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Anonymous techno

The faceless techno bollocks are back

Richard Brophy Anonymous technoBack in the early 1990s, when rock critics were trying to comprehend the seemingly infinite stream of white label techno records that were appearing in their post boxes, they coined the phrase “faceless techno bollocks”. In three short words, the music media was articulating it’s inability to understand this new form of music, made by producers who had the audacity not to arrive packaged by a stylist, promoted by a publicist and signed by a coke-snorting label executive. This dismissive phrase was an effort to downplay the importance and significance of music made by artists who wanted to remain anonymous. “Faceless techno bollocks” was, in essence, a music industry slogan used to deride something that it could neither understand nor control.

How times change: fast forward five years from the first techno invasion and the badge of anonymity had become synonymous with integrity and artistic endeavor rather than a perceived image shortfall. At a time when big name DJs had become the pop stars du jour, picking up five figure fees for spinning in a superclub for a few hours, artists like Drexciya, Basic Channel and Underground Resistance/Red Planet pushed in the opposite direction, making epoch-defining electro and techno but keeping their identity a mystery.

However, the decision to remain anonymous predated the white label culture of the early 1990s and could be traced back to Detroit’s seminal radio DJ Electrifying Mojo, who despite his massive popularity in the 1980s, decided to eschew promotional photos. The Motor City’s Underground Resistance collective used this approach in a more concerted manner, avoiding interviews and press shots. Indeed, UR’s only means of communication with the outside world, apart from the music itself, were messages printed on the inlays and etched into the run-out grooves of their records. In a move that would certainly have enraged the rockists had they still listened to techno music, Germany’s Basic Channel translated the notion of a faceless act to the live setting when they performed live behind a curtain at London techno club Lost during the mid-1990s. Fast forward another ten years to the mid-noughties and it had become clear that while download culture had brought techno to every corner in the globe, the music’s sense of mystery and by default, part of its allure, had become submerged, lost in the digital tsunami.So while legal download sites guaranteed a form of cultural democracy, making every release available to all, there was also a concurrent push to “market” techno to the masses. Early technology adopters like Richie Hawtin sold a vision of digital DJing using a variety of platforms during this period, and the Canadian techno DJ/producer even developed performance-based concepts like The Cube, which cast his Minus artists as “Star Wars”-esque characters. Hawtin goes as far to start tweeting each track he played at clubs, just in case anyone is still hungry for more information.It is hardly surprising that there has been a reaction to the digital data overload and attempts to cast techno DJs as Hollywood titans, or that this unwitting backlash centered on the kind of anonymous, hand-stamped vinyl format that first elicited the “faceless techno bollocks” charge from jaded critics in the early 1990s. What is perhaps more surprising is that “anonymous techno” has gradually and stealthily arrived at electronic music’s centre stage again and has been one of the defining trends in electronic music for the past few years. In an age of high-speed internet connections and multi-platform devices, this seems like an anomaly. What could have prompted a vinyl-focused cluster of labels and artists to make such an impression?It’s tempting to posit that the rise and rise of anonymous techno is a reaction against the image-conscious mnml explosion of the early to late noughties. The argument goes that faced with techno’s propulsion into the mainstream, many producers and DJs simply decided to go the other way and choose anonymity and mystery. Certainly, there is a case for such an argument when one considers that a slew of anonymous, hand-stamped labels –take your pick from Traversable Wormhole; Horizontal Ground / Frozen Border; Ancient Methods; Skudge; Seldom Felt and Wax/Equalized– have appeared in recent years. However, it doesn’t automatically follow that there was a deliberate return to anonymous techno due to the proliferation of attention-grabbing mnml. German producer Redshape has been making music and performing live from behind a red plastic mask for the past five years and yet even before he rose to prominence, Sleeparchive was issuing his bleep-heavy, Sähkö-inspired techno on hand-stamped vinyl via Berlin’s Hardwax store. While not seeking to his identity, the producer behind Sleeparchive, Roger Semsroth, didn’t exactly court publicity either and for a while, it was rumoured that Richie Hawtin was responsible for the project.The argument that anonymous techno was a deliberate reaction against mnml is weakened further by the fact that the Pom Pom project has been churning out visceral techno records via Hardwax since 2001. Delivered in black sleeves and containing no information apart from the catalogue number, the series reached its 33rd instalment this year. Here too there are anomalies and contradictions: Pom Pom isn’t all about relentless purist techno, and the most recent double pack featured tracks that made nods to Italo Disco, electro and deep house. Indeed, some of those producers who make and release “anonymous techno” cite Hardwax and Berlin club Berghain as being the drivers of the trend..

