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Some Kind of Monster 

Fused from worldly machine beats and supernatural sonic apparitions, Isolée's Wearemonster remakes the techno landscape

Wednesday, Sep 14 2005
Rajko Müller's choice of artist alias, Isolée, means "isolated" in French. But a better choice of name -- at least after his recent, second album, Wearemonster -- might have been Legion, as in the famous biblical citation, "My name is Legion: for we are many."

True to its title, Wearemonster throbs with inner voices, both in concert and at odds with each other. Despite nominally 4/4 dance beats, it's impossible to peg the album to a single style: It's a little bit house, a little bit disco, and, yes, a little bit country, a little bit rock 'n' roll. But the record never foregrounds eclecticism at the expense of its own internal logic; the product of several years in the studio, it's evidence of the way that the electronic musician's solitary craft often gives rise to a schizophonic result, a Frankenstein's monster that's sutured together out of innumerable edits, where samples are piled atop one another and synthesizers, drum machine patterns, and digital effects supply the thread to sew up the seams. But Isolée's creation is also a testament to the way that, in the right hands, a kind of guiding consciousness emerges to unify the pieces -- the fabled ghost in the machine, if you will.

If the album is a monster, veering at times dangerously out of control, for once it's a benevolent being. Every freakish fable worth its salt has a moral, and while Wearemonster's lessons may be simple, they make themselves heard with every unexpected transition, no matter how fluid or jarring: "Dance music" need not be formulaic, and the computer, as a compositional tool, is only as limiting as the mind (and ears) behind it.

For my money, it's the best album this year. Heard at home, in the club, and (especially?) driving up I-5 from San Francisco to Portland, where it tested the speakers in my rental car, it is a malleable, complex masterpiece, a generous shape-shifter that presents you with a new bauble from its pocket every few bars or so; while you're marveling at the shiny, unexpected toy, it changes form yet again. There hasn't been a more seductive bogeyman since Beauty fell for the Beast.

"I initially had the idea [for the title] because I was working on tracks where I was using voices in a strange way," recalls Müller, but as the record began to morph and mutate, so did the beastly theme. "I came to feel like the tracks themselves were monsters, because I'd worked so long on them, and I couldn't step back from them," he says.

The songs, which he terms "deformed" fusions of innumerable ideas that just kept branching elastic new limbs, took on lives of their own, and it was all their creator could do to stand by and watch. The end result, says Müller, benefited from the input of his label executives, who counseled him as to what to keep and what to discard. But it certainly doesn't sound like the kind of project that's been decided upon by committee. There's nary a hit single to be found; any given track might work in the club, but it would take a skilled DJ to squeeze it in between more conventional dance-floor bangers.

And as an album, it flows the way few long-players of any genre do. The dusky mood, rhythmic strangeness, and weird, sad funk of tracks two, three, and four, especially, suggest a compositional intent that doesn't end with the individual song. The album is far too idiosyncratic to be the product of anything but a single consciousness -- and the more you listen to it, the more you doubt that it's even Müller's consciousness. How could he have dreamed up, to give only one example, the dovetailing chords that lead "My Hi-Matic" from dirge to rave anthem? It's that ghost in the machine all over again, its heart thumping unmistakably beneath the motherboard.

Perhaps it's for this reason that Wearemonster has garnered the kind of acclaim that few electronic artist albums do: Affixed to the CD (available only on import, from Frankfurt, Germany's Playhouse label) is a sticker gushing with fevered testimonials from artists as diverse as Tiga, DJ Hell, and Tommie Sunshine. And a certain New York record label, a prime mover behind the "dance-punk" revival, has even been rumored to be in negotiations with Playhouse over a U.S. release. It would make for a great Pixar story: Isolée and his monster are making many new friends.

Even if Müller isn't as solitary as his name might suggest, he's followed an atypical path in his ascent to house-music semistardom. (In Germany and Spain he graces magazine covers, but in the U.S. he'll be lucky to sell more than a thousand copies of his album, at least until it receives a domestic release.) Born in Frankfurt, he spent part of his childhood in Algeria, where he attended French-speaking schools; his name derives from that linguistic legacy. In the '80s he was a fan of synth-pop, but then gravitated toward rock; by the early '90s, Müller had turned on to the sounds of house and techno that were captivating Frankfurt and Germany as a whole, and like many DIY-inclined young Germans, he invested in a few rudimentary pieces of gear and began aping those omnipresent strains.

