Techno DJ Robag Wruhme spins a good yarn
Techno, more than might be expected for a music so sparing with words, has always taken well to the task of telling stories. From the beginning, when the style found its form in the early 1980s, tales have accumulated - around the artists who make techno but also the places where it is made, the moods that figure in it, and, increasingly as time marches on, the manner in which its function as dance music rubs against its aspirations to be something more.
All were already recognised as factors when techno originated decades ago in the blighted US city of Detroit, where savvy young practitioners fomented fables and legends as a means for fantastical escape. It was partly a science-fiction strategy, a way for geeky aficionados to traffic in an imaginary world of the kind they found in comic books and in movies such as Blade Runner and Tron. But the desire to flee and the storytelling it inspired seeped into the music, too. So much so that early classics of a genre often held out as hard and "post-human" continue to play as realisations of a strange sort of hymn - anthems of a mechanistic folk music made for a haunted modern age.
The contemporary German electronic-music auteur known as Robag Wruhme, creator of two striking techno releases issued over the past few months, is working long after techno began. But Wruhme's sound is compelling in part for the way it abides by techno's sense of story, even as his own stories diverge.
Wruhme grew up in East Germany during the era of communism and made his name as a DJ and producer after the Iron Curtain fell. In that respect he is one of many who came of age when techno, in the early '90s, was a significant geopolitical force. Musical ties between Detroit and Germany cities, especially Berlin, were legion, areas alike in their senses of wildness and disrepair.
Wruhme, however, lived near Jena, a smaller German town away from the bustle of Berlin. He continues to live and work there now, and the distinction - especially as Berlin has become a sort of sprawling centre of activity for electronic-music makers from all over the world in recent years - figures into his sound.
Or at least it seems to. Part of Wruhme's appeal is the way his music invites all sorts of impressions and ideas, however true or misbegotten they might be. He makes a listener want to imagine. The sounds on his new album, Thora Vukk, a collection of 12 of his own tracks, tell stories of elusive internal moods, oscillating personal dramas and little flickers of euphoria that make a life's uncertainties worth enduring. It's a lot to pack into techno tracks that double as sustenance for the club, but such is Wruhme's strength as a producer of subtle, intricate dance tracks that could also rightly be called "songs".
The title track of Thora Vukk alone boasts a wealth of narrative density and drive, with nary a word to be heard. In the place of lyrics, a kick-drum sounds its steady, incessant call to brood while snatches of miniaturised rhythm gather and start to sing over top. The cymbals somehow scan as emotive, like the sound of one half of a couple putting silverware away in the kitchen after a bittersweet argument over dinner. As the beat builds and reaches its meticulous fruition, a synthesiser melody sweeps through, suggesting both the essence and the flipside of sorrow.
The entire album plays out in such leading detail, which has become Wruhme's stock-in-trade. To that end, he has assumed a place in the lineage of what can be called domesticated techno. The roots of it grow back to early-'90s imaginers of electronic dance music fit for "home listening", but Wruhme owes even more to Matthew Herbert, an Englishman whose epochal 1998 album, Around the House, featured squirming musical figures and twitchy rhythms fashioned from sampled recordings of actual household sounds.
Yet the style seeded by Herbert and developed by Wruhme surveys the domestic in more than just its literal manifestation. Both take normally extroverted club music in search of the kind of introverted feelings and flounderings that happen at home: wondering what it means to be together and alone, pacing around late at night, staring at the walls. It's a wide purview that expands the range of techno, for the better. Wruhme's take on it also comes at an interesting time, as techno has all but officially ceded its status as the music of the future. For years, decades even, techno represented the vanguard of electronic music, both as a sound and an idea. Almost everyone has become familiar with its tropes: silvery grids marking a synthesised landscape, glares of iridescent light flashing against backdrops of black, robots brooding into the future. Those images in the context of techno, however, are nearing 30 years old.
Now, they glean more of their vitality from dubstep, a more rhythmically complex and refracted style that makes the steady four-four thump of techno sound like the province of an oldies radio station. It makes sense, then, that techno should retreat and take stock of what it's been surprisingly good for all the while: hiding emotional subtleties in the darkened corners of strobing rhythms and telling stories about them as they evolve. Wruhme is uniquely outfitted to do just that, thanks to the way he mixes high refinement with the kind of unhinged mania privileged in the club. For all its emotional nuance and restraint, Thora Vukk is also deeply exciting and strange - an album that spins out new rewards from different angles each time it plays.
Wruhme's propensity for weirdness draws in part from his role as a DJ, which figures into his second recent release, a mix-disc called Wuppeckmischmampflow. More than his work on his own, Wruhme's reputation owes to his status as one half of the world-raking DJ duo the Wighnomy Brothers, known in their prime to play wild and woolly marathon club sets marked by copious indulgence and debauchery. That prime was just a few years ago, but sustained club life has a way of compacting the ravages of time and leading to spells of quiet introspection. Not too quiet though: Wuppeckmischmampflow plays like the soundtrack to a fierce night out, just one that doesn't take place with a vacant mind. There's a lot of thinking going on in the way the tracks are woven together, sometimes as many as four at a time and always with an impending sense of what comes next.
The mix is the latest instalment of a mix-disc series issued by Kompakt Records, a label based in Cologne, Germany, that has been instrumental in fanning out the sound for which Wruhme and others like him have become known. That sound was tagged as "minimal" when it crystallised about a decade ago, but the kind of minimalism it favours is best understood as less sparse than simply not excessive. Indeed, the considered track-lists of each of Kompakt's mix-disc releases sounds curated more than simply selected and played, going back to Michael Mayer's essential 2002 classic, Immer, and up through Wruhme's eccentric, eclectic addition to the series.
Some of the tracks that Wruhme picked for Wuppeckmischmampflow (the title is oddly onomatopoeic) are several years old, which in the time frame of techno makes them wildly anachronistic. But with that comes a certain personal and lived-in quality, a comfort and confidence in not just the strength of specific tracks but also the way that each is presented. In an early stretch that draws on artists including Ricardo Villalobos, Audion and Tiefschwarz, the maestro Wruhme hits his moody stride, managing to paint the sky black and to somehow make drums laugh. It might sound like a lot to attribute to techno as wielded by a DJ, but maybe there are more stories left to tell still.
Andy Battaglia is a New York-based writer whose work has appeared in the The Wall Street Journal, The Wire, Spin and Resident Advisor.