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The Strange And Frightening World Of . . . Basic Channel
Angus Finlayson , September 21st, 2009 06:26

Angus Finlayson is here to take the newcomer gently by the hand and to introduce them to the sublime techno frequencies of Basic Channel . . .

Mention Basic Channel to any techno head and bells will ring deep in the recesses of their brain. The Berlin-based production team of Mark Ernestus and Moritz von Oswald, under innumerable aliases (Maurizio, Phylyps, Cyrus, Quadrant, Round One to Round Five, Rhythm and Sound etc etc), were instrumental in redefining the sounds shooting back and forth between Detroit and Berlin in the early nineties. Their music — all released under the umbrella of the Basic Channel label — gave rise to the term 'dub techno' and has perpetually redefined it ever since, spawning a legion of imitators and earning the duo legend status among those in the know.

However, speaking as a relative newcomer to the rich and multifaceted world of the perpetual kick drum, the attraction of BC is not so much their cultural impact as it is their unique and fascinating career. They are staunch non-conformists, rolling laterally across the musical landscape like some piece of agricultural machinery gone haywire, trampling genre divisions as if they were bramble hedgerows and leaving fresh, upturned earth in their wake. Rural metaphors notwithstanding, there’s an inimitable quality to the BC sound — perhaps due in part to von Oswald’s insistence on doing all mixing manually, hands on faders — that audibly sets them apart from their peers.

For all that, the world of Basic Channel can be curiously impenetrable to the casual auditor. Through a near-complete lack of press engagement (rectified only recently by an extensive interview with von Oswald in The Wire) and a self-contained production/distribution line (including the studio, Dubplates & Mastering, and the record shop, Hard Wax), Ernestus and von Oswald managed to create a body of work divorced from its creators; music with an organic personality, an automaton pursuing its own seemingly unknowable goals.

Even the names can be supremely utilitarian to the point of alienation: the production monikers Rhythm and Sound and Basic Channel, denoting the basic constituents of music and recording technology; the sub-label Burial Mix, whose dub-saturated releases are often so deep as to be subterranean; and Chain Reaction, an imprint home to numerous musical identities engendered by Ernestus and von Oswald’s innovations — including Monolake, Vladislav Delay and Porter Ricks, to name a few. As in every other aspect of their aesthetic, the duo’s choice of nomenclature is functional yet pleasingly oblique; clear enough to those who know how to look, but bewildering — or at least meaningless — to the outside observer.

That, of course, is where this eight-point primer comes in. Consider what follows a combination of personal favourites and important landmarks — far from a comprehensive study, rather one of several potential routes through a long and innovative back catalogue. Oh, and try to enjoy it, eh?

1. Palais Schaumburg — 'Lupa' (1982)

While Ernestus was firmly off the radar (try Googling his name if you fancy one of the less satisfying experiences the internet has to offer), von Oswald spent much of the 80s as the percussionist for Palais Schaumburg. As part of the Neue Deutsche Welle movement, the band (named after the former residence of the German Chancellor) were often overtly political, placing them in a lineage of music searching for a post-war (and subsequently post-Wall) German identity of which Berlin techno was surely a part.

Describing this irreverent piece of tunesmithery as a direct predecessor to Basic Channel would probably be the ultimate journalistic shoehorn, but the ethos is connected: just as Detroit’s Belleville Three sat in their darkened bedrooms absorbing Kraftwerk’s mechanised rhythms, so would von Oswald and fellow Palais member Thomas Fehlmann discover the dancefloor through the increasingly machine-like heart of pop music. In the early 90s, the pair went on to work - under the names 2MB and 3MB - as the in-house production team for Berlin’s Tresor records, one of the first creative flashpoints between Detroit and Berlin (and a long-standing minimal techno institution).

2. Juan Atkins (Infiniti) — 'Think Quick (Moritz von Oswald Remodel)' (1993/4)

While working with Fehlmann as 3MB in 1993, von Oswald found himself producing alongside Detroit pioneer Juan Atkins. The direct result was a collaborative CD/double LP for Tresor, but von Oswald later fashioned this reworking of an Atkins track entitled ‘Think Quick’, which was released on Metroplex.

The remodel reads almost as a Basic Channel manifesto, produced at around the time von Oswald and Ernestus co-founded the label. Atkins’ crisp, precise funk is drenched in reverb and delay, the beat reduced to a deep kick overlaid with abstract washes of sound. Sonic elements are elongated, subtracted or obfuscated, rather than intricately re-sequenced, making this more a dub than a remix; a distinction which is integral to the BC aesthetic.

