The Berlin Wall of Sound
In the 1990s, Underworld crammed unfamiliar ideas and arrangements into trance, and became critical darlings for it. The latter half of the Aughts finds Modeselektor—Berlin duo Gernot Bronsert and Sebastian Szary—earning a similar reputation with the minimal techno incubated at Teutonic labels like Kompakt, Shitkatapult, and their own home Bpitch Control.
On its face, their 2007 album Happy Birthday! was just this side of a statement release. Its tracklist far more nuanced than just snaking, lockstep grooves, it was engaging as well as dramatic, and even occasionally fun and jokey (yes, that’s a belch at the end of “EM Ocean”). The springy “Godspeed” has the cojones to hide Afro-Cuban elements behind a digital drone. “The Black Block” and “B.M.I.” both have industrial influences: the former is synthpop stuck on repeat, the latter recalls one of Cevin Key’s countless Skinny Puppy offshoots.
Then there’s the roster of far-from-anonymous guests. Modeselektor’s beats behind TTC’s guttural French rap on “2000007” makes one wonder why Kanye skipped over glitch and went straight to Autotune. Thom Yorke lends false lyrical optimism to the Plaid-like loops of “The White Flash,” and on “(I Can’t Sleep) Without Music” Maximo Park get weirder than at any time on quite possibly the weirdest mainstream label out there, Warp Records.
Even when they don’t work (see Otto von Schirach’s mindless scene shout-out “Hyper Hyper”) such collaborations give Modeselektor another entry point for potential listeners and fans, and another level of musical complexity in a genre sometimes sadly devoid of it. From the roots of Happy Birthday! grew this year’s self-titled Moderat release, fertilized and otherwise nourished by the duo’s first studio work since 2003 with Apparat, a.k.a. Shitkatapult label head Sascha Ring.
Despite these players there is even less that’s “minimal” about Moderat. The presence of well-planned pop moments throughout the album make it sound like that was the point. The programming on “Porc #1” could have been lifted right out of some post-rockers’ catalog, and the most musical voice on here is often Apparat himself. He’s a cool and calm element on “Out of Sight” and the vocal glue on “Rusty Nails,” holding together sounds seemingly imported from Art of Noise, Bloc Party, and Aphex Twin’s crunchier “Ventolin” remixes.
Elsewhere, “Seamonkey” runs deep like philosophy and “A New Error” (another joke, “a new era,” get it?) finds the constructed trio in fine midtempo, meditative form. They also toy with Orbital’s old formula of multi-song suites, most blatantly in the “Porc #1″/”Porc #2” diptych and less so when joining the laser beams and empty spaces of “3 Minutes of” with the thumping bass drum of “Nasty Silence.”
One thing Modeselektor manage to do regardless of a strong hand at their side is make connections to and interpretations of the subgenre that won’t die, dubstep. On Happy Birthday! songs like “Let Your Love Grow,” “Edgar,” and the near-drumless “The First Rebirth” are all relatively low-key stoner tracks that have as much in common with Nightmares on Wax as with dubsteppers like Skream and Appleblim. In the context of Moderat, vocalists from Germany’s reggae community (itself a musical curiosity worthy of exploration) create dubby explorations from the sinister “Slow Match” to the earnest “Sick with It,” while “Out of Sight” is pretty much Burial’s “Untrue” with non-looped lyrics.
Happy Birthday! is a great album that was home to at least one powerhouse single. Moderat’s work, on the other hand, should be included in best-of-2009 discussions. Maybe Apparat’s presence somehow brought both focus (Moderat is a full 25 minutes shorter than Happy Birthday!) and variety to Modeselektor’s beats. It’s entirely possible that the big difference between Modeselektor and pioneers like Underworld before them is Modeselektor’s desire or, at worst, need for help to reach their creative destinations. Regardless, it’s fun to hear how these guys trade dancefloor brawn for music-geek brains.