Monday, 31 December 2007


Before I ever came around to deciding whether Stockhausen was the greatest living composer, he was no longer among the living. In a lot of ways he’s the kind of guy you’re really gonna miss in the world of music, also when, like me, you’re not as such trying to keep up with his output any more. It was just nice to know that he was out there, occasionally hearing about some new far out project like the helicopter quartet or the 24 hour “Klang”. He seemed like the last of the ancient giants, the composers determined on making art for the sake of it, without feeling any need to excuse that programme, going ever forward into the unknown without any rediscovering of lush romantic orchestration or simple harmony or any of those cheap post modern tricks. I loved his seriousness, the way he truly felt that what he did was important and adventurous. He seemed like the ultimate “mad scientist” of music, with his cosmic concepts and obsessive technical pedantry, forever engulfed in strange machines and esoteric research. There’s a wonderful picture of him on the back cover of Sirius, sitting by a kind of mixing board overflowing with cords and wires, looking fully lost in art and sound, and yet also highly alert, like he was working with radioactive substances or piloting a spaceship. It’s the ur-image of the machine musician, the mother of all techno geeks surrounded by drum machines and synths and effect boxes, entangled in wires. It completely sold me on Stockhausen when I first saw it, convinced me that I just had to get into this music sooner or later, even if it sounded like utter nonsense to me back then. Stockhausen was such a great and powerful character that it’s sometimes being suggested – a bit like with John Cage recently – that he was much more interesting exactly as such; as a theorist and a colourful eccentric rather than as a composer. Well, I loved Stockhausen the self-important mad scientist, but did I actually like his music? Did I eventually “get” it? I think so, to some degree at least, but it’s certainly a process that I’m far from finished with. Which is also why I never fully knew if he was the greatest living composer, even though I had no doubt that he was among the most fascinating and influential of the 20th century. I’ve come a long way since I first borrowed Sirius from my local music library, shortly after I’d gotten into “electronic music” (which to me, at that point, simply meant Jean Michel Jarre, Vangelis and a few other related names with “hits” in the Synthesizer Greatest-tradition), and my uncle told me Stockhausen was one of the most crucial names in electronic music. Obviously I couldn’t see any connection with Jarre/Vangelis, and I even felt slightly emperors-new-clothes-suspicious. It’s one of the only times in my life where I’ve encountered music that seemed so strange and alien to me that I’d no idea how to approach it. I found it extremely indistinct and aimless, and my first reaction was not to take it seriously. Yet, it planted some weird seed in me, something that I couldn’t just shrug off, but had to keep coming back to, slowly letting it grow with time. And now, it’s not as much alien as it’s just kind of really strange, and it doesn’t seem all that intangible any more. I’ve actually become familiar with it, and I enjoy a lot of it without much consideration.

The first Stockhausen record I bought was Kurzwellen. It’ll never be one of my favourites, still sounding too uniform and one-dimensional for a record lasting almost two hours (the length is doubled as it has two different versions of the piece – something that’s hardly necessary), but I’d never sell it and it feels good to have it, it’s something that becomes a little bit more inviting and rewarding each time you hear it. And there’s a lot of Stockhausen records like that, too harshly abstract to be really loveable, yet also so fascinating that you keep going back to them. There’s a few doing nothing for me – like Momente or Prozession – and then some that are straightforwardly amazing and wonderful, like Stimmung or Sternklang, and of course there’s the cannonised works that are exactly the groundbreaking modern classics that they’re said to be, but maybe not that much more, like Gruppen, Hymnen or Gesang der Jünglinge, containing no lingering mysteries, just solid, powerful modernism.

The thing about Stockhausen that seems most mistaken and out of proportion to me is his status as a kind of electronic godfather. It’s something he didn’t quite know what to think of himself, I guess, at one time criticising techno artists for their repetitiveness, at another simply answering “yes” when asked by the german magazine De:Bug if he invented techno. The time he spent working with electronics of any real consequence was pretty much a small phase in a long career mostly dedicated to more traditional instrumental writing, from the serial determinism of his early chamber pieces, over the “intuitive” works based on improvised ensemble play, to his later preoccupation with opera and choir. And even though I definitely think Hymnen, Kontakte and Gesang der Jünglinge are among the best examples of the post war avant garde going electronic, I’m actually more interested in Stockhausen as a “traditional” composer, more fascinated by the works where he’s creating unearthly soundworlds with more or less earthly instruments. Or voices, as in Stimmung, which is my favourite of his, and one of those rare pieces where you’re just mesmerized, holding back your breath as not to disturb the otherworldly beauty.

