Legendary German electronic musician Thomas Brinkmann’s latest production eschews the abstract minimal techno that he has built his name on, as well as the names of many aliases and side projects, in favor of brooding, often beatless synth-cabaret tunes that feature his own relatively undisguised lead vocals. Sounds like a recipe for trouble, and it is not surprising that this departure has met with a bit of skepticism, considering the general reluctance of a certain virulent strain of minimal techno-purism towards embracing stylistic sideswipes from beloved artists, and the particular disappointment that the techno-friendly public felt with two likeminded techno-to-pop transformations in 2007: Matthew Dear’s Asa Breed, and Supermayer’s Save the World. On both of these records the conventional song elements were either slightly embarrassing, as in Dear’s case, in which overwrought emo lyrics sonically cockblocked refined bedroom-tech productions, or goofy one-offs, as in Supermayer, which induce in the listener thoughts such as “well I hope they had fun making it…”
The historical-aesthetic problem that Dear, Supermayer and Brinkmann are all responding to is what is widely felt in the techno community to be a kind of dead-end for minimalism today. Dear’s and Supermayer’s solution, flawed in execution, has been additive – why not put songs on top of all these wicked minimal beats? In contrast to this rude hybrid-building, Brinkmann takes all that’s he learned in producing what in itself is a largely diverse oeuvre – ranging from techno to house to masterful experimental works like Klick, which featured the accumulation of repetitive rhythms generated solely by symmetric cuts made in blank vinyl records – and applies it to atmospheric, gothic song-scapes.
‘When Horses Die’ is the kind of sonic synthesis that instantly invokes an infinite name-check game, in which the player always loses. That’s why elsewhere you can see it compared to everything from Nick Cave to Suicide, and that is in this case a sign of success for Brinkmann’s gamble, that it appears to sound like a lot of things but nothing ultimately other than itself. That said, the record’s closest contemporary kin is probably the two records that French artist and designer Marc Nguyen Tan has made under the name Colder – both evoke a sunless, melancholic solitude, the kind one finds, for example, wandering without hope along the boardwalks of Coney Island in the winter. The difference is cultural – Tan updates early 80s synth-wave and goth with the sort of elegant, loungey flair one associates with France, while Brinkmann ushers it into onto the Weimar-era Berlin stage, or if not on stage under the lights, then into the back alley, where it permeates with all manner of Germanic obsessions with the bleak and hollow sky, ‘uselessness’, and the deaths of animals.
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