For dance music, tradition is both a flag and a curse: DJs, producers, and clubland cognoscenti are forever either wrapping themselves in it or casting off its chains. The best (and rarest) among us feed on history in order to transcend it, but it’s a joke when the umpteenth disco revival is mass-interpreted as an aesthetic breakthrough.
There are also attempts to examine the tradition’s narratives—either in personal, local, or historic terms—and fuck with its more monolithic conventions. Last year, recording under the name DJ Sprinkles, Terre Thaemlitz’s Midtown 120 Blues put a mirror to house music’s universal feel-goodness, giving those who paid attention a necessary bummer. Now come two more ruminations on traditions and classicism, from either side of the Atlantic.
Made in/by Detroit and now living in New York City, Matthew Dear has already transcended the typical American techno arc. His focused individualism first came to the fore in 2003 through “Dog Days,” a techno-pop single with goth-y vocals (an outright anomaly for Detroit artists at the time). Since then, while his Audion and False guises have become primary outlets for hard, minimal, clubby productions, his namesake brand has turned into something vaguely songwriterly and shape-shifting—he even fronted a live band after 2007’s Asa Breed pushed him into Bowie/Byrne territory.
Which is kinda where he remains for Black City, a bleak bit of white funk under the influence of both the archetypal “Downtown” and James Murphy’s more recent update. In fact, close proximity to LCD Soundsystem’s recent This Is Happening adds context to Black City‘s great conversation: What can one micro-culture (in this case, the one spanning the width and breadth of New York disco, as defined by Arthur Russell and Rammellzee and David Mancuso or Larry Levan’s selections) teach you about you?
Dear’s answer is deep and murky. The lyrics themselves—overstocked with darkness, paranoia, and bodily fluids—are as indecipherable as the vocals are buried. They’re scene-setters. It’s the death-disco groove that intoxicates and defines this City: Excepting the electro surges of “You Put a Smell on Me,” the beats here are oodles slower than anything Dear’s previously tried en masse, and whether it’s a Fourth World ethno-dub (“Shortwave”) or a disco tune that folds in on itself (“Little People [Black City]”) or the closing Eno-ballad rip “Gem,” this is a version of New York dance music where darker emotions, not just ecstasy, are the primary currents—and the most valuable legal tender.
Not so in Berlin, where bass-bins buzz on and on, and the party literally never ends. But though the German aesthetic has come to signify sonically monochromatic hedonism, the city’s consistently forward-thinking acceptance of the new has been among electronic music’s primary energy forces in the 21st century. As a musical resident at Berlin’s Berghain (the techno-club world’s own Mecca) and as a buyer at Hardwax (the city’s record-store institution), René Pawlowitz directly curates that worldview. Which is why, by sheer definition, The Traveller, his second album as Shed, is a Berlin Now snapshot. And what does it encompass? An almost unheard-of 16 songs in 48 minutes (only one of which runs over five minutes), where ambient clusters and large, funereal chords fight for space with minimal dub and off-kilter breaks imported from the U.K.’s post-dubstep diaspora. It’s also filled with decidedly reflective feelings, usually more a hallmark of records from Detroit and London. As if, after years of bearing the weight of advances in rhythm, technology, and decadence, Berlin’s tradition is ready to try on some of Matthew Dear’s more complicated feelings, too.