His real greatness, to my ears, is exactly in this area where he’s a sort of a bordeline case within the traditional classical world, almost too far gone and esoteric to belong to it at all. Even someone like Penderecki seem rather old fashioned and retrospective by comparison, his extreme noisescapes related to the expressionistic outpourings of the late romantic school, whereas with a great deal of Stockhausen, it’s like there isn’t really any ties with any tradition. Things like Gruppen and the early chamber pieces obviously belong to the modern lineage, and his electronic pieces are clearly a part of the early electronic avant garde, but after that, he not only didn’t sound like anything else, he didn’t even sound like he had come from anything else. This is even the case with something like the monumental opera cycle Licht, or at least the parts I’ve heard, which are hardly recognizable as opera in any conventional sense. The only part of it I know in depth is Donnerstag, an overpowering work containing some truly strange and mysterious music (sometimes sounding like ethereal space jazz), as well as some parts that are actually rather silly, as you’d often find with the later Stockhausen. Equally idiosyncratic are the solo pieces for clarinet – Harlekin, Traum-Formel etc. –, you’d think that with something as specific as that it would at least sound a little related to some existing sound world, but it’s actually some of his most odd and enigmatic creations, thoroughly alien and deeply intimate at the same time.

It feels like there’s a lot of things that ought to be said about Stockhausen, but somehow I can’t quite find a firm shape or a clear focus for them, they seem to hover just outside my thoughts reach, still amorphous and nebulous. Much like his music, actually, or my perception of it anyway. And it is pretty late already, almost a moth since he died now, high time I get this finished. I guess everybody else is more or less through with the obituaries by now, and he is slowly returning to the mostly unobserved box he occupied in our mental archives just before he died. I think Licht, even if it’s eventually performed in its entirety, will remain too closely specified and too connected with particular performers, to ever become even remotely as inexhaustible and penetrating as Wagners Ring – the most obvious comparison –, and that’s probably the case for most of Stockhausens music. It’s so grown together with him that it seems unlikely that it will continue to catch peoples attention on its own, and that’s such a shame, because our evaluation of him really ought to be an ongoing process. In a lot of ways I think we still need to catch up with him.

Tuesday, 4 December 2007


Not only was this one of the very best records of 1992, but it’s also one of the very best things PCP ever released, as well as one of the best things Marc Acardipane have ever produced, and that’s saying something. Actually, I’m not really sure what’s better – to be one of the best things of 1992 or one of the best things by Acardipane. There was a lot of good stuff that year. Where is there more brilliance to be found, in 1992 or in Marc Acardipanes collected works? That question could fill a whole blog in itself, but the matter is obviously complicated by the fact that he made so much of his best stuff in ’92. Not all among his best known works, though, which is another reason to look into this album a little closer.

Even though Acardipane has got a very good reputation among respected journalists/bloggers like Simon Reynolds and Woebot, and therefore isn’t as much a pariah as most gabber and hardcore-producers, it also seems like they mostly know him from his middle-period productions, rather than the early releases which were, frankly, even better. Sure, everybody knows “We Have Arrived”, but except for that, his reputation in those quarters seems to be built mostly on records like “Slaves to the Rave”, “Into Sound” and especially the later parts of the Cold Rush-catalogue. I was a little puzzled by Reynolds calling “Apocalypse Never” Acardipanes pinnacle, because I’d say that it’s actually one of his more anonymous things. But then, Reynolds always seem to be more into sound-in-itself than catchy riffs or melodies, and like most later Acardipane-productions, this one is more about pure thickness and power of sound than anything else. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, but all this pure cultivation of the mentasm-buzz + simplistic 909-kicks, well, it seems just a tiny bit uninspired when, on his older releases, you got the mentasm and the kicks, but also a lot of other things. If I were to make an Acardipane/PCP-top five, or even a top ten, it probably wouldn’t even include anything later than 1994.