“I would definitely agree that there is a connection to the Hardwax shop as that is where they are mostly to be found first,” says 19.26.1.18.5, who released on the Horizontal Ground label, while veteran techno producer Adam X, who released the Traversable Wormhole series last year, cites Berghain and the focus and passion of its residents, Ben Klock, Marcel Dettmann and Norman Nodge for classic techno and the vinyl format as the underlying support mechanism for the recent wave of anonymous techno. “There has been a big change in the techno scene in the past few years and it all goes back to Berghain,” says Adam. “There is a feeling in Berghain that it is different from the rest of the techno scene, that it is something new, a change from, without naming names, the same people who had been doing the same thing for 10 years. Really, this is what techno is all about - it’s not about big-name DJs getting paid 10,000 dollars to spin - and it took some of the older people and some newer artists to remind us of that. I also have to give props to Redshape, Function and Sleeparchive, because although they are not all completely anonymous, they were doing that kind of music during a more difficult period, when mnml was really big.”It’s something that Swedish duo Skudge agree with. They have released just a handful of acclaimed records that inhabit the grey zone between house and techno, but for them, anonymity is part of the essence of techno music. “We choose to be anonymous because we want the listeners to put focus on our music and not our personalities. For us the music speaks for itself,” they say. This notion of the music being bigger than the artist is of course the antithesis of everything that the music industry stands for and is possibly one of the reasons why the ‘faceless techno bollocks’ tag came about in the first place.Could it be that anonymity is more appealing to techno audiences than knowing everything about the person who made their favourite record? 19.26.1.18.5 seems to think so: “Mystery is always more romantic than reality, and nobody can, in person, do justice to the music they make,” he feels. “Producers in person are just humans like anyone else, but when music is released anonymously it allows them to transmit something to people without any of that baggage.” In so doing, the current wave of anonymous producers are following in the tradition of Detroit techno acts like Drexciya and Red Planet who wanted to keep the focus on the music, but who also used their art as a form of escapism from their dystopian surroundings and often humdrum existence.

Speaking to this writer last year, Redshape said that wearing a mask and projecting an alternative persona gave him the freedom to do what he wanted creatively. “I just produce what I love without having to tell anyone, which generates a feeling of freedom. For an artist, this is very liberating and creative, that I can do whatever I like and put it out,” he said. “It feels like a real, personal artistic statement, especially as everyone is talking nowadays about identity and who you are. Being Redshape just lets me focus on the music.”

It’s not just Detroit producers’ propensity for alter egos that plays a prominent role in the current wave of anonymous techno: listen to the “Lost Trax” series and you’ll hear the spirit of Underground Resistance circa “The Final Frontier” striving to be heard. Meanwhile, the Horizontal Ground / Frozen Border labels make frequent reference to minimalists like Robert Hood and Daniel Bell –the latest, sixth Horizontal Ground instalment sounds like classic DBX–, Redshape’s full-blooded basslines and menacing synths are inspired by vintage Carl Craig, Shed’s Equalized series sounds like it revisits early 90s break beat techno acts like In Sync and both Sleeparchive and Sandwell District draw heavily on the bleepy minimalism of Sähkö. Does this mean that modern-day anonymous techno is nothing more than a rehash of former glories?

Skudge admit, “we have been more or less influenced by the music from Basic Channel and other 1990s techno artists” and that “you can hear it in a lot of the music being these days, that it has been influenced by older styles of techno and house.” However, they disagree that their music is nothing more than a straight-up recycling of classic sounds – “We always try to make music that sounds like a mixture between the old and the new,” they claim. 19.26.1.18.5 goes further and sees that the hand-stamped format and anonymity are merely frameworks through which producers can be more adventurous. “The sounds are disparate and diverse actually. Seldom Felt and Equalized: I feel these labels are totally different aside from the fact they are plain hand-stamped white labels. The connecting bond is not necessarily sonic, the stripped-back aesthetic does not necessitate stripped-back music,” he says.

Seen from another perspective, the tendency towards hand-stamped releases has also allowed producers known for a particular style the freedom to explore different avenues. It’s one of the main reasons why Adam X says he set up Traversable Wormhole. “The great thing about this anonymous techno is that it is letting newer people and producers who have been around for a while reinvent themselves,” Adam believes. “I had done a bunch of techno tracks, but there was a stigma attached to me because I was associated with the industrial scene. It’s hard to get people to think outside the box and the people who weren’t hearing me DJ were making assumptions about me and I had got a little frustrated.”On a visit to Rubadub in Glasgow, Adam saw the Seldom Felt records and decided to release his new material under the Traversable Wormhole guise. “The funny thing was, I had given the Traversable Wormhole music to people who knew it was me and they had kinda ignored it, and then when they heard it when it was released as Traversable Wormhole, they loved it,” he recalls. Adam feels that his newfound anonymity allowed him to make more esoteric techno as well as the dubstep meets broken beats that featured on each Traversable Wormhole B-side. While Adam eventually decided that he wanted to reveal his identity and Skudge make the cryptic claim that “we neither try to hide or expose ourselves,” there are others who want to preserve their anonymity, and no amount of internet trawling returns anything other than basic release information about Lost Trax, Pom Pom, Seldom Felt and the Horizontal Ground / Frozen Border axis.

