<em>Alcachofa</em> at 10: in praise of Ricardo Villalobos' minimal techno masterwork

It’s been a whole ten years since the release of Ricardo Villalobos’ Alcachofa, yet, were it to be released today, it’d still sound way ahead of its time.

This is, for now, perhaps Villalobos’ best work – a bold, dense reimagining of what dance music and pop melodies could be. It’s a totally uncompromising record that sent Villalobos on an improbable journey towards being a global cult star. Very little about this record makes any regular kind of sense.

Like many people, my introduction to this record was through ‘Easy Lee’ – the first track on Alcachofa – appearing on a Michael Mayer mix. It’s a droning sing-song track, fiercely serrated by being put through a distorted vocoder. I immediately went to check the stereo, absolutely convinced that it was broken. I’m sure it’s a cliché, but this music sounds like drugs – very strong drugs – feel. There are superficially familiar elements (that vocoder, clipped boom-bap beats), but they’re all arranged with a Cubist disregard for normal placement. They sound like they’re coated with sand, rivers of mud and grit flowing out of the speakers. This was radical stuff – I bought the record as soon as possible.

Alcachofa (artichoke, in Spanish) is deeply alien. It sounds like it came from nowhere, with no ancestors. And, in one sense, it did. Listen back to the stuff that Villalobos was making pre-Alcachofa, such as ‘Que Belle Epoque’ or (perhaps his biggest early track) ‘808 The Bass Queen’, and it’s pretty standard-issue slinky minimal house. Good – really good in fact – but also fairly familiar. And then he drops Alcachofa: this insane masterpiece that tears electronic music apart and obsessively stitches it back together in a whole new way. It’s like, I don’t know, John Le Carré going away for a few months and coming back having written Naked Lunch. Seriously, what happened to this guy?

“On his day, he was perhaps the only bona fide genius in a minimal scene full of fakes, copyists and careerists.”

And the answer is – as far as we can infer from interviews – he spent a load of time, holed up in his studio, making music pretty much constantly, going deeper and deeper down the rabbit hole. Certainly, Alcachofa feels like art that has become unmoored from the outside world. It has that unique weirdness that can only really come from going far into your own thought processes, bouncing ideas against each other over and over again, until they become something wholly new, a kind of private language. The album marked Villalobos’ emergence as a kind of auteur-genius, presenting a totally realized personal vision. Subsequent records have seen him refine and develop this vision further, but it’s still the same basic sonic vocabulary that burst into life with Alcachofa. It’s his year zero.

But for all its experimentalism, Alcachofa is at heart an hedonistic record, aimed right at your pleasure centres. Just check those moments where ‘Waiwaroninao’ swings upwards into the guitar-led crescendos, carrying you along with its rush of momentum. Or the truly beautiful ‘Dexter’, with its melody falling slowly through deep space. I always thought it’d be the perfect soundtrack to watching shooting stars. Listening back to the album after a while, it’s remarkable just how much of it is instantly recognizable, and triggers really strong memories. These are proper earworms, and Alcachofa often works as a vision of  what pop music might sound like in the far future. Throughout the record, the percussion itself often plays a melody, intertwining with the bassline – like with, say, Shangaan electro stuff, the usual barriers between the lead melodies and the underlying beats frequently breaks down. For all Villalobos’ reputation as a producer of long, sometimes impenetrable percussion workouts, there’s always been a lightness and melodic sensibility in his music – and Alcachofa is full of moments of sparkling beauty.

There’s another part of Villalobos’ reputation, of course – as an icon of the mid-00s minimal scene, the object of slightly unsettling reverence from a group of people who stayed up way, way, too long and wore sunglasses and unfortunate scarves in clubs.  He repeatedly emphasized that it was all about the music, but increasingly a cult of personality grew up around him. Partly that’s because, in a very hard-partying scene, he was very clearly living the lifestyle. He’d turn up at after-parties in places like the now extinct T-Bar in East London, and stay there till the bitter end, and miss gigs because he was still at a seemingly never-ending party in another part of the world. Look at the bags under eyes from that period and shudder.

Minimal is a dirty word, these days – and things did go pretty shit back then. Innovators like Villalobos unwittingly created a monster, with hundreds jumping on the bandwagon to make utterly terrible music. Many clubs, and many tracks, were a joyless grind – ‘dance’ music whittled down to a funkless soundtrack to hedonism and posing. Much of it was music for high-end interior design showrooms, really – and truth be told, even some of Villalobos’ sets back then were pretty dodgy. Eventually we all woke up, blinked at the light, and realized that we weren’t having any fun anymore. I’m sure a fair number of people dismiss Villalobos because of his connections with that period in techno history, but that’s unfair. On his day, he was perhaps the only bona fide genius in a minimal scene full of fakes, copyists and careerists.

