This is Minimal Techno


3 Oct 2007, 21:39

click here for a tag radio station containing all the linked minimal techno artists below

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One of the best places in Berlin to watch the sun rise is from inside the massive Watergate club, on the banks of the River Spree, in the trendy Kreuzberg district. The side facing the river towards the east is glass-plated floor-to-ceiling; between 5am and 7am, the room is gradually transformed from a dark, heaving mass of European bodies syncopating themselves to a house beat into a gloriously sunlit morning-after.

Berlin has been the spiritual home of dynamic, forward-thinking dance music for much of the past decade, house and techno in particular; it is a hub where artistic talents converge and nascent genres emerge to spread across Europe. The combination of a famously liberal attitude towards partying and a startlingly low cost of living has made the city a magnet for art scenes of all descriptions, a hedonistic centre of creativity where clubs open on a Friday night and often don't close until well into the following week, and where three-day parties are par for the course. It is home to some of Europe's most famous clubs (Watergate; the dungeon-like, labyrinthine Tresor; Berghain, a gothic building which looms up from an industrial landscape) and achingly hip dance labels (Get Physical, Bpitch Control, Cadenza).

The sound that has been filling those clubs and distributed on those labels, and which has exploded across the continent, is broadly known as minimal. Over the past five or so years, it's grown from an arcane subdivision of techno into an ubiquitous buzzword on the dance scene. Even two years ago, minimal techno was still the preserve of the so-hip-it-hurts sunglasses-at-night set. Its trendiness was endearingly encapsulated in the website, a charming soap opera written about the adventures of minimal figureheads Ricardo Villalobos, Magda and Richie Hawtin. In 2006, minimal finally crossed over, though, when Gabriel Ananda's 10-minute percussive epic Doppelwhipper exploded across Ibiza.

"For a few months, anything on any minimal German label sold," says Simon Rigg, manager at London record shop Phonica and longtime supporter of the sound. Now, even the unlikely figure of of Black Eyed Peas has somehow cottoned on: his forthcoming album samples minimal's biggest 2005 hit, M.A.N.D.Y., and Booka Shade's Body Language - though he is still some way behind Kylie Minogue, whose 2003 No 1 Slow was essentially a minimal track with an added pop vocal.

Characterised by simple, spare beats and subtle sonic details, minimal can baffle novices: how can music with seemingly so little to it manage to work dancefloors into a state of frenzy, let alone cross over to casual dance fans? But there is a rich emotional pull to the best minimal records: furthermore, by stripping all extraneous sound from a track, all the subtle details - shifts in tempo, melodic phrases, textural effects - are magnified a hundredfold. It is equally cerebral and physical: on the dancefloor, you can lose yourself in thinking about how the dots join up with each other even as your body moves automatically to the beat.

Craig Richards, techno house pioneer and resident of London superclub Fabric, has been a minimal enthusiast since first hearing Basic Channel records in the 1990s. "At first, people were irritated by simplicity, frightened to be absorbed by a sound so simple in the same way that people in art galleries are threatened by minimal abstract paintings," he says. "Only now are people willing to be engaged by very little." Rigg, meanwhile, has an alternative explanation for its rise in popularity: "A lot of people have suggested it's all linked to the popularity of [the drug] ketamine, which means that you can listen to 17-minute minimal epics for hours."

Another factor in the surge of popularity is how minimal has evolved - or rather, what the term "minimal" has come to mean. It has always covered a multitude of styles: the gap between the m_nus label's austere, menacing minimal techno and the lush microhouse and pop-friendly hooks favoured by Michael Mayer's Kompakt label is vast. Now, "minimal" is an umbrella term covering a massive swathe of house and techno - much to the annoyance of dance connoisseurs, whose second favourite activity after dancing to techno is semantic hair-splitting, and who cannot bear to see the label "minimal" stuck on music they think does not merit it. In fact, the resilience of the name is a testament to its popularity, despite its increasing meaninglessness as a term; it is also in large part the result of the scene's sense of community, wherein even a label releasing chunky, maximalist techno (such as Areal) is tagged minimal purely because its artists associate with true minimal artists.

Two of 2007's key albums find two leading lights of the sound pursuing very different paths. Mathew Jonson is the classically trained Canadian founder of the Wagon Repair label; his Cobblestone Jazz project is an unlikely fusion of techno with jazz. For five years, it has been a live project based on improvisation and interaction with Danuel Tate and Tyger Dhula, the other musicians who comprise Cobblestone Jazz; the album, 23 Seconds, is a gorgeous, loose-limbed, trippy affair that retains the easy spontaneity at the heart of the project.

