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Lock The Studio, Turn Out The Lights: Basic Channel 25 Years On
Rory Gibb , May 14th, 2018 08:20

A quarter-century since Moritz von Oswald and Mark Ernestus founded Basic Channel, Rory Gibb reflects on the duo's fiercely self-contained and radically rhizomatic vision for electronic sound

This year marks a quarter-century since Basic Channel inaugurated their label with Cyrus' monumental, kaleidoscopic Enforcement 12". Even today its title track remains a uniquely headwrecking listening experience: thirteen unrelenting minutes of audio-illusory shadowplay powered by a bassline that needles at your senses like a malfunctioning strobe, its effect is as kindred to the durational audio and video works of Tony Conrad as to the mechanoid funk of the harder Detroit techno artists (including Jeff Mills, who remixed 'Enforcement' for the record's B-side) that were Basic Channel's most obvious contemporaries.

With retrospect it's rather a claustrophobic scene-setter for the label; here, the music feels almost uncomfortably close, with almost all of its textural energy squashed into a narrow set of mid-range frequency bands for maximum sucker-punch effect. In contrast, the rest of the Basic Channel sequence — nine 12"s released in quick succession throughout 1993 and 1994 — increasingly took an expansive arc outward into reverberant dub-space, with serpentine chords and liquefied percussive crackle tracing pathways through a vast, unexplored urban terrain.

This sonic sense of open-ended exploration was enhanced by the label’s enigmatic aesthetic, with its greyscale 12" label art suggesting some cryptic lock-like mechanism and hinting at secret coded knowledges, and its makers Mark Ernestus and Moritz von Oswald distinctly reticent to discuss their work (in an amusingly deadpan early feature with The Wire's Biba Kopf in 1995, the pair only gave their first names and requested for the interview to not be taped).

The Basic Channel records are now widely acknowledged as some of (and perhaps the) core documents of Berlin techno, and as such are heavy with the weight of subsequent history, not least their reputation as the series that launched a thousand paint-by-numbers dub and minimalist techno copyists.

It's a risky business, this kind of foundational myth: it can reduce art to ahistorical artefact or merely an oft-cited influence (or, indeed, marketable fodder for a multi-LP special edition boxset), stripped of the specific social and political contexts that animated and still dialogue with the work. Equally, though, sometimes listening with that level of hindsight — here being the broader history of techno that's now so steeped in Ernestus and von Oswald's influence — only serves to emphasise the work's inherent strangeness.

Unusually for such highly-cited and now-canonical music, the Basic Channel series is among that rarest of art that somehow becomes only more elusive with familiarity, its essence and deep emotionality slipping further away the harder you try to decode them. Especially set now against the techno world's capitalist-realist turn towards an increasingly corporatised, globalised party space, there's still something compellingly slippery and roguish about the duo's music, in the way that their wildly FX'd-out soundworlds and dub-inspired versioning (most potent in the many permutations of their Phylyps and Quadrant tracks) continue to posit techno as a radically open-ended, ever-mutable and unruly form. Strange things happen when tracks like 'Inversion' or 'Octagon' get dropped in the rave; even in the hands of expert DJs the music seems to exert its own agency, wrestling control of the mix from its handler, slowing time, and plunging the dancefloor into a frosty, trancelike space that it can be difficult to return from. In that sense, I think it's telling that the entire Basic Channel series (alongside the pair's many other records as Maurizio, Round and Rhythm & Sound) remain consistently in vinyl press via Ernestus' Dubplates & Mastering studio: it's a gesture that says that this music is no historical document, but is still living and breathing, alive with surface crackle, to be handled, played and boomed out through massive speakers.

Dance musics tend to both mirror and map the geographical and social-political topologies of their era, evoking both dreams and more immediate lived realities: think the future-gazing machine-human intersection of early Detroit techno, the densely-stacked architectures of grime, the suburban echoes of dubstep. Ernestus and von Oswald's early music was situated at a very particular geographical and historical moment, in Berlin in the years immediately around and following the fall of the Wall, when techno was fast building in momentum and clubs such as Tresor were emerging to repurpose the empty buildings and basements that were becoming available. You perhaps hear something of that moment in the chaotic, frontier spirit of the harder 12"s in the Basic Channel series, records like Enforcement, Phylyps Trak and Octagon that more overtly plugged into the frantically funky music emerging from Detroit second-wavers like Mills and Underground Resistance.

Very few pieces of music are more gut-wrenchingly exciting than the pinpoint focused 12-minutes of 'Phylyps Trak', for example, whose razorblade chords and hi-hats splinter around a triplet-figure bassline that thunders along like a landslide down a canyon; in a very classically Berlin techno sense it evokes the dissolution of the self as minds and bodies lock into collective motion, an idealised vision of a rave's potential, for sure, but an intensely powerful one. Elsewhere the dream vistas of more dissolute tracks like the duo's remit of Vainqueur's 'Lyot', the Quadrant dubs and the burning 'Inversion', grounded in dub's booming bass resonance and steeped in blue-grey electrical crackle, gesture towards a blossoming of new possibilities from somewhere deep within the earth — and as such connect into that broader history of post-World War II German experimental music, of Can, Cluster, Göttsching, busily searching out new musical and social formulations.

