Available on: m=minimal

From where I’m sitting, Ricardo Villalobos is a pretty unfashionable figure right now. Berlin, like much of the dance music underground, is currently ruled by an altogether more libidinous beast – the raging eroticism-going-on-violence of Shed and the Berghain set; the gratifyingly soulful emanations coming out of Panorama Bar. By comparison, the Chilean-German’s pristine digital epics can tend to feel a bit, well, sterile. It’s easy to forget that his music can actually be, and often is, sexy – gratification delayed to a tantric degree, a celebration of the sensuousness found in the synthetic.

Still, you can’t deny that the producer’s ideas have begun to feel a little less exciting over the last few years. Where they’re not just drily functional, latter day Villalobos productions tend to pander wholeheartedly to the Escher-like logic of the K-hole – no bad thing in itself, but a thoroughly well-explored formula at this point. There’s a sense that what was once a restless imagination has been succeeded by an acute awareness of style – this is “my” sound, and I’m gonna stick to it.

Last year’s Re: ECM – an album of reworkings of music from the ECM catalogue, executed by Villalobos and collaborator Max Loderbauer (of NSI) – was an interesting departure, but had a whiff of drawbridge-lifting about it: a retreat into the quasi-academic, hermetic world that seems to appeal to so many of techno’s revered veterans. Still, given Villalobos’ knack for blending the fulsomely acoustic with the brazenly electronic (check out the spectacular, bewildering ‘Andruic & Japan’ from 2007’s Fabric 36), giving him free reign with such an illustrious archive was an undeniably smart move.

A move that’s mirrored in Zug (Reshaped & Remodeled), in which Villalobos and Loderbauer are invited to do their worst to the arid synth impressionism of Conrad Schnitzler’s 1978 epic. It’s the second time the track has appeared on the M=minimal label (the first, in 2010, featured the 20 minute original with remixes from Pole and label bosses Borngräber & Strüver), and a further acknowledgment of the huge debt owed to Schnitzler by today’s electronic underground. But it’s also – given Villalobos and Loderbauer’s fine remixing form – an opportunity to tease out the richnesses of the original, reframe it for a new audience and in the process perhaps present this unremittingly austere music in a new light.

The two versions presented here seem intent on covering all bases. The ‘Aktion’ mix, as the name might suggest, is clearly intended for club use. It leans closer to the DJ-tool end of Villalobos’ output, but even by his standards its drum machine skip is brittle and staid, lacking that much needed inventive spark. The way Schnitzler’s plangent tones are draped over the percussive chassis seems to suck the potency out of them – what in the original context was visceral and alien becomes an anodyne mood-cultivator, grist for the techno-atmospheric mill. Miniscule details, presumably re-appropriated from the original, do get introduced as we progress – volatile, strained chord stabs; a sound like a tap dripping on the inside of a metal bath – but they lack the dynamism needed to redeem things.

The ‘Sorgenkind’ mix is far more interesting. It opens in volatile stasis, an agglomeration of parts jostling for textural dominance. Digital clicks, bursts of processed sound and a ponderous, quasi-melodic sub line circle each other, drifting out of phase, inviting the techno-entrained brain to feverishly locate the beat in several places at once. Those synth drones, placed higher in the mix, pulse balefully – later on, tiny clusters of sine tones gather and disperse, sounding a bit like a modem dialing up. As the tension builds, a rhythm of sorts does start to cut through – but the expected thud-thud-thud never comes, perhaps an acknowledgement that in this case it would only serve to tame things, not emancipate them. The result may not rely on the tried and true logic of kickdrum-as-carrier wave, but it still has the hallucinatory intensity of Villalobos at his dancefloor best.

With a new solo single out in ‘Any Ideas’ (though, to be honest, it’s no great shakes) and an album due on Perlon in the summer, Villalobos looks set to make a partial return this year after a period of production inactivity. To an optimist, this record might suggest that the outcome could be a pleasant surprise. Alternatively, of course, it’s quite possible that Loderbauer is the essential ingredient here. Either way, Zug (Reshaped & Remodelled) – or half of it, at least – is a notable landmark in an ever-expanding discography, and a worthy record of what’s proving to be an impressively fruitful collaboration.

Angus Finlayson

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