Call it a reaction against the internet’s vast information resources or just an extension of the “mystery” that Redshape spoke about earlier, but no matter what the explanation, this loosely grouped collection of anonymous artists and labels show that there is a tendency to switch off from the incessant forward march of new technology. “It's more easy these days to find out about an artist who he / she is and where they come from,” say Skudge, while 19.26.1.18.5 adds: “The internet age has made it a lot harder for secrets to stay secret and for mysteries to be enjoyed for what they are. Anyone that wants to find out something usually can nowadays, and I think keeping things as minimal as possible with what, besides the music, you give to people, helps to keep the focus away from the artist. As for Frozen Border, it is as mysterious to me as it is to you, but really it's quite simple: A label open to submissions, that releases tracks it likes. Nothing else connects the artists that have released through it except that fact.”

Part of the shift away from technology involves a focus on vinyl. Adam X believes that after the best part of a decade, there is “download fatigue” –is this claim borne out by the fact that newer acts like Skudge run a vinyl-only label? “We release only on vinyl because we think it's more fun, and it is a piece of art,” they say, while 19.26.1.18.5 says the choice of format is due to sonic concerns and not the result of a thought out manifesto. “Vinyl just sounds the best, it's a sonic choice, not a political one. I'm not against digital. It just doesn't sound as good. Period.”So, while it may sound like a contrarian act to mask your identity and release exclusively on vinyl in 2010, seen from a more cynical viewpoint, such behaviour could be viewed as the ultimate in anti-marketing marketing. In “Techno Rebels”, Dan Sicko believes that there was a belief in Detroit that UR’s mysterious, anonymous image was itself a strong selling point. “Some describe the UR mystique as ‘mythology’, suggesting that all of its stances and mandates were part of a larger anti-marketing marketing scheme and should therefore be questioned. But the term also implies that somewhere, someone believed in what was going on… It gave UR the upper hand when marketing to and dealing with larger labels.”

If this approach is applied to a contemporary setting, what better way to distinguish yourself from the hundreds and thousands of digital-only releases vying for attention every week? Adam X believes that the Traversable Wormhole project won him a lot of attention both among electronic music’s mainstream and in the techno underground. While Skudge claim that “for us it's not about marketing”, they also admit that “yes of course people get more curious, and want to know who is behind it.” However, 19.26.1.18.5 thinks that the concept of “anti-marketing marketing” is yet another media creation and that it is “not something that is being used cynically to generate hype... because you're foregoing the personal praise non-anonymous producers might gain for themselves.” He then offers the following insight into modern-day techno anonymity: “It's important to state that we are not strictly anonymous, but rather, we are just unknown, a mere grain of sand on the beach. We've done some shows and we don't wear masks or anything, but just go back to our boring day jobs afterwards where nobody cares about niche dance music.”

Faceless Nation: A guide to anonymous techno Traversable Wormhole: Featuring deep, tripped out techno on one side and spacey bass music on the flip, Traversable Wormhole aka Adam X released a series of five vinyl EPs in 2009 which captured the imagination of techno and dubstep DJs alike. 2010 saw Chris Liebing’s CLR release the EPs as a mixed CD and commission techno producers like Marcel Dettmann, Sleeparchive, Peter Van Hoesen and Surgeon to provide remixes.

