Techno's Class of 2008

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As dance music sees an almost total conversion to digital (and laptops quickly replace turntables as the weapon of choice for festival headliners and bedroom Beatport junkies alike), it only makes sense that we find ourselves in the midst of some kind of techno renaissance. Electronic music’s most venerable genre has also always been its most digitized, making techno a fitting soundtrack for today’s cut-and-paste culture–and as three recent and decidedly non-minimal releases prove, it’s capable of as much diversity as the recent nu-electro and synth-rock explosions.

At the head of next-wave techno’s freshman class is Jesse Siminski (a.k.a. Heartthrob), a Michigan-born, Berlin-based protégé of Richie Hawtin’s who first turned heads and snapped necks with the 2006 floor-filler “Baby Kate.” Nothing on Simiski’s debut artist album, Dear Painter, Paint Me, quite matches that track’s infectious groove, but the title track goes a long way towards establishing a trademark Siminski sound: dark, menacing, and massive, marrying the precision of minimalism to the gigantic kick drums and long builds of big-room house. Tracks like “Signs” and the extra-chunky “Slow Dance” would sound equally at home on the laptops of techno purists and electro-house trend-chasers alike. It’s the nerviest debut album by a techno artist since The Field’s From Here We Go Sublime–less brazenly experimental and more crowd-pleasing, but no less of a brilliant variation on the genre’s age-old sound.

That sound gets a very different variation on the latest album from Kenny Larkin, on Carl Craig’s Planet E Communications. A Detroit native, Larkin relocated to Los Angeles a few years back to pursue a career as (no joke) a stand-up comic, and judging from his latest effort, most of his creative energy is still focused on delivering punchlines. Keys, Strings, Tambourines is a dated, stodgy album, full of St. Germain-style jazz-house and one laughably bad preach-it track, “You Are… (Light),” which was apparently inspired by self-actualization phenomenon The Secret. There’s something stereotypically “L.A.” about the way Larkin strives so hard to show that he’s being meaningful and soulful and ends up coming across as corny and shallow. Call it easy-listening techno–assuming you find meandering vibraphone solos easy to listen to.

Ironically, the season’s best new techno release also comes from the City of Angels. Even with hit tracks like “Sweat (on the Walls),” John Tejada remains one of the genre’s most underrated producers, maybe because much of his output, like 2006’s Cleaning Sounds Is a Filthy Business, is better-suited to headphones than to the dancefloor, or maybe because L.A. is far removed from the techno epicenters of Detroit and Berlin. Whatever the reasons, no one should sleep on Tejada’s latest, Where, which finds his dense, sculpted productions as on-point as ever and married to some of the nastiest grooves he’s ever turned out. “Torque” rides a wobbly bass into hands-in-the-air territory, while the album’s lone vocal track, “Desire,” shoots laser-like pulses of synths through Nicolette’s smoky voice. Even the most overtly melodic old-school tracks, “Raindrops” and “Turning Pt.,” mine new sounds and structures, finding fresh ideas in techno’s classic forms. As a new generation of younger producers like Heartthrob revitalizes the genre, it’s great to have master craftsmen like Tejada around who are still at the top of their game, and proving that techno will always have more to offer than minimal beats.