Somnambule - Writing About Music

Lost: Rhythm & Sound + Jeff Mills

28th August 2005

It’s an assignment I signed up for of my own free will. Okay, so writing concert reviews for the venerable Grooves doesn’t pay, but it’s a free ticket – at least it is after multiple emails and increasingly frustrated follow-up calls to the promoters. It looked like an attractive prospect: two of the biggest names in techno, one from each of the two capitals of the music: Detroit and Berlin. DJ sets aren’t necessarily the easiest of subjects to write about, but never say no to a challenge...

Rhythm And Sound - the Berlin half of tonight’s equation - are Mark Ernestus and Moritz von Oswald, they of the almost mythical Chain Reaction label, Basic Channel and a number of other solo monikers. Together with their own output, the electronic music they’ve fostered has been characterised both by a trenchant minimalism and a remarkable attention to texture (think calcified moss, concrete dust, barnacle encrustations, fog-bound architectures). Since the turn of the millenium their attention has turned almost exclusively to constructing a bridge over the once yawning chasm between reggae and minimal techno. The resulting music bears the trademarks of their earlier output, but succeeds in delving deeper than their previous output. The organisers indicate that they’ll be playing all night, and I wonder what to expect. On arrival at the venue sometime after 11pm, we check out the main room and encounter minimal activity so we adjourn to the bar. Returning an hour or so later two guys dressed in black are onstage. The music fits the minimal techno template to a tee: merciless 4/4 rhythms pound braincells into submission and small changes raise rapt cheers from the packed audience. Too packed in fact – after trying several different locations I find myself increasingly frustrated at the number of people pushing backwards and forwards, ultimately making it impossible for me to lose myself in the music. The situation’s not helped by the awful smell of stagnant water that suffuses the back half of the large space.

After an hour or two building up a sweat (and a fair amount of annoyance), it’s back to the bar situated at one end of the chillout room. We bump into Sheikh Ahmed, editor of the now defunct Absorb and now one-man blogger. We ask him who we’ve just been jogging our guts out to, and in inimitable Sheikh style he responds along the lines of ‘Who knows, a couple of techno DJs’. Rhythm And Sound are playing the chillout room and their set turns out to be exclusively comprised of dub reggae 7s and 12s. Almost nobody’s dancing except Sheikh and his friends. We join his little group and the wide open spaces opened up by the music are like bobbing about in cool blue water on a hot summer’s day. The radical deconstruction, the structural playfulness, the brilliant, intuitive exploration of space and the sudden, unexpected changes add up to the antithesis of the relentless, anonymous techno pounding away in the other room.

Jeff Mills is due on at 3am. A founding member of Underground Resistance, along with Robert Hood and Mad Mike Banks, Mills has since assembled an impressive body of solo work. This will be my first experience of his DJ set, but by reputation he’s a quicksilver vinyl manipulator, cutting between tracks at a rate of knots. We depart the relaxed atmosphere of the chillout room for the main hall once again and push our way - like all the others – onto the floor. To our disappointment we discover he’s playing virtually the same kind of music, delivered in the same style, as his nameless predecessors. Just after 4am we concede defeat and retreat. Perhaps the set picked up in the last hour, but we’d done our best. Writing this review more than a month later, I’m still struck by the disparity between the richly variegated dub plates and the remorseless onslaught playing side by side. Maximalism and minimalism, two extremes of music related by unexpected histories and Rhythm And Sound in the chillout room.
Colin Buttimer
Published by Grooves magazine