Between 1996 and 1998 he released four 12-inch singles on Playhouse, which had discovered him when a mutual friend passed along his demo cassette. The early Isolée tracks pay homage to the minimal machine rhythms of classic Chicago house, as well as the easy swing of West Coast G-funk, but there's a strange undercurrent tugging them toward more distant shores: Drums seem to detune at will, and unadorned analog synthesizers, alternatingly thin and gloopy, go sour like milk that's been left out too long. The beats are sharp enough to propel dance floors, but they're fueled by a weird, nervous energy that threatens to derail the party with every measure.

In 1999, Playhouse released Müller's fifth single, "Beau Mot Plage," and his career reached a turning point. "Beau Mot Plage" -- a pun on Bomo Plage, an Algerian beach Müller had visited as a child -- was no less strange than his early singles, but spiced up with Caribbean guitars and Latin syncopations, it boasted a more universal appeal than his previous work. London's Classic label licensed it for reissue, and from there, the contract ink continued to flow; according to, an electronic-music discography, the song appears on no fewer than 47 compilations. Many of them feature titles like Café Mambo: The Real Sound of Ibiza and Spirit of the Sun 2 -- breezy, Balearic references that seem at odds with the cold, Teutonic vibe of Isolée's other work up until that point. These days, it's not terribly unusual for an underground German techno producer's work to appear on a mix CD from a dodgy U.K. progressive-house jock, but back then the line dividing Continental trainspotter tracks and mainstream Anglo-American fare was almost impenetrable; Isolée's breaching of the barrier wasn't just unexpected, it was downright bizarre. (Müller told me in 2001 that a friend had exclaimed, "Man, you're on such shitty compilations, it's incredible!")

In 2000, Müller released his debut album, Rest; it was much in line with the eerie electro vibe of the early singles, but with "Beau Mot Plage" as the centerpiece. And then, without warning, Isolée more or less disappeared. (The artist's new Web site even pokes fun at his lengthy absence, announcing newswire-style, "Isolée still alive ....") Aside from a handful of remixes -- some of which, like last year's limited-run revisitation of Recloose's "Cardiology," have become more famous than most of Müller's own work -- he released only three singles under his own name in the intervening five years.

Müller cites many practical reasons for his near silence: a year spent preparing his first live set; moving apartments within Frankfurt, and then from Frankfurt to Hamburg; months of trial and error as he bought and sold studio equipment before finally settling down with a handful of vintage synthesizers. Also, he says, "Sometimes I just wasn't really into electronic music. I was a little bored with what I heard in clubs." He dug into the Beach Boys, bought tube amps and guitar effects. Finally, he says, "The pressure to release a second album -- it had to be something special, but I knew I couldn't do something similar to Rest."

He didn't. If early Isolée tracks are lithe to an almost anorexic extreme, Wearemonster's songs sound like they've spent the past half-decade lounging around, feeding on truffles. Which isn't to say that they're overproduced; just that they make no bones about their excess. Practically any given moment of the album offers innumerable false starts, false endings, false detours; it's as if every cut wanted to be four or five different things at once. "Schrapnell" opens with guitars that simultaneously reference surf flicks and spaghetti westerns, but before long, Aaron Copland-style strings are signaling different American vistas; two minutes in, Kraftwerkian blips are doing battle with '60s tambourines. "My Hi-Matic" begins with chugging synthesizers that wouldn't be out of place on a Kompakt record, but the chord progressions sound more like the theme song to CHiPs -- and that's before an electronic horn section provides a 16-bar bridge that sounds like a fanfare for the second coming, ecstatic and sad and all-consuming.

Müller's considerable skill is in resolving these contradictions without foreclosing them, letting all the battling voices have their say. His triumphs are many -- I can think of no other artist in any genre, for instance, who can best his sense of timbre -- but one of his greatest accomplishments is to prove that electronic dance music, for all its repetitions, need not mire itself in compositional ruts, eight predictable bars at a time. In Isolée's world, inspiration is a bolt from the blue, and if it arrives in mid-chord progression, well, so much for those chords. Wearemonster is a Darwinian disc, the music of invisible hands guiding unexpected developments. Let "Intelligent Dance Music," in all its wonky anal-retentiveness, be the soundtrack for Intelligent Design; this is pure evolution. It's irrational, inefficient even, but it works, and it works wonders.

About The Author

Philip Sherburne


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