So, let us take a look at this one, one of the real milestones from before Acardipane was acknowledged outside the continental hardcore circuit, before he was seen as a keeper of the working class hardcore-essence in the face of trendy electronica and increasingly degenerate drum’n’bass, and simply was one of the greatest names in rave techno, releasing records so far ahead of the game that the rest of the scene would never catch up, and at a rate unmatched even in ´92, the near pinnacle of rave innovation. First of all, Frankfurt Trax 2 is an excellent example of that rave scene speciality; the compilation album where everything is made by one single guy. Well, to be fair, Acardipane isn’t completely on his own here, there’s some collaborative efforts and appearances of more or less forgotten people like producer Ramin, rapper Rakhun and the provisory “Delirium Posse”, as well as two of Frankfurts rising DJ-stars, giving the album title just a little credibility. Eventually, those DJs happen to be trance-masterminds Sven Väth and DJ Dag (of Dance 2 Trance fame), so it’s also removing a little of Acardipanes credibility, considering how trance in general, and Väth in particular, is now regarded. For some time, of course, it was just the other way round, Väth being a leading light of artistically serious techno, while PCP were just producing simplistic ravefodder. Not that they aren’t seen like that any more, it just happen to be evaluated completely different now: Simplistic ravefodder is a good thing, while artistically serious techno is embarrassing. OK, that’s probably pushing it a little, but there’s certainly some quarters where this progophobic punk-reasoning is claiming trance guilty by association. Serious artistic ambitions? Bad by default!

In any case, these tracks are interesting because they’re from before Väth and Dag really broke through. They were not yet seen as neither innovators nor blemishes on the history of techno, and were simply just parts of the early Frankfurt-scene. It’s saying something very interesting about early rave and the way people were still just wallowing in the infinite possibilities. There weren’t clear trenches back then, and people who would later represent savagely opposed forces simply belonged to the “techno”-scene, and could work together easily. You even get this strange feeling that Frankfurt was a close knit community at one point, that maybe there’s this great tale to be told about these people and how they built their scene and eventually split up in different fractions. Hell, maybe there is such a tale to be told, what do we actually know about the early Frankfurt scene? After all, they didn’t just create trance and doomcore, but also Mille Plateaux, and Atom Heart, and there’s a big 80s EBM-prehistory as well. They had a club called the Techno-Club as early as 1984! Why isn’t this story as widely known as that of Detroit? Why isn’t there a book about it? There really should be. It would be way more interesting than Dan Sickos predictable Techno Rebels. Still, to see this record as some kind of snapshot of the early Frankfurt scene is definitely going too far, even if it feels nice. It’s still pretty much the work of one man.

Appropriately the album starts with “We Have Arrived”, one of the greatest single tracks Acardipane ever made, as well as the ultimate piece of hardcore techno. I’m just a little too young to have heard Joey Beltrams “Energy Flash” when it originally came out, and with all the hype about it, it was a big disappointment when I actually checked it. Was that supposed to be this legendary milestone, this track so incredibly hard and intense that it shocked and revolutionised the world of techno when it was released? It seemed only slightly more hard-edged than a lot of other stuff from the same time – or even earlier acid house – and compared to the different kinds of hardcore that came afterwards, it seemed almost dull. Dated, really. What’s so amazing about “We Have Arrived” is that it doesn’t seem dated at all, not even seventeen years later. Actually, it’s not just not-dated, it’s still so incredibly fresh, still unbelievably ahead of not just it's time, but even our time. “Energy Flash”s problem is not that it’s of-its-time and not as hard as the tracks that followed, but rather that the hardness and intensity was the whole sales-point, and hence it doesn’t seem all that interesting when it doesn’t sound hard and intense anymore. “We Have Arrived” is also known mainly for its hardcore intensity (even though – unlike with “Energy Flash” – I think it has more to offer as well), and yet you’re still hard pressed to find anything even remotely as hard and intense all these years later.

Arguably, the new industrial-tinged “main-style”-gabber, or whatever it’s called, that have evolved over the last 3-5 years, is the first time anyone really have begun understanding what “We Have Arrived” is all about, what makes it so amazing. The Third Movement-label and producers like Promo, Catscan and Trickstyle sometimes actually succeed in making shrill, metallic and inhuman noise totally catchy. And that’s kind of the secret of this track, isn’t it? It’s not so much about making the most horrible, migraine-inducing inhuman noise as possible, that’s a whole other story, and there’s plenty of people who have surpassed Acardipane in that game. And even though I don’t think it’s necessarily pointless or uninteresting, and actually enjoy a lot of music that is deliberately un-catchy, alienating and ugly, it’s certainly also a dead end concept of “hardness”, if hardness is to be seen as a positive aesthetic quality at all. The alien, inhuman strategy can be deeply fascinating, and a great art in itself, but to twist it so that it simultaneously becomes pop, now that’s a much more surprising achievement.