There's a rather lovely parallel between the sonic and visual development of the Basic Channel series through 1993 to 1994. As the hard-edged, silvery label letters of the early 12"s give way to the hazy white and xerox-decayed stencils of the Radiance and Octagon labels, the music undergoes its own dissolution. The mechanical drum machine jack slips ever-so-subtly into a rootical, skanking meter, with the duo's deep love of reggae permeating the upstroke chords and body-beatdown pulse of 'Octaedre', and the liquid-glass chords of 'Phylyps Trak II/II' that coil and flutter like dancing figures on a strobe-lit stage. These tracks exude a pervasive feeling that you've entered some Solaris-like zone where the ordinary rules of reality don't quite apply, and where you're somehow inexorably contaminated by an encounter with an agency that eludes comprehension. By this point the artwork's distinctive lettering has itself taken on an eerie cellular biological aspect, hinting at chromosomes condensing and coiling around one another. (It is indeed possible to become wholly absorbed by these worlds; for years the duo's music was my protective shroud of choice during fizzy-headed post-club treks across London, my rave halo melting out into the thunderclouds of 'Presence' and the 'Radiance' tryptich.) It's this otherworldly, temporally-scrambled character that, I think, prevents the majority of the Basic Channel series from feeling at all dated. In contrast, some of the pair's more straight-up records (such as much of Maurizio's M-Series and the pumping Q1.1 12") are much more obviously of-their-time, likely because they've been so heavily mined for inspiration by other techno artists in the subsequent years.

Listening to Basic Channel's music now, in light of Ernestus and von Oswald's subsequent work, an aspect that's particularly striking is the depth of the pair's engagement with dub and dub cultures, not only as a set of sonic tools and methods, but as a broader philosophy infusing their practice. For example, particularly notable across the Basic Channel series, and even more deeply etched into the duo's subsequent Rhythm & Sound and Burial Mix music, is their interest in versioning — the notion that a single piece of music is never fixed, but through the studio has endless potential for transmutation. Throughout the series the pair refract the base elements of 'Phylyps Trak' out into a hall-of-mirrors of alternate versions, from dense and scything tunnelvision techno, to the airy whorls of 'Phylyps Rmx', to the clipped skank of the Phylyps Trak II/III 12". And the Quadrant Dub 12" (which on certain days I might just call as my favourite) subjects the duo's loving vocal house track 'I'm Your Brother' to an utterly glorious transformation into almost forty minutes of spine-shivering chord vapour and heartbeat bass. (It's always struck me as strange that Basic Channel are so often described as minimalist: while this may be true structurally, it somehow belies that their music, dense, lush and enveloping, so often has the opposite sensory effect.)

Echoing the solidarity rooted deep in the lyrics of 'I'm Your Brother', another facet of the duo's commitment to mutability is the way that collaboration and interpersonal connection has remained a keystone of their practice. In the Basic Channel years both had established strong links to the Detroit techno community, for example through von Oswald's 3MB work with Juan Atkins and Eddie Fowlkes, and later formed strong long-term collaborative networks with many reggae and dub artists, including Lloyd 'Bullwackie' Barnes in New York and a host of Jamaican vocalists (including veterans such as Cornell Campbell, Jennifer Lara and Sugar Minott) who collaborated extensively for the Rhythm & Sound sessions. Most recently, Ernestus' projects with a collective of Senegalese musicians have led to the dizzying (yet still intensely dubbed-out in a way that's distinctly of Basic Channel) mbalax of Ndagga Rhythm Force and Jeri-Jeri. Here, as with the vocalists for Rhythm & Sound, it's the players who are at the foreground. Mirroring the semi-anonymous character of Basic Channel, Ernestus tends to fade into the backdrop to the extent that, during live shows, he remains offstage — acting as a sonic facilitator, but allowing the music and players space to breathe.

"One quality in music that interests me is transcending or having a relevance beyond the cultural context it derives from," said Ernestus in an interview a few years ago. In a sense, those globally-minded collaborative approaches remain some of the most active facets of the pair's legacy now, even though Ernestus and von Oswald haven't released any new music together for about a decade. For example, with the internet forming increasingly global networks, you can hear echoes of the pair's respectful and considered approach to cross-border collaboration in the work of many current artists and organisations that seek to work across cultural, economic and geographical distance. Equally, listening to the Basic Channel series in 2018 — and still with a mind to the particularities of its origin story — does seem to offer some critical reflection on the electronic music world now, in that its imagining of techno as a wholly open-ended and still-subversive form jars against the increasingly locked-down culture and infrastructure that characterises the genre (and much of the electronic music world more broadly) today. Curiously, this ends up infusing their records with a pang of nostalgia, for what might have been or crucially what might still be possible, even as the music itself forcefully resists such emotions. Looking forward, then, these remain vital, potent recordings for thinking through the kind of agency and presence we might want experimental music and art to have in this complex, ambiguous moment.