Sunday, June 05, 2011

Berlin: City Sounds Truly Astound

City Sounds: Step 1 - Berlin
Various Artists
Naive Gaiety

It's a tossup as to whether I'm more excited about the concept or the execution of this new series from Gaite Lyrique.

The concept's a great one: document the growth of a city's musical scene by collecting examples of all the stylistic threads that make up that city's "sound." Get tracks from the bands that started the scene, the groups that followed (or in some cases reacted against) them, and then present some forward-looking bands that suggest where the scene might be going. Do that, and you have a look at the past, present and possible future of a musical scene. The concept's solid, and the label promises that this will be part of an ongoing series of urban musical portraits.

OK, the concept's cool, but what about execution? City Sounds: Step 1: Berlin answers that question -- it's pretty good. The collection breaks down the past/present/future music scene of Berlin into six categories, each with their own CD. The set starts with Krautrock a la New Wave. It then moves to two discs of Indie Electronica, and Experiemental. Discs four and five take us to the present with Electro Clash and Performances, and Techno, House and Minimal respectively. The final disc is simply titled "Berlin Next!"

Whatever happened to --?
If you're into any of the styles represented, you might have some quibbles with the selections. Kraftwerk and Can, for example, are conspicuously absent from the Krautrock disc. I'm willing to chalk up any high-profile omissions to licensing issues rather than oversight, and consider what's there, rather than what isn't. With this set, no one track makes or breaks the collection. In a way, they're all points on a graph (or rather dots in a pointillist painting). It's the totality of all the tracks combined that give you the whole picture.

Krautrock and New Wave
The origins of the Berlin sound begin (according to this collection) in the late 1970's/early 1980's. Nina Hagen, Malaria!, Fad Gadget provide the solid New Wave base, and Nick Cave is represented on two tracks. Liasons Dangereuses presage many of the elements that later evolved into techno. All in all, a good place to start.

Electronica and Experimental
The second and third discs cover electronica and experimental music, the first CD spans the years 1997-2004, while the second runs from 2004-2009. No surprises if you're familiar with these genres, but if your not, check out Rhythm & Sound and Errorsmith with their clouds of sound and minimalist grooves. Super collider sounds like Prince via Vanilla Fudge (kudos if you get that reference), while the Puppetmastaz do a techno rap that could only be European in origin.

The third disc sounds more modern, as it should, and it's easy to hear the connections between bands - like Rhythm & Sound (1997) and Rechenzentrum (2003). Two standout tracks for me on this disc were Richard Davis' "Honest With You" and Jason Forrest "War Photographer," a 2005 track that's an uncredited pureed remix of BS&T's "Go Down Gamblin" with a little bit of their "Spinning Wheel" and "Lucritia MacEvil" thrown in. And Pole is represented with their track "Achterbahn."

Electro Clash
Probably the most famous name on disc four "Electro Clash & Performers" is Peaches. Although most of the music comes from 2001-2006, stylistically it sounds closer to the Krautrock than the later electronica. But that's what makes this collection so valuable. It makes it easy to hear the relationships between artists and artistic movements (and sometimes there are some surprises). Of course there are strong connection between many of these artists: Jamie Lidell, Gonzales, Peaches, Mocky, and Chicks on Speed are all related in ways way to complex to outline here (save to say there's a lot of musical cross-pollination). I especially dug Stereo Total's "L'Amour" with it's Dyanlesque changes, and the UK's Jamie Lidell's Motown-inspired soul.

Disc five, "Techno house and Minimal" owes more to the earlier Electronica and Experimental artists on discs 2 & 3. Of course, it also covers pretty much the same time period, 2003-2008. It includes standouts in the scene such as Ellen Alien, M.A.N.D.Y (with "No Stoppin'" rather than their club hit "Body Language"), Richie Hawtin, and Modeselektor with Thom Yorke, but to name a few.

Berlin Next!
The real prize is the final disc, which is Berlin Next! Many of these artists (including Seth Troxler, Moderat, and Pantha du Prince) seem to pull together many of the stylistic threads contained on the previous discs. Perhaps it's a sign of the times that several of the artists on this disc, such as Barbara Panther and Tama Sumo & Prosumerand don't have label credits -- just websites or MySpace pages.

This collection builds up a composite picture of the Berlin's musical scene spread over the last thirty-five years. I'm not sure I could listen to an unfamiliar track and say that it was definitely recorded by a Berlin artist. But thanks to City Sounds, I could tell if the artist was influenced by the Berlin music scene. This is a great collection - especially if you're a fan of any of these subgenres. You'll find a lot to like throughout the set, and probably discover some new artists to follow (well, at least I did). Gut gemacht!

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