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White Noise: Modeselektor – Monkeytown

Monday, 17 October 2011

Modeselektor – Monkeytown




Gernot Bronsert and Sebastian Szary, who make up the electronic duo Modeselektor, have been gaining quite a lot of hype recently. It's true that they’ve been producing under this moniker for 15 years now, but recent collabs with big names like Apparat and of course Thom Yorke have put their third album under the spotlight. Although they are fiercely opposed to being labelled within a specific genre, which is a largely sensible opposition given that a few short years ago no one was making the fusions that they were, they have still managed to retain a consistently distinctive sound; generally a meaty bass with crunky synths and hip hop leanings. Here in Monkeytown, they really come at the listener with a scattershot approach; a range of different sounds, a range of different vocalists, and also quite a range in terms of quality across these 11 tracks.

Although there is a sparkling array of guests, it’s Modeselektor’s solo compositions which offer the most consistency here.  German Clap in particular is an album highlight, marrying a threatening synth line with Altered Natives style drums and cold acid drips to stark and spectacular effect. Another standout is Grillwalker in which a bright arpeggiated synth bounces over a massive crunk bassline, creating a gorgeous contrast, but also perhaps revealing the problem with Modeselektor’s approach. These tracks vary little across their course, and when the tunes are good it’s because the one central conceit really works through repetition, but unfortunately that’s not always enough. Take for example opener Blue Clouds, in which a slightly melancholic synth line rises over bass throbs and heavy percussion. These are nice sounds, and the combination works, but for a whole six minutes it just feels a little uneventful, and this and a few other tracks left me crying out for a little unpredictability, or simply a few more ideas. One could suggest this is merely what a crunked-out synthesis of techno and hip hop ends up sounding like, but I’d argue that any great techno track, however repetitive its loops, oughtn’t be described as ‘uneventful’. Closer War Cry defies this predictability; it’s interesting because of the unique marriage of the martial male voices and the ever-building synths, breeding an atmosphere that is both considered and powerful, and it ends up being one of the most interesting cuts on the album. Tracks like this make me wonder where Modeselektor might have ended up if they’d taken their ideas a little further and branched out a little more over the course of the LP.

The same slightly uneven spread of quality applies to the guest tracks, which take up more than half of the album. To say something positive first, Modeselektor should be respected for showing their trademark humour even when recording some big name vocals; they manipulate Thom Yorke and Busdriver’s voice masterfully to suit the sounds, with a pleasing lack of respect for the integrity of the original vocal line. Both LA-based art rapper Busdriver and NY’s Anti Pop Consortium lend their rapping prowess to Modeselektor productions, and the result is a pair of tracks that treat the vocal lines sensitively and with a good ear while retaining that distinct Modeselektor sound, but neither does anything particularly interesting or different (although Busdriver’s lyrics to Pretentious Friends are pretty damn funny). On the other hand, a few of the collaborative tracks turn out to be some of the album’s best. Miss Platnum’s voice is chopped up in Berlin over glitchy beats and a great bass wash, and eventually her natural voice is left to harmonise with her own chopped vocals, in one of the albums most remarkable moments.

Elsewhere long-time Modeselektor producer Otto Von Schirach lends his expertise to the unexpected abrasive techno of Evil Twin which recalls Modeselektor’s earlier work. Here hard synth stabs help build the tune to a crushed finale, and it’s easily one of the most dancefloor-friendly cuts here. Sadly the same quality cannot be found in woeful PVT collaboration Green Light Go, in which heartfelt and sombre vocals sound terribly out of place on top of an instrumental which doesn’t sound particularly interesting anyway (this is all before the introduction of a very misplaced vocoder).

This brings us to the much-hyped continuation of Modeselektor’s love affair with Thom Yorke. What your take is on one of music’s biggest men will go most of the way towards whether you like these tracks, not just because his murmuring falsetto is ever-present, but more overtly because Modeselektor have decided to make these tracks actually sound very much like Radiohead tracks. Shipwreck is a muted and moody piece that sounds pretty nice, but it all really comes together on penultimate track This, where Yorke’s vocals are chopped and swirled around a rich and ominous synth-scape resulting in an atmospheric and subtle highlight.

Subtlety is something that it’s interesting to highlight in relation to the Yorke collab, because I’ve always felt that it’s a quality that Modeselektor lack as a production team. Granted their tunes are always on-point reflections of the contemporary dance scene, but they’ve always seemed to favour an all-out approach rather than focussing on the details. This hasn’t changed particularly on Monkeytown, and it’s something I feel quite acutely lacking, so it’s nice to see a tighter mastery over the details, if only for one track.

Modeselektor have always been remarkable in their bridging of largely independent genres, particularly techno and hip hop, but in the current musical climate where the amorphous mass of post dubstep/ bass music/ future garage is all pointing in a similar direction, fluidity between genres is no longer something particularly new. It’s not fair to hold this against the duo, and without a doubt this is a collection of on-point tunes that survey a remarkable breadth of dance trends, but for me it feels firmly lodged in the present rather than looking to the future. There are a lot of good tracks here but not enough great ones, and from such an anticipated release I suppose I expected a little more innovation. If you’re looking for a solid collection of contemporary and meaty tunes, then this is practically an all-you-can-eat buffet, but for those searching for consistency, subtlety or great originality, then there are other artists who are simply going in more interesting directions at the moment.


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