Often, this is what the best rave music is trying to do, but “We Have Arrived” takes it to another level entirely, because it’s not just noisy compared to “normal” music – as with most rave, including most of Acardipanes other tracks –, it’s truly an industrial inferno every bit as harsh and punishing as any avant-noise-extravagance you might dig up, and yet this inferno is somehow structured in a way that makes it immediately irresistible, danceable, euphoric even. Well, OK, maybe not to everyone, and it isn’t really “pop” as such I guess, but it certainly has an anthemic, almost-melodic quality that makes it work on these levels for anyone just potentially down with the programme. As such, it’s kinda strange that it actually had such an impact on the world of hardcore techno and gabber, considering how impossible it have been just to figure out how the hell Acardipane made that sound, to say nothing about copying it, making most of the hardcore records that followed seem tame by comparison.

Only now, with the aforementioned Third Movement-sound, the technology available to the majority of producers have enabled them to emulate what Acardipane did more than fifteen years earlier. Almost, anyway. They’re still missing this weird “coming out of nowhere”-feel that’s so unique about “We Have Arrived”. With the Third Movement-stuff, you can hear the long evolution, hear how the effect have been reached by a steady process of exaggeration and brutalization. “We Have Arrived” itself, though, are not using even remotely as distorted, treated and exaggerated sounds, and it still sound at the very least equally powerful. Just like it’s more catchy than it should be, according to how harsh and noisy it is, it’s also sounding much more brutal than it actually is, technically. I think it has something to do with the strange restraint that’s in it too, a grinding insistence in the bass riff and a linear precision in the death ray synth blasts that makes it sound frighteningly determined. An old fashioned sci-fi killing-machine-fantasy perhaps, but nonetheless truly thrilling in its very pure, efficient malevolence.

With “We Have Arrived” as the opener, it would have been something of an anticlimax if Frankfurt Trax 2 had been a hardcore/gabber-compilation. The only way to live up to that beginning is to have tracks that are powerful in areas so different that there’s really no comparison. Even IF Acardipane was able to make more tracks like “We Have Arrived”, it would only diminish the force of all of them if he did. That’s probably another reason it’s so great, that he have never really emulated it himself. It’s not that he haven’t repeated some of his favourite formulas many times over the years, but he have never repeated “We Have Arrived”, and that have been an excellent strategy, making it much more unique and mythical. And luckily, he had no problem filling the rest of Frankfurt Trax 2 with tracks that were not just very different from the opener, but also, in most cases, almost as great.

What links “We Have Arrived” with the rest of the compilation is atmosphere. The atmospheric element is what originally made Acardipanes stand out from the rest of the continental hardcore scene, and what eventually spawned doom/gloom-core, but in this early stage the atmosphere is more or less the whole point of the tracks, not a trademark finish applied to functional floorfillers (er, that’s probably a bit harsh, I really do like a lot of his later stuff). Here, everything is soaked in Acardipane-atmospherics, and not just the super doomy/gloomy-mentasm drones and cartoon goth riffs, but an amazing variety of brooding sorrowful night moods and hollow grey shades. And there’s such a stylistic variety, so many different things and unique ideas that doesn’t sound much like anything else, that it’s almost frustrating. This was a time when a compilation or an album didn’t have to either stick to a well known sound, or namecheck different genres through generic stylistic exercises, but could try out a whole bunch of weird ideas and combinations. Where every track could not just have a unique riff or sound, but even it’s own unique, never-to-be-heard-again style. That’s more or less the case here, and yet, it never seems like failed, ridiculous experiments-for-the-sake-of-experiments, simply because the quality is so high and it all is part of Acardipanes vision.

Despite containing so many great tracks, there’s only two fully established “classics” here, which is kinda odd, and almost makes it a collection entirely of lost gems – a compilation that would have seemed like a goldmine of recovered brilliance had it been released now, as a retrospective. The second stone cold classic is “Nightflight”, originally from The Movers Frontal Sickness-ep. It’s also pretty much the only track that seems like a mistaken inclusion, not because its oppressively heavy, foreboding, somnambulist sludge-world doesn’t fit the albums overall feel, because it certainly does, but rather because it seems somehow wrong to take just a single track from a records as brilliant and essential as Frontal Sickness, and it kind of weakens the impression of Frankfurt Trax 2 as a full album in its own right, rather than just a compilation of arbitrary stuff. And it really manages to make that impression, generally. Even the tracks with Sven Väth and DJ Dag fits like obvious pieces in the unfolding Acardipane-vision. Strangely, those two tracks, despite the input from a couple of proto-trancemasters, are some of the most minimal and restrained on the whole record. Dag Tribes “No Compromise” is an ominously looming hangar-stomper, while R U Readys “Vaeth 1” is a cold and metallic piece of bleep’n’909 architecture: Quite simple, but not monotonous in the modern minimal sense, thanks to the sudden (rather than slow and gradual) adding and subtracting of drum- and bleep-patterns every few bars – a technique often used by Acardipane around this time.