Indeed, even calling Alcachofa “minimal” is off the mark. It’s a hot, lush record, sprawling outwards and tangling itself together with tropical fecundity. A world away from the dry clicks and scrapes of stereotypical minimal, Alcachofa feels organic – full of bubbles, coughs, wet slipping and slapping sounds. Listening back to it, now removed from the context of minimal techno, it’s remarkable how much of it is like a skewed, futuristic take on dub. Just listen to ‘I Try To Live (Can I Live)’, for example, the smears of vocals and hissing percussion blowing around an acid bassline that’s been decayed into creaking, snapping leather. This is music that shifts, breathes, throbs – mixing-desk psychedelia that carries the feeling of classic dub but, unlike Basic Channel-style dub-techno, few of the sonic signifiers themselves.

In this way, the true successors of Alcachofa aren’t the cookie-cutter minimal lot, but rather someone like Actress – auteurs who refract techno into new forms, who wander off the four-to-the-floor grid, to wherever their spirit takes them. Not that I’m claiming Alcachofa has had any great lasting influence. It’s one of the first landmarks in a fairly unified body of work from Villalobos, but I struggle to think of other pieces of music that show a clear debt to it. That’s kind of surprising, given Villalobos’ popularity, and the reception that Alcachofa got (FACT’s fourth favourite album of the decade, Resident Advisor’s No.1 Album of the ’00s, Groove Magazine’s top album of 2003). But perhaps that’s the thing with auteurs – they develop such a personal style that it’d just be weird, or even impossible, to take cues from then, like trying to copy someone’s way of walking or facial tics. Apart from anything else, the individual building blocks of Alcachofa – again, those wet, gloopy blippy sounds – are probably inimitable, made as they are from Villalobos’s collection of obscure noiseboxes. I doubt anyone could copy them even if they wanted to.

“It’s like John Le Carré going away for a few months and coming back having written Naked Lunch. Seriously, what happened to this guy?”

But anyway, the dancefloor – I haven’t mentioned the dancefloor yet. Alcachofa isn’t typically a dance record – it’s heady, trippy and teases you with inversions of dance music structures. It takes a full five minutes before there’s a solid beat behind ‘Waiworinao’. While a few of the tunes were big club tracks, and this is certainly physical music, it also sits in that interzone between the dancefloor and deep home listening. More than anything, it’s music for a fantasy, an imagined dancefloor. Villalobos has spoken of his ideal of a constant club, where the music never stops, where dancing and everyday life are merged into one – and Alcachofa, as all-encompassing and inviting as it is, would make a great soundtrack. When the album does aim squarely for the dancefloor, it hits as hard as you’d like. ‘What You Say Is More Than I Can Say’, for example, stomps along with crackly energy, the bassline sounding like rusty metal flexing and snapping back into position – properly hardcore.

Alcachofa is the prime exhibit of the last truly modernist phase of techno. It came out of a time when there was a self-conscious break with the past. Listen back to music from the minimal techno scene of that time, and -for good or for ill- it sounds nothing like techno that came even five years before it. There was always this cognitive dissonance between seeing how something so deliberately experimental and indulgent (the 40-minute tunes, the interminable bloody conga tracks) could be so popular. Now, we’re almost always surrounded by the old and the new simultaneously, and it’s seen as totally natural for a young producer to take their cues from New York deep house made years before they were even born. And so it’s hard to recall just how remarkable it was when, say, Villalobos and Luciano started dropping old Chicago tracks into their sets around 2005. This was seen as a truly noteworthy and radical move, contrary to the dominant spirit of the age and leading to pages of heated debate on internet messageboards (never the best barometer of what really matters, but you get the point).

In hindsight, it’s a bizarre way to think about music. And, ultimately, this fierce commitment to newness led to a whole load of bad choices and dead-ends. Collectively – DJs, producers, dancers – we’d all swam out so far to sea that we’d ended up in the middle of flat, featureless ocean, and couldn’t remember why we’d started out in the first place. So, all the late-’00s revivals – disco, deep house, acid, hard industrial techno – were a much-needed corrective and things got much more fun very quickly. Yet part of me still has a sneaking admiration for that period of minimal techno, when (at least in the first few years) it really felt like everyone was making it up as they went along.

