The techno-fab event of the summer wasn't the unveiling of Richie Hawtin's Cube, best described as puffy promotional hilarity that made a stop at the Minus afterparty during this year's Movement festival, and more recently made the rounds at Sonar in Barcelona; take a peek at a send-up, courtesy of some anonymous Ubercoolische Brit pranksters here: cubercoolische.com.
No, the grandest moment that electronic dance music has experienced in quite some time was with the remastered, repackaged release last month of four records that changed the digitized micro-world as we know it. The series of long-players, composed and produced by Wolfgang Voigt under the pseudonym Gas, emerged seemingly out of nowhere during the years 1996 to 2000. Then they disappeared just as quickly into the ether. Up to that point in his career, Voigt — who's based in Cologne, Germany — had been known best for his trance-y acid house 12-inchers recorded under the aliases Mike Ink and Love Inc.
The first Gas transmission actually came in 1995, when Voigt released the "Modern" EP — four crackly, vaporous tracks with thumping bass lines — on his own Profan imprint. But it was the first self-titled (or untitled) LP that started getting the attention of techno nerds who were tired of the usual 4/4 grind then dominating the dance floor. The record came wrapped in a mustard-and-white sleeve with what appeared to be muted red fingerprints smudged on its cover. The word "GAS" ran hazily across the bottom, also in red, but no title, track listings or even artist's credits were evident. It was released by Mille Plateaux, a German label with an intellectual bent (its name coming from a 1980 book co-authored by philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Pierre-Félix Guattari) and a grand ambition to turn Frankfurt into ground zero for what became known as clicks-and-cuts minimalism.
I bought it. Where? I don't remember. (This was pre-Neptune Records, that excellent little store in Royal Oak that championed music like this from 1997 to 2006.) Nevertheless, it was the beginning of the end for techno as we'd grown to know it. Detroit's dominance of the genre — a strong run that lasted more than 10 years — was playing its way out. New kids were on the block; some taking up the Detroit-Chicago template and twisting it into new shapes (Berlin's Basic Channel and Chain Reaction being the best examples), some not. Voigt was not. Sure, his earlier projects used the sweaty Midwest dance music model, but Gas was coming from someplace else entirely. This was personal artistry from a specific time and place, not mere copyism.
On the first LP's six long tracks (four of which clocked in at more than 11 minutes), and on the subsequent three LPs, Voigt re-introduced himself as a pop composer re-working threads of German classical and folk traditions. He built a foundation with cello, violin and guitar samples, set it in motion with muffled, menacing beats, and then began layering gray ambient foam atop it all. Nearly every track contained these elements — some minus the beats, others with thunderous sub-bass added and cranked to levels conventional speakers could not handle. A distinct mood, one of pre-millennial anxiety, prevailed throughout the series.
It got deeper — darker and more lurid, like an expressionist painting or film — on Zauberberg and Konigsforst, the second and third albums. With tracks remaining untitled (unless you count Konigforst's Ein, Zwei, Drei, etc. as titles), the LPs opened and closed with tracks of shimmering beauty, with centerpieces filled with propulsive dread. Voigt was accused by some (Germans among them) of flirting with Teutonic nationalism, although a more measured reading suggests that unification may have been his broader political theme, if he had one at all.
In any case, Pop, the final piece of the set, was less sonically dense and breathed a little easier. But only slightly. It was as if there were a clearing in the forest of Voigt's imagination, murky sunlight streaming through the treetops.
At the same time that he was mopping up his work as Gas, Voigt was busy with a startup business that became arguably the biggest techno machine ever conceived or executed. With friends Jurgen Paape and Michael Mayer, he started Kompakt records in 1998. The label has since released more than 200 singles, EPs, LPs and Cds, and is a worldwide distributor for dozens of other indie imprints. The Gas four-CD box and limited edition (1,000) double-LP, Nah und Fern, was released on Kompakt in June. Get it while you can.
(The discs could be found at the mighty Stormy Records, 13210 Michigan Ave., Dearborn the last time I was there; but if you can't find it at the decreasing number of local record stores that know anything about this stuff, go to forcedexposure.com.)
So what's a national holiday without some indie dance-floor sizzle? Not our kind of holiday, that's for sure.
Start the weekend early by going up to Pontiac to see the Detroit-area debut of Kode9, a dubstep producer, DJ, label owner (as Steve Goodman, he runs the hugely influential Hyperdub, which released Burial's Untrue, one of the best LPs of 2007) and scholar (Goodman has lectured on sonic culture and postmodernism — our kind of guy — at universities in the UK). Kode9's version (with emcee Spaceape) of Prince's "Sine 'o' the Times" is one of the most amazing things you've never heard. Check him out, puh-leeze, at the Crofoot Ballroom (1 S. Saginaw St., Pontiac; 248-858-9333) on July 3. Opening is nospectacle, a digital dub audiovisual trio that includes the humble mixing talents of your Subterraneans columnist. Doors are at 8 p.m.; $10.
The next day (July 4), at the Comerica CityFest on the Pure Detroit Stage, Paxahau presents Ryan Elliott (7 p.m.) and Philadelphian King Britt (of Digable Planets) at 9 p.m. Then after the festival goes dark, the dance keeps going a couple blocks south at Northern Lights Lounge (660 W. Baltimore St., Detroit; 313-873-1739). Paxahau residents Rich Korach, John Johr, Chuck Flask and Dan Bain spin while Keith Kemp does his wild thing live. Doors open at 10 p.m. The best part? The festival and the afterparty are both free. We really like those kind of prices.The Subterraneans is a regular column dedicated to Detroit dance culture and its various offshoots. Send comments and bitch-slaps to [email protected]