Arguably, the most amazing tracks on Frankfurt Trax 2 are T-Bone Castros “Hilltop Hustler” and Trip Commandos “House Music’s Not Dead”, both being not just brilliant and highly original, but also completely un-canonised, something that makes their unexpected impact even greater and more overwhelming. They both inhabit a subterranean twilight world somehow simultaneously moist and frozen, all bleeping, circling, echoing roentgen-riffs, incredibly textured sounds gloving like uranium tubes in concrete tunnels, the voice on “House Music’s Not Dead” treated so it sounds like a ghost robot – a “house” music not as much dead as unliving, body-snatched by unknown machine-forms. Like with some of the lesser known tracks on LFOs Frequencies – say “El Ef Oh!” or “Simon from Sidney” – there seem to be a lost future here, like this is really the road “serious” techno should have taken between hardcore rave and chilled ambient, rather than the path that seems so trite now: Detroit orthodoxy, minimal puritanism, early tasteful trance.

Most of the tracks, though, are not as much lost futures as simply pieces of utter strangeness, speaking to us from a time where everything seemed possible: The zombie-sludgy tribal chant of FBIs “The FFM Theme”, RPOs jittery, break beat driven and muddling mournful “1991 (and I just begun)”. The best in this respect is the last three tracks, where the dystopian futurism turns creepy cosmic on Alien Christs “Of Suns and Moons (phase II)” – with an oddly stiff-jointed and stilting alien bleep riff –, and forebodingly ancient on Six Mullahs mock-ethnic “Persian Lover”, which seems like a forgotten ancestor to the more oriental-tinged end of dubstep, in mood if not in form. Hardest to pin down is Project Æs closing “Whales Alive”, fluctuating between a bittersweet moodiness, slightly reminiscent of the Twin Peaks soundtrack, and a void of distant buzzing + phased break beats of the kind Alec Empire would come to use extensively on his more atmospheric records. A track that really defies any definition, and ends Frankfurt Trax 2 in a very strange and kind of anticlimactic way – it just sort of dissolves and dies out, quietly evaporating into nothingness.

Writing about the album, it becomes more and more mysterious, an amazing piece of self-mythology with wonderful bits of fictive trivia added to the track info in a few places, fleshing out the different projects almost like characters or alternate identities, rather than just functional names: “We Recorded this tune when the cops raided our studio and arrested Agda”; “Mixed by someone at the Behescht Oasis, Teheran, Persia”; “Activated & tuned by the Mover on a Nightflight in 04/91. Mixed somewhere in Deep Space 06/91” – pure UR that one! The cover is also quite interesting in this respect, depicting fifteen or sixteen “people” (some of them actually just icons), like the record really is a Frankfurt all-star parade. Some of them are clearly recognisable, like Sven Väth, Atom Heart (who’s has a bonus track on the CD-version) or Mark Spoon (it looks like him, anyway), who I’m pretty sure made no musical contribution to the record whatsoever.

Counting absolutely everything, including three members for the Delirium Posse (presumably it’s the people behind the Delirum record shop and the label of the same name), there still isn’t fifteen people involved in making this music, but several of Acardipanes pseudonyms get their own pictures, and there’s quite a lot of masked ones too, so the cover can also, to some degree, be seen as yet another way of fleshing out the multi-pseudonym tactic. And maybe one of the faces is the mysterious Slam Burt, the estranged and almost forgotten second half of the original PCP-team, a guy completely overshadowed by Acardipane and not even contributing any music to the album. I couldn’t tell, but its one of the many secrets that makes me explore and cherish the album even more. It's this way Frankfurt Trax 2 has the ability to continuously tickle the imagination, making it not just a collection of musical brilliance, but rather a truly unique historical artefact, a source of ongoing speculation, awe and wonder.
So, having thought about it for a loooong time, I’m finally starting this blog. Not because I have reached a certain conclusion that it would help bring me clarity and peace, but rather because my life has reached the point where I think there’s no turning back. It’ll be about music, mostly, but with time probably also other stuff. I suppose it’ll expand and eventually make some kind of coherent sense, as I go from just talking about music I like, and think should be talked about by someone before it’s too late, to painting a broader picture of how my world is shaped by the things I listen to and where it have been taking me and isn’t really taking me any more. The strange thing is that this isn’t really a blog driven by straightforward enthusiasm, but rather a blog driven by an increasing lack of enthusiasm, and the feeling that I need to get some things out of my system before that enthusiasm disappears completely. If I get that far.