With a new full-length and mix disc, German masters of synths and drum machines Alter Ego provide a crash course on where electro-tech has been and where it’s going.
Alter Ego–Roman Flügel and Jörn Elling Wuttke–has pretty much dominated underground-techno peak time in clubs worldwide since releasing “Betty Ford” in 2000. Their latest full-length, Why Not?! (Klang Elektronik), reaffirms their status as kings (and court jesters) of maximalist 4/4 anthems that slam hard and weird. Ten of the disc's 11 tracks are pure DJ dynamite, so expect Alter Ego's dancefloor reign to continue full ear-bleed ahead.
The title cut establishes Why Not?!’s brain-bonking bravado from the jump, as a rigid, rugged groove plows through a panoply of unhinged video-arcade sound effects. Madness ensues. “Gary” lifts the so-dumb-it's-genius beat from the Glitter Band's 1973 hit “Do You Wanna Touch Me? (Oh Yeah!),” which is the perfect chunky foundation for Alter Ego's brown-sound bass blurge and asteroid-belting analog-synth flash pots. “Fuckingham Palace” hints at these pranksters' irreverence with sonics to match the title: Imagine Si Begg’s or Luke Vibert's blubbery-bassed whimsy and flagrant freq-outs unsuccessfully reined in by German techno's efficiency.
Flügel and Wuttke have done extensive research on how to create the ultimate demented sounds to induce maximum eye-rolling ecstasy (and hip-shaking madness) in chemically enhanced clubbers. You sense that these guys have perma-grins plastered on their mugs every flamboyant minute they're at the controls. They've achieved the rare feat of making music that inspires laughter as much as it does bumping and grinding, music that's as goofy as it is disturbing.
The duo's selections on the double-disc mix The Kings of Electro (Rapster) isn't as madcap as Why Not?!, and it's not even really “proper” electro as most aficionados would consider it. Alter Ego supposedly provides an overview of electro's “present,” but many of their choices aren't new and they lean more toward underground techno, with a heavy Detroit emphasis. This is no bad thing, of course, but Plastikman's “Kriket,” Robert Hood's “Minus,” Psyche's “Neurotic Behaviour,” Dan Bell's “Baby Judy,” and Maurizio's “M4” have only tenuous connections to the genre spawned by Kraftwerk's “Numbers” and Herbie Hancock's “Rockit.” Closer in style to common notions of electro are Detroit Grand Pubahs' “Big Onion (Joakim Remix)” (spare, bloopy, ass-fixated electro-funk) and Dopplereffekt's “Cellular Phone” (next-level, cold-chillin' robotic funk that's as stark and forbidding as Detroit's east-side ghettos). So Alter Ego's version of Kings of Electro is a misnomer, but not a misfire.
The 19 tracks on Playgroup's CD touch on typical electro and its stylistic deviations, striking a nice balance between inventiveness and party-igniting. The history lesson presented by Playgroup (British producer Trevor Jackson, boss of the defunct Output Recordings) hews much closer to the consensus view of what electro was/is. He starts with Chris & Cosey's chilly Teutonic throb and melodic grandeur (“This Is Me”) before taking a 180-degree turn into Just Ice's lean, hard hip-hop that, amazingly, carries Autechre's DNA in it. Jackson unearths obscure gems (Just Ice's “Turbocharged,” Tilt's self-explanatory “Arkade Funk,” Energize's minimal, spooky “Report to the Dancefloor,” High Fidelity 3's “B-Boys Breakdance [Dub]”) and resurrects expected genre standards (Hashim's “Al Nayfish”; Model 500's “No UFO's,” which now sounds surprisingly hokey; Ryuichi Sakamoto's awesome “Riot in Lagos”).
If there's one unforgettable lesson to be learned from Playgroup's side of The Kings of Electro, it's that most '80s drum sounds suck: they're clunky and of chintzy timbre, like tapping pencils on wax paper. But despite this drawback, electro undeniably signified a gleaming, if brittle, astral future for music–for about two years, although even in its obsolescence, it can still move bodies 25 years later.