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Monday, March 10, 2014

How To Get America Into Techno, With Voices From the Lake

Posted By on Mon, Mar 10, 2014 at 9:31 AM

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As You Like It and The Bunker present Voices from the Lake


Saturday, March 8, 2014

Everyone is talking about techno these days. And when I say everyone, I don't just mean your friends and the people you follow on Twitter. Last month, Rolling Stone published Thomas Rogers' "Berghain: The Secretive, Sex-Fueled World of Techno's Coolest Club," a surprisingly well-researched article that brought one of techno's most revered and exclusive institutions into the limelight of the mainstream American music press. This piece is the latest in a string of major journalistic exposes that strive to explain the appeal of techno to an American public that, for the most part, is still playing a 20-year game of catch up with their European counterparts. (The punchline, of course, is that techno was originally a Detroit export.)

But whether the public currently understands or not, it would appear that the frequency and scope of these pieces might be indicative of something more than just the profiling of popular subcultures in other countries. Lady Gaga collaborated with Berghain for a record release party; Deadmau5 is now putting out records on Richie Hawtin's Plus 8 label under the alias "testpilot"; and all your friends who were previously making UK bass and deep house are currently doing their best to approximate "Berghain techno." Something is going on, but where it's headed is hard to gauge. Personally, and perhaps foolishly, I believe we're gradually moving toward a more popular, and hopefully not perverse, understanding of techno in the United States.

That may seem a naive view. But at a local level, there's definitely some truth to it. The past few years have been extremely good for techno in the Bay Area. Throughout the '00s, you'd need to trek to the EndUp for KONTROL or head to undergrounds in the Bayview, or farther, to hear these kinds of sounds. Nowadays, it seems like every other weekend has parties featuring techno artists pulled from Resident Advisor's Top 100 DJ list. The latest of such events occurred last Saturday, when As You Like It teamed up with New York's The Bunker to bring dubby Italian techno duo Voices from the Lake to Monarch.

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Monarch is an interesting choice of venue for this kind of music. It has an excellent soundsystem and often features experimental bookings, but it can also attract a crowd that's reflective of its craft cocktail menu and loungey bottle service area. In other words, it's a club that's situated somewhere between upmarket sheen and underground grit -- a crossroads between two halves of the city's club culture that do not otherwise intersect. Or at least, that's how last Saturday played out, with a crowd of dressed-down heads occupying most of the floor. In the cracks between, you could catch glimpses of another scene. Two girls pushed by me to get at the bottle service lounge, their skintight dresses reflecting light like mirror balls. "He's looking at you again. Like ... make eye contact and smile," one of them said to the other as they elbowed through a row of guys in hooded sweatshirts. Christina Chatfield was on stage playing techno from a hardware rig, and some guy in a flat bill was playing exhibitionist-level grab ass while freaking on a girl in front of me.

Chatfield's set was classy and streamlined, with a sonic aesthetic that expressed the bare mechanical essentials of techno at its root. It was all robotic kick drums, straightforward hi-hats, big claps, and wiggling acid basslines cut with the occasional strobing chord. She played her gear like a DJ, incorporating dynamic twists and turns, cutting the bass drum out to let her delay and filter spill out before dropping back into a driving pulse. "Fuck, this is awesome!" Said a friend as he passed me on his way to the middle of the dancefloor. Plumes of e-cig vapor floated out into the crowd from a green glow in the mouth of a frizzy blonde dancing on some steps next to the stage. Chatfield brought the energy up and left it there until the end of her set.

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And then time shifted forward, Daylight Savings Time extracted an hour while Jason Kendig meticulously constructed an environment of kinetic energy. He picked up where Chatfield left off by refreshing the dancefloor with a comparatively easygoing techno track, letting people catch their breath and buy drinks before he quickly, and seamlessly, doubled the crowd. Kendig is the kind of DJ who makes the technicalities of mixing vinyl seem effortless. He picks his tracks quickly, he holds his blends for a long time, and he has this ability to ratchet up the intensity of his playing in a way that's very different from other local DJs -- he does this, as far as I can tell, by gradually choosing more intense records, so that the intensity of the moment sneaks up on you. On Saturday, he built up to a plateau-like peak that mixed loopy Detroit techno with crowd pleasers like Fabrizio Maurizi's "I Don't Mind" and aggressive cuts like Levon Vincent's "Double Jointed Sex Freak Pt. 2."

"Who is this? Who are these guys?" I overheard a guy ask a girl, "It's Voice on the Lake, they're Italian," she responded. A collective awe could be felt in the room as the Italian duo took their positions at the stage. Their setup was physically massive, with two stations of effects pedals, drum machines, and synth boxes separated by an oversized studio mixing board. Buzzing cicada noises and alien synth washes vibrated from the speakers and into the ears. It sounded like "Drop 1," a track off their Silent Drops EP". And then the first kick drum hit.

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Techno, of the caliber that Voices from the Lake produces, has this quality that I can only describe as immersive. It's unique from other forms of dance music in the sense that it induces a hypnotized state of mind. It is not a traditional linear narrative, but instead a kind of open world that encourages you to get lost in the intricacies of sound design and sonic texture. While listening, I felt like I was underwater, with my ears sometimes surfacing to hear people behind me whistling and blurting like they'd lost their minds, "Fuck yeah! Yes! Yes! Oh my god! Woooo!" The volume increased, and the metronomic whir of the kick filtered down into a dull, encompassing throb. Neel, one half of the duo (the other is Donato Dozzy), leaned over to a TR-909 and started punching in patterns while manipulating a delay, causing melodies and percussion to stretch out like a mirror staring into a mirror. More screams. Their set was much harder and more dancefloor-focused than their recorded works might suggest, with recognizable elements augmented by a constant low boom. It was one of the best live performances I've ever heard. I looked around and saw that everyone was moving back and forth in a kind of trance-like synchronized sway. I remembered a quote from a conversation I had with a friend about the probability of techno's popular ascendancy: "They don't need to understand right away, they just need to be given the opportunity to understand that other people understand it, and maybe they'll understand it later."

-- @derekopperman

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Derek Opperman

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