Ricardo Villalobos, meanwhile, is a Chilean exile in Berlin (his family fled Pinochet's regime when he was three) whose name is spoken in minimal circles with a kind of hushed reverence: his reputation as an auteur has been cemented by a string of seminal releases including last year's Fizheuer Zieheuer, a 37-minute epic based on a Hungarian wedding song. His own new release is ostensibly a mix compilation, the 36th in the Fabric series, but it's comprised entirely of Villalobos' own new tracks. To all intents and purposes it is his third album; uncomfortable with his own reputation, though, Villalobos has opted to release it in this way so as to avoid excessive hype. It is a revelation: Villalobos spends the first quarter gently easing the listener into his mind, skeletal rhythms weaving in between each other without ever impinging themselves too heavily; slowly but surely, though, he begins to pull out his tricks and the madness begins to set in.

The 12-minute centrepiece, Andruic & Japan, is a riot of thunderous tribal drums and what appears to be a lone female voice (in actual fact the voices of Villalobos and a friend fed through a machine) that begins conversationally, and ends up in an insane rant about chicken giblets. Dark, unsettling, and possibly enough to induce psychosis on the dancefloor, the album finally breaks into the light with the gloriously sunny Primer Encuentro Latino-Americano, based on a traditional Chilean folk song.

Villalobos and Jonson are good friends, but their attitudes to their art could not be more different. Villalobos is, to put it bluntly, a renowned party freak: in most pictures he is dishevelled, wild-haired and wild-eyed. I interview him a week before his girlfriend gives birth to their first child; when asked how his lifestyle will be affected, he sighs deeply before replying, "I guess I will have to go home after the first afterparty instead of the fifth."

He rhapsodises about partying endlessly - "I try not to miss a single opportunity for happiness" - and casts his hedonistic lifestyle as a political act: "We are living in one of the most unjust situations in human rights in the history of all humanity. It is a bad energy which is taking control of the world, like cancer. It's important to find the little light in between all this blackness, to find your space and fight for your right to party, to build up a worldwide net of people who want to have a good time and to forget reality for a while. I try to deliver the music to make the quality of escape better."

Jonson, on the other hand, is more introspective. He talks at length about how the process of production is an attempt to recreate the music in his head: "If I go into a museum or art gallery, I'll hear music in my head - not a song, but a non-stop progression in real time. Often I hear something in my head which is far better than anything I could conceptualise or write ... I'm hoping as I get older I'll be better able to capture that." Until recently he based himself in Vancouver rather than Berlin for artistic reasons: "In a city which doesn't have a club scene, I find that more creative - because there's less to do, all the musicians are hanging out with each other and making music. And I don't really take inspiration from clubs - nature inspires me. Art, architecture, the weather inspires me. And girls."

What both agree on, however, is that at the heart of minimal techno is a yearning for liberation. Returning to the theme of location, it is no coincidence that postcommunist Berlin has become the scene's hub, or that Villalobos pinpoints Romania as the country most likely to produce the next generation of techno leaders. Hedonistic freedom will always hold special significance for those who have known the absolute lack of any freedom: Villalobos himself, an exile from Pinochet's regime in Chile, identifies with that idea, while Ellen Allien, the founder of the Bpitch Control label, pinpoints the moment when the Berlin Wall came down as the key to her work. In minimal techno, what is not in the music can be as important as what is there: the gaps in between the beats and the melodies provide the spaces in which the dancers can find liberation, to free their minds by losing them. Villalobos smiles, and says merely: "That freedom is what I want to give to everyone."

2 AM/FM , 2 Dollar Egg , 2 Dollar Egg / Akufen / Decomp , 2 Dollar Egg / Plastikman , 2000 & One , 2000 and One , 2AM/FM , 3 Channels , A. 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for another minimal techno article, see


  • humeka

    [quote]Now, minimal is an umbrella term covering a massive swathe of house and techno - much to the annoyance of dance connoisseurs, whose second favourite activity after dancing to techno is semantic hair-splitting, and who cannot bear to see the label minimal stuck on music they think does not merit it.[/quote] I think what's happening to minimal music/term is reserved to major styles. Techno or house followed exactly the same path... It's funny to notice that when 2 persons talk about techno today, they don't necessarily talk about the same music. I suppose this will also happen to minimal. Or did it already?

