Understatement

John Acquaviva and Richie Hawtin get austere on their latest releases

For John Acquaviva to helm a DJ-mixed overview of Frankfurt, Germany's Force Inc. is a little like Willie Nelson doing a Gram Parsons tribute album--a rare example of an original paying tribute to his imitator. Acquaviva co-founded the now-defunct, "Detroit sound"-identified Plus 8 Records, an enormously influential label that helped shape the minimalist sound of German techno. (Check last year's Mute-released three-volume Plus 8 Classics for the best of the label.) In particular, Force Inc.'s output can be heard as a European response to Plus 8's driving, often rigorous sound.

Acquaviva's new mix, Mainhatten Sound (Shadow), helps show that Force Inc.'s minimalist approach is often friendlier than you might expect from such a sere signature. Most of Mainhatten Sound is gratifyingly kinetic; even when there's not much going on, most of these tracks get up and bustle. Porter Ricks's "Spoil A-Side" doubles up its brief, lock-stepping computer riff on a more loosely strummed guitar before moving fast into Ron Spank's filter-heavy "Eric Wesenberg's New Simplicity," which breaks down midway into pacific synth ambiance.

After the Spank track, things get a little more one-dimensional for a while, though not boring (that comes later, in the disc's final quarter), before the emergence of the astringent strings, acid curlicues, mantralike two-note organ, and ghostly diva wails of Roy Davis Jr.'s remix of Ian Pooley's "My Anthem Remixes." Again and again Acquaviva gives the hookier elements breathing room, like the wobbling Roland 303 basslines of Thomas Heckmann, who heads up four cuts here that sound like fingers rubbing freshly scrubbed bathroom tiles. And as he builds up and eases down the mix, Acquaviva does not allow the more bare-bones material to strip the sonic landscape of anything worth grabbing onto.

But even when Force Inc.'s artists are at their most austere, they are maximalists compared to Acquaviva's former Plus 8 partner and fellow wearer of black rectangular glasses Richie Hawtin. Recorded under the name Plastikman, Hawtin's output from 1993's Sheet One was always understated, sometimes annoyingly so. By the time of 1998's Consumed, his music had become so insinuatingly subtle that it barely registered even when the volume was cranked. Where Hawtin's acid basslines had once generated throbbing pulse-riffs, on Consumed they sounded like they had been strapped to a rock and were struggling, without much success, to free themselves. It was, as critic Simon Reynolds wrote, "end-of-the-journey music"--as if Hawtin had reached the end of his experimental rope and had nowhere new to go.

A year later, though, the DJ-mixed Decks, EFX & 909 signaled the beginning of a new adventure, with Hawtin layering 35 records atop one another, adding texture and space via a Roland TR-909 drum machine and a handful of the titular effects and processors. On their own, the clicking beats and vaporous feel of many of Decks' tracks are deliberately unfinished, which makes them as ideal for stacking and interlocking as Lego pieces. Hawtin connected them like a gamelan orchestra conductor, lining up single rhythms into an undulating whole.

What else would this self-described "complex minimalist" do for an encore but to break it down even more? Hawtin's latest, DE9: Closer to the Edit (Novamute), expands the number of sound sources (there are some 100 tracks utilized here) but limits the amount of surface texture. This is the cleanest-sounding record of his career, and it sounds like one continuously flowing composition. But this time, the stripping down is open instead of cloistered, the tension resolved rather than left hanging in the balance for the listener to gawk at.

Hawtin's compositional ethic remains much the same--the melodic flourishes on DE9 (a glistening keyboard here, a fuzzy organ there) surface only sparingly over the constantly changing rhythm. But that beat mutates engagingly over the CD's 53 minutes. Hawtin is such a sturdy technician that his touch may not be obvious, but the delight he takes in manipulating his materials comes through louder and clearer with every listen.

 
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