If music is supposed to reflect the times we live in, DJ Hell hasn’t been paying much attention to the cataclysmic events triggered by the global economic crisis. Teufelswerk (German for “Devil’s Work”) is an ambitious collection of luxuriant techno that oozes opulence. Hell runs in direct contrast to the scrimp-and-save dictum that governs most people’s actions in times of hardship. Instead, he has made an album that reeks of money, with high-end production values and guest appearances from Bryan Ferry and P. Diddy. If Hell is aware of our impending meltdown, he appears to be working under the tacit understanding that such times require a piece of art that can free us from all our worries.
With a runtime that clocks in at close to two hours, several tracks that exceed the 10-minute mark, and two different themes (“Night” and “Day”) governing the direction of the album, this is a work of flamboyant folly. The cover is a pastiche of Grace Jones’ Nightclubbing, with one subtle difference. On Nightclubbing, Jones stares directly into camera, ready to deliver her aggressively sexualized vision of pop. Hell stares at his feet, bearing an expression that reflects the extreme concentration of someone lost in the multifarious grooves that make up Teufelswerk.
The eight “Night” tracks are emotional voids, driven by callous beats and ripples of keyboard noise that resemble an ‘80s vision of the future. The robotic vocal treatments of “Electronic Germany” pay tribute to Kraftwerk, while Ferry supplies a similarly impassive delivery on “U Can Dance.” Diddy is in hilarious form on “The DJ,” in which he delivers a tirade about not being able to hear extended mixes of songs in clubs. “The Disaster,” a 10-minute opus that puffs and wheezes at the seams, immediately follows Diddy’s bizarre diatribe, and is the kind of implacable slow-build techno that needs acres of space to unfold.
“Night” is aimed squarely at the dance floor, and often veers too close to canonical devices (the 808 handclaps of “Hellracer,” the reedy “Strings of Life” feel to “Wonderland”) to really push things forward. It’s on the “Day” suite of songs that Hell excels, with Peter Kruder (of Kruder & Dorfmeister fame) jumping on board to lend a hand. Opening track “Germania” is a sublime sci-fi lullaby, close in feel to Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works album. “The Angst/The Angst Pt. 2” is the real highlight of “Day,” and demonstrates a very human side to Hell’s personality after the impertinent nihilism of Teufelswerk’s club-oriented tracks. Gently psychedelic and utterly sublime, a docile rhythm pulses through the song as it twists into shape, with Hell forcing discordance into its grooves in an attempt to free himself from his creation after more than 13 minutes.
Teufelswerk doesn’t make much sense when played as a whole; these are two different records, for two contrasting moods. It’s the most ambitious album to emerge from the dance scene since Goldie’s Saturnz Return in 1998, although Hell’s vision has more coherence and a sense of narrative. These tracks are specifically designed to transport the listener to a particular place, whereas Goldie’s intuition was to inwardly focus on his own strife (as you would expect from an album that begins with an hour-long track called “Mother”). Occasionally, Teufelswerk leans too heavily on obvious antecedents from the techno scene, but it mostly functions as an affluent anti-recession distraction that contains an astonishingly high hit rate for such an aggressively aspirant undertaking.