3. Basic Channel (Cyrus) — 'Enforcement' (1993)

The first Basic Channel release, under the name of Cyrus, was a 12” featuring 3 different mixes of a single track (the duo were to continue releasing in this format — a handful of long tracks occupying an entire 12” — for much of their career). This, the original mix, has all the urgency of Detroit techno but with the slickness and groove stripped away, leaving a relentless, ultra-dissonant texture; a clarion call to minimal producers on both sides of the Atlantic.

4. Basic Channel (Cyrus) — 'Presence (edit)' (1994)

Inversion was the fifth release in the Basic Channel series, and this, its B-side, is perhaps the finest example of the duo’s mastery of long-form. Its single synth pattern evolves through a mesmerising array of timbres, with von Oswald’s distinctive manual mixing technique breathing life into each new permutation. By now the Basic Channel imprint had strayed far beyond the dancefloor, but techno’s raw pulsations remain at its core.

This version of ‘Presence’ is sadly truncated (most of the label’s CD releases feature brutal edits with the command to ‘buy vinyl!’ printed on the cover), but it can be enjoyed in its full 20-minute glory on Spotify (along with most of the BC discography; many an afternoon’s entertainment for all the family).

5. Rhythm and Sound w/ Paul St. Hilaire — 'Never Tell You' (1996)

In 1995, after ten releases, the Basic Channel imprint ceased to function. For many, this was the end of the BC story; Ernestus and von Oswald, however, had other things in mind, shifting their focus to a raft of sub-labels and working under yet more aliases. Perhaps the most striking of these is Rhythm & Sound — at this time released on the Burial Mix imprint — in which the pair’s trademark techno/dub balance leans heavily towards the latter. ‘Never Tell You’ was the first R & S release, after which collaborations with Dominican vocalist Paul St. Hilaire (aka Tikiman) became par for the course (he later founded another BC sub-label, False Tuned), and the vocal/version dichotomy of dub reggae became a chief concern for the duo.

6. Rhythm & Sound w/ Savage — 'Smile' (1999)

From 1997 onwards, the ever-expanding Rhythm & Sound output had spilled over into its own self-titled sub-label. The releases on this imprint seem the closest spiritual successors to the original Basic Channel sound, inhabiting a realm where dub skank and techno pulse are virtually indistinguishable, and where guest vocals are subsumed artfully into a hazy, machine-driven ambience. ‘Smile’ is probably one of Basic Channel’s most beautiful children (though we love them all equally of course).

7. Rhythm & Sound w/ Ras Donovan and Ras Perez — 'Let We Go (See Mi Yah)' (2005)

Perhaps the high-point of the Burial Mix series, 'See Mi Yah' is a one-riddim, 10-version album, compiled from a series of 7”s produced in 2005. The project draws on the talents of previous vocal collaborators (including the aforementioned Paul St. Hilaire), as well as a few new guests (most notably Reggae stalwart Sugar Minott), with each tune receiving a different mix from the producers. The form is ubiquitous to dub reggae, but the production has a crispness and subtlety of variation which is unique to the BC duo. The ‘Let We Go’ version features St. Hilaire’s brother, Ras Perez, and fellow Berlin-based vocalist Ras Donovan.

8. Moritz von Oswald Trio — 'Vertical Ascent (Pattern 3)' (2009)

While Rhythm & Sound continues to be a going concern and Ernestus earns his crust with the odd high profile remix (most recently a much coveted reworking of Tortoise’s ‘Gigantes’), von Oswald’s latest project sees him returning to live performance for the first time since Basic Channel’s inception. With Vladislav Delay on percussion, Max Loderbauer of NSI on synthesisers, and von Oswald himself applying effects processing, the Moritz Von Oswald Trio have been peddling a left-field hybrid of live improvisation and precision electronics for a couple of years now. This track, taken from their album release ‘Vertical Ascent’, has an alarming duality to it: on the one hand it’s Basic Channel through and through - abstract techno draped with dub sonics - whilst on the other it’s a major departure from previous releases, not least for its spontaneous, improvised element.

In spite of suffering a minor stroke last year, from which he is gradually recovering, von Oswald is determined to promote his new project through a constant trickle of performances (including one at Fabric this month). What’s certain is that he’s once again side-stepped expectations, pushing his musical interests further into uncharted territory without severing the threads which trail back over nearly three decades of music-making. With ‘Vertical Ascent’ being released on the UK-based Honest Jon’s label, it’s uncertain what lies ahead for Basic Channel. Whatever it is, you can rest assured you won’t see it coming.