The central contradiction of Alcachofa is that it’s so reminiscent of that period in the early-to-mid ’00s, while also being timeless and unique. It’s completely of its time, but also completely of itself. So many great records have that same internal dichotomy – think Selected Ambient Works, or Loveless. They’re crystallizations of a moment, but they far outlive their original surroundings. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if people are still listening to Alcachofa in decades to come, and still finding something surprising and beautiful in it, peeling back layer upon layer, just like the artichoke of the title.


Artists Michael Mayer and Jack Savidge look back at Alcachofa

Michael Mayer: I’ve been following Ricardo’s work from his very beginning. Tracks like ‘Heike’, ‘808 the Bass Queen’ or ‘Salvador’ were pretty huge at our Total Confusion clubnights in Cologne. In the mid-90s, there was a strong alliance between us and all those Frankfurt based labels like Playhouse, Klang or Perlon. We were all working on a similar idea of alternative house music. While I was coming from a more pop-tinged angle, Ricardo always had this psychedelic, percussion-heavy sound. When I received the test-pressing of Alcachofa, there were two tracks that immediately stood out because they weren’t as tribal as most of his other productions at the time: ‘Dexter’ and ‘Easy Lee’. These two tracks were just perfect at that moment.

Around 2000, the afterhour culture introduced by Sven Väth and his peers peaked and Ricardo was the DJ who took the idea to a new, more mental level. Alcachofa dropped right at the moment when Ricardo turned into this cult figure and propelled him well beyond the underground. Minimal conquered the mainfloors.

Alcachofa has probably spawned a plethora of relatively boring percussive minimal productions but it definitely created some unforgettable moments on the dancefloor. Especially ‘Dexter’ and ‘Easy Lee’ should have left marks on many dancers’ hearts. In Frankfurt, they used to have an expression for these special moments: “Andacht!” (“devotions’!)

Jack Savidge (Friendly Fires/Deep Shit): I was 19/20 at the time so I guess my recollections of that time have to be viewed through the excitement of being that age, but Alcachofa and Kompakt, Perlon, Force Inc, Treibstoff, Traum, Sender, Akufen, Dominik Eulberg, Pantytec, Wighnomy Bros and Baby Ford et al et al really did open up a world of music and dancing that, being a teenage Mogwai and Aphex/Squarepusher fanatic, I never really got before. I was dragged into the clubs by those names, and from that the overall culture started appealing. It was the time of late-period ‘post-electroclash’ boom of electro-house like Tiga, 2many DJs and Erol Alkan, and while I liked that stuff, these records coming from Germany seemed so artful, imaginative and sort of high-brow in comparison. I think it helped that there was a brilliant discourse about this music at the time. Great writers like Simon Reynolds, Philip Sherburne, Tufluv, and Geeta Dayal were theorising, discussing and exalting this stuff. Also, this was pre-Youtube and pre-Beatport or Juno Download. Most music blogs had no embeds or anything to listen to – and you still had to track down the physical records yourself (or try and download via the notoriously temperamental Soulseek) after reading someone’s gorgeous description of it.

I remember going out to Fabric to see Richie Hawtin back-to-back with Villalobos. I’d never heard of him then, but I liked Hawtin from Decks EFX & 909 and Plastikman. In all honesty, it was a really boring night – Hawtin fannying around with delays for AGES and no real flow between the two of them, but every time Ricardo took over it would get a bit looser, a bit more fun…He’d work the dancefloor properly, and had this endearing way of peering out the booth at the dancefloor as he let go of one of his signature bar-line eschewing bass cuts. Now, I dunno, he’s still cool, probably rocks it, but the world of deep-house is just a bit grim, thousands of gurning blokes crammed into a stationary dancefloor. But that’s not really his fault. I guess every exciting movement has a slightly shit slipstream where it all goes prog.

‘Easy Lee’ was an insanely addictive song, something that makes you want to listen closer and closer. Not least because the lyrics were so opaque – “Easily / can of foam” was the most plausible theory I heard – but also the sonics are so dry and crisp, sort of like the beginnings of an acid trip when everything seems so still and vivid. There’s no artificial ‘Bigness’ to any of that album – it sounds delicate and fresh. The ending as well is so mysterious; anti-climactically, the track disappears off into the woods. ‘Dexter’ sounds so sad, but a good kind of sadness, like someone looking back over a long full life of memories and lessons learned. A lot of the other tracks are kind of forgettable, but the overall sonic aesthetic is the thing that was and is amazing- the space, silence, and clarity of every burble and click.

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