, December 18th, 2012 06:54
One of the more curious – and to these ears, welcome - tropes of the past year in electronic music has been the revival of banging techno, of the fist pounding late 90s model. Think House of God circa 1999 – Surgeon playing to a fevered, mildly unhinged, crowd, frenetic, abandoned techno that rarely dipped below 135 bpm. Why though, one may ask, is a reassessment of harder styles a positive? Does the quest for faster/louder/more not inevitably lead to leaden diminishing returns characterised by vulgar bludgeon and (literal) cheap kicks? Taken to base pornographic extremes, yes. The best of this year's harsher crop, however, represents some of the most compelling techno in recent memory.
A cursory exploration uncovers adventure, tension and vivid shade. The strobe acid styling of Perc's A New Brutality, the barren industrial rollage of Forward Strategy Group's Labor Division, the furious stop/start dynamism of AnD, the disorientating punch drunk stumble of Szare and the fetid Danteian fever of Ugandan Methods. Perhaps most extreme in vision and execution, however, is this new extended EP from Karenn.
An alliance between Blawan and Pariah (the latter a producer who - somewhat incongruously -was previously making silk-smooth garage and hip-hop influenced bassy stuff on R&S), Karenn is essentially a live project, based around a large bank of analogue hardware. The tracks that come out of their jam sessions are - to put it mildly - a right old racket. Monstrously distorted kicks that cascade over the tracks like so much unstable mud, strange percussive stabs sourced from lord know where, and a completely off-kilter approach to arrangement.
However, this is no mere exercise in reckless brutality – fearsome funk, although deeply submerged, is ever present. The dynamics are clever, and the six tracks on this EP are fearsomely propulsive - even the ostensibly 'lo-fi' production is deceptive. The sheer physicality of the beats fill up space with a cavernous echo, rather like the sound of a peak time DJ set conducted in an empty room, sound crashing all around, devoid of bodies to act as buffer. A track-by-track description seems superfluous in this case. The vibe is uniform: crushing cantankerous grooves imbued with a beguiling sense of distance, and everything drenched in layers of warm distortion.
Indeed, it is the pure evocation of the live that permeates Karenn. Not just in the compositional sense, but also in the literal arena – the whole record sounds like techno in full swing: in the room, getting lost, moving around, blurred edges – the entire experience is evoked. Because while in the rock world it has long been a cliché for bands to talk of wanting to 'capture the live spirit/essence', it's often a very different story in electronic music. The fetishisation of the system, the medium of the sound, is commonplace – as are fastidiously clean mixdowns, seemingly designed to cut through anything they're thrown at.
The gritty reality of live techno is often chewed over negatively on forums however, with anything less than perfect auditory clarity attracting howls of attrition. Sonically, Karenn seem to be bravely taking a similar approach to producing tracks as Guy Stevens did to producing The Clash – chair throwing, red wine in the piano, leaping ecstatic into the red.
While the past half decade has seen the Berlin-centered techno scene come massively into vogue, with a narrative all its own brought quickly into mythology (in the case of Berghain, for better or worse, a meticulously stage-managed brand of haughty abandon), it's easy to forget that it was a sense of infectious and unpretentious fun that was the hallmark of the UK scene.
At Atomic Jam in Birmingham or The Orbit in Morley, say, you were every bit as likely to find yourself dancing next to a crew of 15-stone topless plasterers on a dozen pills as you were a clued up enthusiast wearing a Basic Channel t-shirt. For a fair percentage of the crowd, techno was simply rave music. It's all too easy to forget that, for all the bleak situationist aesthetics, joyous, shrieking abandon was the kaleidoscopic flipside. On this exhilarating and brave EP, Karenn seem intent on reclaiming that bruised and maligned lineage.