I had to laugh earlier this week, when sorting through some old vinyl. Came across this compilation called Teutonic Beats - Opus 2, released on E'G Records way back in the dark ages (1989, to be precise). E'G was a decent art rock sub-label of Virgin Records, set up in the seventies to release music by acts like Roxy Music, Brian Eno, King Crimson and, later on, Killing Joke. The Joke's roadie was a guy called Alex Patterson, who as we all know would later achieve huge success with ambient-house pioneers The Orb. He gets a mention on the credits for this compilation, so I assume he had a hand in compiling it. There's a really good reason why I haven't played this record for many years: it's not that great. Apart from the fact that it was made back in the days when it was acceptable to cram ten tracks onto a single piece of vinyl, the music on offer gives absolutely no hint of the colossal influence the Germans would bring to bear on Techno in the following decade. Despite contributions from Westbam and Thomas Fehlmann, the collection lacks any kind of defining character or sense of direction, being merely a stylistic mish-mash that freely pillages from the easy-going hip-house styles emanating from the UK at that time, with a dash of Belgian New Beat.
But what really made me chuckle was spotting the name Von Oswald in the writing credits for a couple of tracks. A quick bit of research revealed that this was in fact Moritz Von Oswold, aka Maurizio, aka one half of Basic Channel and Rhythm & Sound, undoubtedly one of the most influential producers to emerge from the Berlin school in the past fifteen years. Listening to 'Love Park', recorded under the Marathon alias with his then partner Ralf Hertwig, it's hard to believe that just four years later he'd be releasing seminal Basic Channel tracks like 'Phylyps' onto an unsuspecting world. I don't think this necessarily reflects badly on Von Oswold as an individual, but it does help to illustrate the sort of gigantic leaps that were being made all over the continent during that incredible time. Compare the 'cutting edge' dance music of 1989 with that of 1993, and it barely recognisable.
By the mid-90s, Von Oswald had perfected a kind of stripped-down, dubbed-out techno that's still inspiring producers today. With tracks like 'M6', all the activity happens at close quarters: the barest fluctuation in equalization...a minor percussive flutter in the distance...the more you focus inward the more information the rhythm yields. Then pull-back and view the track as a whole and it becomes a serene, tranquilizing wash of pure 'rhythm and sound'. To quote Eno's definition of ambient music, it really is as 'ignorable as it is interesting'; the onus is on the listener to decide what level of attention he or she is prepared to devote to it. From a dj's point of view, these sort of tracks make excellent mixing tools: their gradually evolving nature, coupled with extended duration, providing acres of creative space for prolonged beat-matching excursions, and certainly useful in a three deck situation, one would assume.
For the past decade, Von Oswald and his partner Mark Ernestus have been moving ever nearer to pure dub; as likely to create some fearfully empty extended instrumental as they are to construct a more concise, accessible vocal track, working with the cream of Berlin-based roots reggae vocalists. But always at the core is that minimal intent, combined with arcane recording techniques, whereby the tracks are artificially 'aged' through some kind of analogue mangling process, piling on the tape compression and noise levels until the music sounds buried, oxidized, calcified - 'Burial Mixes', indeed!. For the uninitiated, a good place to start exploring would be the "With The Artists", "The Versions" and "See Mi Ya" collected works. The latter is the most recent - an exercise in constructing a 'one riddim' project, an old Jamaican ploy whereby various singers record their own vocal versions over the same backing track. Serious converts should head for the 7x7" collected package, which includes some addition dubs (but don't believe anybody who describes it as a 'box set' - it's just seven singles in plain white bags sandwiched between two pieces of card, which, unless you're not intending to break the shrink-wrap, needs to be held together with an elastic band!).