By Martin TurenneWhatever happened to paradise? For a brief time in the mid-‘90s, it seemed as if rave culture had usurped the music industry's top-down business model, nurturing an environment in which consumers collaborated with artists in sustaining a collective euphoria.
But as the rave era wound down, the movement's utopianism was usurped by an ironically fascistic mindset, one that saw the superstar DJ emerge as a dictatorial figure flaying drugged youth past the point of exhaustion. Achim Szepanski, the owner of Germany's Force Inc. techno label, once referred to rave as freizeithknast, a pleasure-prison in which hedonistic drug use dulled a generation's ability to resist capitalism. Extreme though this conception may be, it helps to account for the feeling that as the 1990s wore on, raving became less an act of individual expression than a submission to the consumerist herd.
Faced with the mainstreaming of their scene, electronic producers followed one of two paths. Some mortgaged their credibility for a shot at pop stardom — but no matter how many albums they sold, none of these artists (not even the platinum-selling Moby) could overcome the industry's perception of them as mere novelty interlopers. While commercial aspirants tried to squeeze electronic music into a pop framework, dance music's intelligentsia turned their back on the world, nurturing obscurantist forms (e.g. glitch) that appealed only to hermetic aesthetes.
Then along came electroclash. Love it or loathe it, that most ephemeral of fads — perhaps the first such form to crash in the same year (2002) in which it peaked — has left an indelible mark on the musical landscape. The rock realm, for one, has been inundated by a legion of synth-wielding haircut bands — some good (the Liars) and some bad (Soviet) — leading indie kids to adopt an activity they once seemed incapable of understanding: bump'n'grind.
If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, rock's adoption of electronic music's formal postures has served to stroke the egos of formerly downtrodden dance producers. Emboldened by this affirmation of their relevance, electronicists are now looking farther afield for stimulus, moving on from the movement's nadir of self-referentiality (clicks & cuts) to find inspiration in all forms of music.
Such an estimation was confirmed for me when, in the spring of 2003, I caught an uncommonly brilliant set by Deep Dish, the American duo whose recorded output embodies the tawdry excess of progressive house. Panderers though they may be, the Americans pulled off a compelling mix midway through the night, blending the White Stripes' "Seven Nation Army" into Danny Howells' "Nobody Listens to Techno," a track that features Eminem's infamous Moby-baiting declaration. Clipped and stitched within the folds of a balls-out rave anthem, Shady's refrain eventually morphed into "listen to techno," a stirring command that sent the assembled into ecstasy. This, I thought, is what revenge sounds like.
This sense of playful vengeance is reinvigorating dance music, nowhere more so than in Germany, where a small group of producers are finding inspiration in the work of Slade, Gary Glitter and T-Rex. (Yes, you read that correctly.) Littering their tunes with jagged guitar riffs and stadium-sized vocals, artists likes Superpitcher, T. Raumschmiere and Wighnomy Bros. are reclaiming glam-rock for the laptop set, setting dance floors alight with tracks that go bumpity-bump in the night. Shunning minimal techno's straight-up drum kick for a teetering offbeat emphasis, these producers have inaugurated the era of schaffel (German for "shuffle"), a style that merges rock and techno to gloriously dishevelled ends.
Over the last 40 years, forms of dance music have flowered and waned with predictable regularity. In the mid-‘60s, dancehall favourites like the twist were displaced by the hippie generation's flower power. Disco took the ‘70s by storm, only to be pushed underground by reactionary rockers at the end of the decade. Rave, too, has befallen the same fate, but where its predecessors were virtually extinguished, ‘90s-era genres retain loyal followers to this day, suggesting that dance music's next revival might be its biggest yet, built upon a stable infrastructure of record labels, specialty stores and underground nightclubs.
Since its inception in the mid-‘90s, Germany's Kompakt Records has housed all three of those functions (distribution, retail, party promotion) under a single roof. Based in Cologne, the label has developed a reputation akin to that enjoyed by Rough Trade 25 years ago. As that British label was to post-punk in the late ‘70s, so Kompakt was to techno in the latter half of the ‘90s, fostering niche musicians whose avant-garde tendencies did not diminish their output's visceral impact.
Dubbed "heroin house" by British journalist Simon Reynolds, first-generation German minimalism honed dance music to essential elements, stripping away the florid melodies and percussive flurries that had sent the country's rave scene overground. As exemplified by the brooding echo-chamber atmospherics of Rhythm & Sound's Moritz von Oswald and Mark Ernestus, Teutonic radicalism was defined by its outright denials of kitsch harmonies and explicit emotion.