Thursday, 28 January 2010

AND THE BEAT GOES ON: A Decade of Kompakt

Just over ten years ago, Michael Mayer, Jürgen Paape and Wolfgang Voigt founded a record label in the German city of Cologne. Despite their credentials as producers and DJs, Voigt in particular was already regarded as one of the most important figures in European electronic music, they had little idea that their label, Kompakt, would go on to be one that would define the sound of techno over the course over the next decade.

In order to assess the influence the label has on today’s music, we must place it in the wider context of techno as a genre. Three friends from the Detroit suburb of Belleville: Juan Atkins, Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson created futuristic, soulless (the lack of ‘soul’ in early techno records is largely what differentiated it from the emerging house scene that was developing in Chicago at the same time) black music that was heavily inspired by the robotic minimalism of Kraftwerk as much as the bass heavy funk of George Clinton’s Parliament and Funkadelic. They called it techno. Their music was influenced by their surroundings: by the early 80s Detroit had gone from the home of Motown and car manufacturing to a kind of post-industrial wasteland and the futuristic sound of the genre seemed apt. Eventually the scene gathered momentum, becoming a staple in clubs all over the US. Since the early days there has been an affinity between Detroit and Germany. It was Berlin that was the first city to embrace techno in a major way and the Tresor nightclub became one of the most highly regarded in the world.

Techno was, and still can be, pummeling, relentless and downright brutal. Perhaps this is why it remains ever popular with Germans. The Kompakt sound is somewhat different. The insistent 4/4-kick drum that almost defines the genre is there, but the hard edges are laced with crystalline melodies, melancholy vocals and a sense of hopeless romanticism. It is probably for this reason that techno elitists sneer at the it: the music on Kompakt appeals to people who haven’t spent their lives searching for rare Theo Parrish white labels. There is a pronounced pop sensibility to the best Kompakt material, the idea that these are songs and not just tracks, tools for DJs. In an interview with Pitchforkmedia, Mayer himself states that, ‘Techno in the early years was a lot like model trains; two guys playing with the machines all day long, super serious. We always had a different approach-- it was about having fun, having a good time, even if the music is abstract and very modern, it's still about disco and about having a good time.’

My introduction to Kompakt, and techno in general, came by chance. I spent the summer after my GCSE’s looking out of my bedroom window at cornfields and woods listening to a select few records over and over. One of these was Erlend Oye’s DJ Kicks (!K7, 2004). The first track on the album was Jürgen Paape’s beguiling ‘So Wiet Wie Noch Nie’, a record that remains, partly because of nostalgia and partly because of the sheer brilliance of it, one of my favorite songs of the decade. Built around lilting, swooning synth pads and a dusty vocal sampled from an old Sonya Lubke record, it was the most beautiful four minutes of music I’d heard. There were other examples of the microhouse sound that I would come to become obsessed with in the following years: Skatebard’s fizzy ‘Metal Chix’ and Ricardo Villalobos’ ‘Dexter’ a track that seems to both melt, and slow down time. After Erlend, I delved into the Kompakt catalogue starting with various compilations and mixes, and they were a formative part of my musical education. I got into harder, more obscure stuff as a result and for a long time, listened to nothing but minimal techno, much to the annoyance of friends and flatmates.

Kompakt are undeniably stylish. In the 90s techno was associated with austere looking bald men wearing severe glasses and green coats, and Kompakt, along with the likes of BPitch, Get Physical and Perlon, was one of the labels that made the genre ‘sexy’ again. The music was warmer than the original Detroit tracks, more inviting to outsiders and easier to dance too. The label’s aesthetic is all clean lines and bold text. This uniformity seems oddly fitting for a label that has a roster including the likes of Kaito (blissed out trance), Gui Boratto (infectious house straight out of South America) and GAS (Wolfgang Voigt’s modern-classical/ambient moniker).

It is Michael Mayer, though, who has become the undoubted star of the label. Though his solo productions aren’t necessarily among Kompakt’s finest releases he can lay claim to have put out three of the finest mixes of all time in Fabric 13, Immer and the Peel Session. DJs often talk about ‘narratives’ and ‘journeys’ and the importance of tracks flowing, combining to create something new. Mayer is the master of letting his song selections breathe, giving them time to develop, to unveil themselves fully. He doesn’t go in for the flashy mixing style like some, preferring subtle transitions. The album he released for the Farringdon based club is a perfect snapshot of the heavier side of his record collection, and the session he did for John Peel is an excellent introduction to the ‘schaffel’ (imagine glam rock meeting techno. But not as awful as that should be.) sound that briefly dominated the label’s release schedule, but it is Immer that is most deserving of a closer look. Immer is, and I have to admit that I can only talk about this record in hyperbolic terms, a masterpiece. It’s 70 minutes of the finest techno of the decade that manages to incorporate birdsong (Superpitcher’s remix of ‘Crokus’ by Carsten Jost) swathes of portentous German classical music (Tobias Thomas and Superpitcher’s edit of ‘Perfect Lovers’ by Phantom/Ghost) and what sounds like an electric saw breaking (‘Surface’ by Paul Nazca). It’s become one of the defining techno records of the decade and probably the one that secured Kompakt’s place in the electronic music canon.

They may not be releasing must-have 12”s as regularly as they were a few years back, but there’s still a lot to get excited about. Next year should see new releases from the likes of Superpitcher, DJ Koze and Ewan Pearson. The classic Kompkat sound, ‘a mix of minimalism, melody, and melancholy, often with an underlying pop sensibility’ is one that resonates with a huge number of people: Mayer and co regularly play some of the biggest clubs in the world. And, well, to end on a personal note, I can’t imagine what my life would be like if I’d never heard ‘So Weit Wie Noch Nie’ way back in 2006.


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