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The Twilight Zone

In The Land Of Brats And BMWs House And Techno Go Psychedelic

There are two ways to hear this stuff. One is on headphones. The other is very loudly, in a dark club, at about 2 a.m.

By Jess Harvell | Posted 12/21/2005

Original ’80s Detroit techno was straight back-that-ass-up party music. Its cousin house music, 300 miles to the west in Chicago, was even more relentlessly fixated on moving bodies. Go to any club specializing in electronic dance music in Baltimore, and you’ll be comforted by a relentless, erogenous, prostate-thumping pounding that could be as easily from 1991 as the 21st century. So listening to 2005’s techno/house anthems, the question becomes, When did this music get so weird?

Like wigged-out Londoners fashioning the blues into psychedelia, it took a transplanting to Europe for house and techno to go cosmic. As the new millennium rolled in, out went the bongos, disco bass lines, and residual traces of P-Funk. In came clickety-clackety rhythms, tinder-dry timbres, and lots of negative space. The industrial canyons of post-Ford Detroit have been replaced by Black Forest ambiance. Rhythms scrape along under thousands of pounds of glowering bass pressure like crustacean limbs on the seafloor.

One of the first examples of this new weirdness to make it across the Atlantic was Isolée’s (aka Germany’s Rajko Müller) Rest (Playhouse), a 2000 album that perverted the then-current trend toward ’80s synth-pop revivalism. Melodies developed like drops of lemon along an outstretched tongue, and synths quavered like steam-warped envelopes. Yet amazingly, his anthem “Beau mot Plage” impacted across all sorts of dance floors, contrasting a long stretch of wriggling static with Kraftwerk-gone-flamenco passages.

Isolée’s long awaited follow-up, 2005’s We Are Monster (Playhouse), is much warmer and more inviting than Rest, yet still strikingly odd. This is music of almost infinitesimal detail, the sort of thing that couldn’t have existed before the advent of copy-and-paste computer editing. Standout track “Schrapnell” calls up visions of robots in covered wagons and Aaron Copeland with a drum machine. But Müller’s most astounding music of the year is his remix of Recloose’s “Cardiology” (available on Playhouse’s Famous When Dead IV compilation). Taking Sun Ra rather than Roy Ayers as his starting point for “jazz,” he conjures whistling ethnic space voices and a saxophone that sounds like the tires of a taxi skidding in the rain.

Another European with a skewed attitude toward jazz is Ricardo Villalobos. A handsome, lithe Chilean now living in Berlin, Villalobos is perhaps the most iconic star of the new Eurotechno, sketching jazzy house and techno in the black, craggy lines of Egon Schiele. In 2003, he released Alcachofa (Playhouse), meaning “artichoke.” Like its vegetable namesake, the album’s rough leaves protected its juicy heart. “Easy Lee” followed a vocoder chant through endless rabbit holes over nearly 10 minutes, an asthmatic robot trying to speak through a wad of steel wool caught in its throat. That was the “hit.”

His follow-up, 2004’s Thé au Harem d’Archimède (Perlon), skirted immobility. “Hireklon” scattered a guitar figure like a school of fish every few bars, sounding like improv-guitarist Derek Bailey in a Latin mood. Surprisingly, Villalobos is a big hit in Ibiza, that perennial Eurotrash destination for bank-holiday hedonism. His most recent record, the DJ mix Green and Blue (Cocoon), is obviously designed to please a packed club; it even features well-worn names from the straightest end of American dance music, such as Master at Work Kenny “Dope” Gonzales. But the mix retains a bitter edge, like the aftertaste in strong wine.

There’s not really a name for this music yet. A tentative one has been proposed that captures the psychedelic disorientation: ketamine house. For those who don’t know, ketamine hydrochloride is a tranquilizer powerful enough to level a horse. For a good four to six hours it will reduce you to a state of mush-mouthed bliss that Vitamin K enthusiasts liken to seeing God. More than anything it turns users into drooling junkie end tables. You want to crawl inside the eye of the speaker and take a nice nap.

And, without implying anything about either producer or fan, ketamine’s rep certainly fits the endless, inky depths of Villalobos’ music especially. There are two ways to hear this stuff. One is on headphones. Heard on a traditional home stereo, with low and high end sucked into all-conquering midrange, you’ll miss the luscious detailing and the lunar bass throbs. The other is very loudly, in a dark club, at about 2 a.m.

Unfortunately, unless you’re going to hit up Travelocity after reading this, you probably won’t be able to experience this music in a club. Ketamine/psychedelic house is a resolutely German phenomenon, with tiny pockets of interest in places such as New York, London, and Spain. It’s also a music that is still spread across vinyl singles, mostly on small German labels. Epic, 10-minute-plus records like Mathew Jonson’s “Return of the Zombie Bikers”—with a squealing “melody” like an Indian teakettle and a bass line like a tectonic shudder—have yet to be compiled on CD. So your best bet is to pick up a copy of 2005’s Kreucht and Fluecht (Mischwald), mixed by rising k-house star Dominik Eulberg, and recline on the couch for two hours, hard drugs optional.

Kreucht and Fluecht is split into two discs and two approaches. The first disc, “kreucht” (“creeping”), hews closer to the aesthetic of Villalobos (who shows up as Termiten), all scuttling rhythms and Berlin sewer-tunnel atmosphere. The artist names (Alex Smoke) are as telling as the track titles (John Tejada’s “Paranoia”). Voices slink behind leafless trees. Melodies rarely resolve themselves. The second disc, “fluecht” (“flying”), adds an interstellar disco-trance element. Opening with Eulberg’s own remix of Steve Barnes’ “Cosmic Sandwich” (shades of prog-rock in the title), probably the subgenre’s biggest record to date, the tracks cruise across the German countryside, less Autobahn than ghost train.

And yet, for all this music’s power, you’re often left wondering, what’s the point of bumming out the party? Very little ketamine/psychedelic house, with its gothic cast and premium on weirdness, would rock an American club full of sweaty people in shiny fabrics. In a country where rap and R&B long ago replaced even regular house and techno as the dance music of choice, Isolée and Ricardo Villalobos might as well be klezmer or rai. For Americans, these cats make home-listening techno that doesn’t forget its roots in the club. Forget chill out, this is the creep out. And we’ll take Dominik Eulberg over yet another Dido remix any day.

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