with such clout that the edition released can certainly be described as a successful comeback. After a few years with a slightly faltering program, both the congress and the live segment turned out to be on the right discourse level - not least due to the very strong bookings with such electronic artists as Motor City Drum Ensemble, Cologne Tape, Roman Flügel, IF, Lena Willikens, Noga Erez, Anthony Naples, DJ Brom & Menki, Sarah San or Jules Long.

Back to Modeselektor and Apparat

On their farewell tour, Moderat made a guest appearance at two of the three aforementioned festivals – the Melt! and the c/o pop. Yes, that’s right – farewell tour. The Berlin electronic boy group, consisting of the two Modeselektor members, Gernot Bronsert and Sebastian Szary, as well as the solo performer, Sascha Ring, better known as Apparat, have decided (at least for the time being) to call it a day at the peak of their success. They put a suitable end to their world tour showcasing their album “III”, with which they made it to number 5 on the German, Austrian and Swiss charts, by holding a final (sold-out) concert at the Wuhlheide Arena in Berlin. Thanks to hits like Running and Bad Kingdom, what started out as a side project became one of the world's most respected electronic music bands. 

The records of the year

At the end of this annual review let us focus our attention on what was released in the course of the year. The selection for 2017, however, has proved to be really quite difficult, because it was, in fact, a very good year.
 
Since Near Disco Dawn it has been a whole 13 years that we have had to wait for a new album by Errorsmith, but their Superlative Fatigue, released on the Berlin label PAN, made the waiting worthwhile. Erik Wiegand has added a gaudier note to the experimental attitude of his earlier releases that suits him perfectly.
 
Work, the second album by Berghain / Panorama Bar resident, Nick Höppner, also sparkles like the colours of a kaleidoscope. While on his previous album, Folk, it was much easier to recognise the vibe of the two dance floors of his home club, Work testifies to his now more mature house song writing and the desire to prevent himself from being pegged in a certain category. The new freedom of House, so to speak.
 
For his solo debut Thinking About Tomorrow, and How To Build It, Ja, Panik singer, Andreas Spechtl, travelled to Tehran in the winter of 2016/2017. This ethno-ambient work interweaves the timelines and narrative strands. This interlacing is as light as it is unruly and is at times somewhat reminiscent in its artistic freedom of Phantom / Ghost, the enigmatic project run by Dirk von Lowtzow and Thies Mynther, and at other moments, it reminds us of the song writing of Robert Wyatt and Lou Reed.
 
With Have You Been There, Have You Seen It (released on the London Ninja Tune label), the Hamburg-based DJ and producer, Helena Hauff, whose career began at the Golden Pudel Club, managed to create an EP that is in no way inferior to the high quality of her sets. She skilfully keeps the voltage at full tilt, starting with the atmospheric-percussive opener Nothing Is What I Know to the rough bleep hit Do You Really Think Like That? and then from the acid sonata Continuez Mon Enfant Vous Serez Traité En Conséquence to the energetic final track Gift.

I would like to dedicate the last chords of this year's review to the Berliner-by-choice, Honey Dijon, whose The Best Of Both Worlds combines the House traditions of her hometown of Chicago and her second home, New York, with the hedonism of those long Berlin weekends. House music has not sounded so vital and ready for action for a long time.
 
The socio-political conditions in the world may well be disconcerting, but there is absolutely no shortage of excellent electronic music (not least due to these conditions). We can only wonder what the year 2018 has in store for us - both politically as well as musically.