Frozen Border / Horizontal Ground: Starting in 2009 with the deep chord techno of “Frozen Border 1”, this mysterious double label act boasts the metallic drums of Berghain, Basic Channel’s cavernous dub, the killer subs of UK bass and the stripped back minimalism of DBX and Rob Hood. While Horizontal Ground was started last year as an outlet to bring other producers Frozen Border admired into the fold, both labels now enjoy a considerable reputation for releasing the finest contemporary techno. Lost Trax: Lost Trax is probably one of the most mysterious anonymous techno series. Responsible for just two EPs in the past four years, Lost Trax first appeared in 2006 on Daz Quayle’s SCSI-AV electro label with “The Saturiun System”, a brilliantly grandiose slice of early UR electro-techno. Lost Trax recently released the follow-up, “Lost Trax 2”, a string and 303-soaked epic that would make Mad Mike jealous. Seldom Felt: Dating back to 2007, Seldom Felt was one of the first of the new wave of hand-stamped anonymous labels. No one is sure who is responsible for the series, but it’s followers do know that the series has provided them with slamming techno, gurgling acid trax and even some cut-up loopy house action. Redshape: The German producer has been releasing killer deep techno since 2006 for labels like Delsin, Styrax Leaves and his own Present. Based on resonating basslines and swirling, moody synths, Redshape’s sound is both atmospheric and dance floor friendly. Last year, he released an acclaimed debut album, “The Dance Paradox”, which saw him adopt a more diverse approach. In order to shield his identity, Redshape performs live from behind a red plastic mask. Sleeparchive: Since the middle of the last decade, Roger Semsroth has been putting out bleepy, repetitive techno as Sleeparchive. Predating the current penchant for hand-stamped vinyl, the Sleeparchive releases fuse the atonal nature of Sähkö with the unflinching relentlessness of classic US minimalism. Semsroth also works under a variety of other names, including Skanfrom, and has released noise and abstract projects, but it’s his hypnotic techno that he’s still best known for. Sandwell District: One of the best outlets for contemporary techno, Regis, Function and Silent Servant regard Sandwell District more as a collection of friends than a label per se. Eschewing MySpace and Facebook –although they have a nifty website, wherenext.tumblr.com– Sandwell’s music veers from Silent Servant’s chord-heavy club grooves to Function’s repetitive bleeps and reverberating claps and Regis’s skewed, metallic rhythms. Having played a headline slot at Sonar’s main stage this year, they are about to release their hugely anticipated debut album. Wax/Equalized: The playthings of acclaimed German producer Shed aka René Pawlowitz, these two hand-stamped, anonymous looking labels have won him as much acclaim as his long players for Ostgut. The Wax sound ranges from US deep house to broken beat, chord heavy techno, while Equalized focuses on repetitive Detroit tracks and spine tingling break beat monsters like the B side of “Equalized 2”.

Pom Pom: The longest running anonymous techno series, Pom Pom has been putting out music for the past nine years and its untitled catalogue has reached number 33. Pom Pom is said to be based in Berlin, but the hasn’t limited itself to one sound, and over the years has alternated between house, electronic disco, Kompakt-style party tunes, grinding techno and even the occasional electro jam. However, Pom Pom’s music features a grimy, visceral approach, which makes it feel like each track is caked in six inches of dance floor grime. The Nursing Home label is also affiliated with Pom Pom. Skudge: The work of two unnamed Swedish producers, Skudge have only released three EPs of original material on their self-titled label this year. However, their mixture of housey loops and Basic Channel dub has won them support far and wide, with bookings in some of Europe’s best clubs and Aardvarck, Aubrey and Berghain resident Marcel Fengler remixing them.

Ancient Methods: One of the most popular anonymous series, Ancient Methods has yielded just five EPs since 2007, but it’s definitely a case of quality of quantity. The work of German duo Baeks and Trias, their combination of broken beat techno, some of the most evil basslines in techno and a strong industrial aesthetic ensure that the series has a “buy on sight” value for many DJs.

Anonymous techno: the DJ mix

As goes with being anonymous, most of this techno cannot be seen, met or greeted, but it can be listened to – and that’s what it was made for. Richard Brophy himself has put together some of the most crucial tracks of this new faceless techno trend and mixed them together in an electrifying set. Want a good piece of advice? Grab it now.01. “Wax 30003A” (Wax)02. Skudge: “Mirage” (Skudge)03. Frozen Border: “5A” (Frozen Border)04. Frozen Border: “6B” (Frozen Border)05. Silent Servant: “Discipline” (Sandwell District)06. Silent Servant: “La Violencia (Function Remix)” (Historia Y Violencia)07. Equalized: “2A” (Equalized)08. “Horizontal Ground 1A” (Horizontal Ground)09. Reality Or Nothing: “Function Remix” (RSB)10. Sleeparchive: “Hospital Track 4” (Sleeparchive)11. Traversable Wormhole: “Exotic Manner” (Traversable Wormhole)12. N/A: “Function Edit” (Sandwell District)13. Kalon: “Man Is The Superior Animal” (Sandwell District)14. Seldom Felt: “3A” (Seldom Felt)15. “Horizontal Ground 6A” (Horizontal Ground)16. Frozen Border: “4B” (Frozen Border)17. “Wax 20002B” (Wax)18. Traversable Wormhole: “When 2D Meets 3D (Peter Van Hoesen Remix)” (CLR)19. Equalized: “3B” (Equalized)20. Function: “Disaffected (Ben Klock Remix)” (Sandwell District)21. Silent Servant: “Doom Deferred” (Sandwell District)22. Frozen Border: “1B” (Frozen Border)23. Function: “Isolation” (Sandwell District)24. SP-X: “SP-17” (Komisch)25. Equalized: “1B” (Equalized)26. Redshape: “What's On A Moog's Mind?” (Figure)27. Basic Channel: “Q1.1” (Basic Channel)28. Pom Pom: “33A2” (Pom Pom)29. Pom Pom: “33D2” (Pom Pom)30. Lost Trax: “The Saturiun System” (SCSI-AV)

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