    4 Oct 2007, 9:46
  • Nectar_Card

    hmmmm, I still think of minimal techno as a subset of techno (like deep house is a subset of house). But I do think minimal techno is a pretty distinct form of techno eg compare my techno radio with my minimal techno radio. I think traditional techno as a style is fairly well established, whereas minimal (mnml?) is still taking on new ideas. The two will probably keep diverging, particularly as minimal techno takes on influences from other styles like dubstep

    4 Oct 2007, 11:45
  • humeka

    I agree with you concerning the subgenre. also for the influence from dubstep... but I think field recordings, musique concréte and electro-acoustic music have more to offer (and are offering more already) to minimal technno. your opinion? but, IMHO, dubstep is more a british thing than a continental one (but I'm maybe wrong cause I don't really this genre) and therefore might influence minimal techno in GB more than elsewhere.

    4 Oct 2007, 14:42
  • Fonque

    *lol* 200.000 connections. Hugg & Pepp are so so fucking minimal...

    4 Oct 2007, 16:59
  • Nectar_Card

    I think the good thing about minimal is that its still taking on new influences rather than having a set way of doing things. Dubstep brings that deep sub-bass sound and sound design element. see Blood on My Hands (Ricardo Villalobos Apocalypso Now mix). Anything that adds to the genre and keeps it fresh is a good thing.

    4 Oct 2007, 20:31
  • Babs_05

    Good journal, Nectar_Card, thanks. Bookmarked so I can come back and try the radio. : )

    11 Oct 2007, 14:24
  • winno

    what is the difference between microhouse and minimal techno.

    13 Oct 2007, 1:24
  • TowerU

    Fantastic article, thank you very much. As a 90's trance enthusiast I find it rather difficult to keep up with how the recent scenes evolve, also because much of what is considered minimal doesn't really appeal to me. Or maybe because I haven't heard enough of it, because a couple of leading names really do have the ability to catch my ear. What I think is funny (maybe it's just an idea I have) is that minimal seems to move back to the roots of house, to no wave and to what Frankie Knuckles used to play way back in the early 80's, but without really realizing it. I see several artists drawing from the 90's (Modeselektor for example, even though they're not really minimal, a statement which we will not discuss because we would get carried away as we both know), but I have yet to meet the first minimal artist who clearly draws from the early 80's. May be just an impression. As to the difference between microhouse and minimal techno, I'd say melody. Traditionally, has has a more melodic, jazzier sound. More soul, if you will. Techno has always been more about the beat and it's structure. I'm not really sure with everything being tagged minimal nowadays whether that difference would still work, but in my own set of tags (no, don't look in my profile, I haven't got any tags there, I mean those in my head I use for myself) it does.

    14 Oct 2007, 2:15
  • Nectar_Card

    [i]what is the difference between microhouse and minimal techno?[/i] I personally think not much really, production values & ethos are pretty similar, except that micro-house uses the standard house boom-tiss boom-tiss 4x4 rhythm sound whereas minimal techno uses rhythms developed from techno. The difference between house and techno is a different thing and is pretty much one of melody & rhythm as Tower U says.

    14 Oct 2007, 10:30
  • strict

    nice article. it's rare for me to read a post this long till the end. looking forward for your radio stations!

    17 Oct 2007, 13:28
  • chicken_dance

    what is the difference between microhouse and minimal techno? you can play a microhouse tune in a club only in berlin.

    30 Oct 2007, 23:24
  • farangstar

    amazing article. thank you for this.

    31 Oct 2007, 16:18
  • anymany

    thanks for the profound article. i'm happy to find it

    4 Nov 2007, 20:38
  • ToolTech

    oh.. nice informations. thx for that

    11 Nov 2007, 22:31
  • HappiDude

    Fantastic article, an absolute pleasure to read, especially for someone who's very new to electronic music. I'll be sure to book mark this for future reference.

    18 Nov 2007, 3:56
  • RaveMind

    Impressive article. I'm both shocked and impressed by this minimal evolution. How come although we continuously advance in technology we refuse to create tracks that have a complex form? I'm a huge minimal/techno fan myself, although sometimes I'm just wondering ok, so we have some drums and a sampler with a bass and bleep in it. Add some effects. How many tracks can you come up with? My question to you, Nectar_Card, is: Where will this lead us to? What will be the next best thing? And, more importantly, when?

    19 Nov 2007, 20:33
  • Nectar_Card

    RaveMind: Less is more

    20 Nov 2007, 22:23
  • Turbburgler

    Thanks for the articel.

    19 Sep 2008, 12:40
  • cainmac

    Nice Article!!! Here's one of my DJ sets that includes many of these artists:

    30 Dic 2009, 4:52
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