Ellen Allien, one of electronic music’s most diversely prolific artists, handily returns to full-length territory on her fourth solo outing. Although her sound is generally categorized as belonging to the minimal-techno subgenre, because of all the hats Allien wears — as producer, DJ, label-owner and general high-profile personality — SOOL is best grasped as yet another data packet in the steady stream of transmissions she’s been emanating from Berlin since the wall came down. As of late this included in addition to the LP includes an athletic DJ tour schedule, a new mix for her label Bpitch Control, Boogybytes Vol. 4, and the latest collection in her fashion line.
SOOL is a fairly stripped-down affair when compared with Allien’s previous album output, and that’s saying a lot for a style based on reductivism. In this case, the micrological excursions into subatomic sound-fields feel like the gesture of a confident, level-headed artist who can work a track into a pulsing sweat when she wants to but isn’t dependent on four kicks a measure to hold everything together. Because of her broad output, a new album by Allien is nothing like the sort of defining statement expected sometimes from influential artists; instead it allows her room for more meticulous urges to blossom, the kind that don’t hold much sway on the dancefloor.
Compositionally, she can play the game of digital sonic subtraction with ease: How little can you get away with? How much can be scraped, chipped, and filtered away? In this case, what’s left is a palette of generally light burbly bass blips underpinning all manner of skittering clicks and fallen-leaf swooshes, veering occasionally into near-pastoral territory, as if wandering beneath the fields of high-tech windmills in Northern Germany on a sunny day.
There’s a strong topographic urge throughout this record, which opens with “Einsteigen,” a techno re-enactment of boarding a westbound elevated S-bahn train in Berlin and shuttling through the cityscape. This introductory scene-setter is brilliantly followed by “Caress,” in which heightened senses of drama and allure are produced by a growing rhythmic throb and gorgeous krautrockian synth choirs, the sound of the train leaving Berlin and barrels unfettered out onto the autobahn.
Then a detour into the forest: “Elphine” evokes a microscopic penetration of the insect kingdom, where miniscule creatures are seen traipsing about in the midst of their herky-jerky, otherworldly labors, then “Zauber” [“Magic”], divides the album with a drifty sylvan woodwind interlude. Allien has scribed gnomic comments for each track on SOOL on her website, and the text for this piece reads thus: “I am within the baffling magic-forest and everything could happen, everything is possible. Only the clarinet (Andreas Ernst) speaks, sings me the way through the lights. The snow melts and I feel safe and secure.” In this way, “Zauber” jacks into a substantial German artistic trope, the allure of the forest, explored by Casper David Friedrich in painting, Friedrich Hoelderlin in poetry, and most recently by minimal-beats contemporaries like Wolfgang Voigt via his ambient Gas project.
Any work of art appears as a world unto itself when it tricks the audience into believing in an inner, unfathomable consistency. Every work speaks in its own tongue, and as much as it wants to traffic with its audience, its language always remains finally occulted. Every work greets you with its back turned toward you. SOOL produces a world that the listener can only traverse, as on a moving train, catching glimpses of sights that disappear in the instant they display themselves.
As soon as the forest world of “Elphine” and “Zauber” is opened up, it is whisked away by the album’s first dive into club-ready beats, “Its,” whose insistent throbs and hisses brings to mind the anecdote of John Cage’s onetime visit to an anechoic chamber. Instead of the sonic nothingness that the composer of silence expected, he reported hearing two sounds: the low-frequency pumping of heart chambers together with the tinny hiss of his nervous system.
This image gives tracks like “Its” much more of a biological than a technological character, and makes the idea of hearing it in a club environment reminiscent of the womb, that original sound chamber, where humans first learn about rhythm from the pulses of the living, breathing mother’s body.
Thus, although it’s easy to think of such electronically produced music, devoid of most real-world signifiers, as being post-human, such a classification really obscures its strengths and its beauty. On the contrary: What is remarkable about Allien’s compositions is just how human they all still are, how at times traces of the human stubbornly persist, or how they are only able to come to light because of an inhuman, technological dimension, and finally even how they sometimes find themselves born anew, transformed.