Pantha Du Prince: Techno Music A Rock Fan Can Love
In a way, it's odd to think of the Hamburg DJ and producer Hendrik Weber as having a shot at even mild popularity outside the dance underground. The three albums Weber has made as Pantha du Prince — 2004's Diamond Daze, 2007's This Bliss and now Black Noise — are some of the most amorphous in a field not always known for its linearity.
The artier end of house and techno can be fairly described as a continuous beat with some stuff sprinkled on top. On paper, that's true of Pantha du Prince, too. His tracks are heavy on bells, rustling noises, atmosphere, and melodies that gradually work their way into the piece, whereupon they tend to shift in small but discernible ways. But the albums are anything but bloblike. They only feel hazy; in fact, Weber is an exacting producer, and each sound grazes the next with obviously well-attended care. The effect has as much in common with the early-'90s shoegaze rock of Ride and My Bloody Valentine as with a fellow soft-focus techno artist such as Lawrence. That's one reason Pantha du Prince has gained favor with the neo-alternative audience.
In the case of Black Noise, another obvious reason is that Noah Lennox, aka Panda Bear of Animal Collective, sings on the song "Stick to My Side." Weber remixed Animal Collective's "Peacebone," from 2007's Strawberry Jam, and what was striking about that was how obvious a team-up it seemed: Both the band and Weber tend toward immersive audioscapes that evoke groggy mind states, just on different sides of the fence. I'm not a big fan of Lennox's singing — he often reminds me of The Beach Boys' Mike Love at his most nasal — but in "Stick to My Side," he blends right in, inhabiting the song rather than dominating it. For a star turn, it's fetchingly underplayed.
Part Of A Continuum
Black Noise is unique, but it's not alone. Pantha du Prince fits into the lineage of the brooding, late-night underground house pioneered in the mid-'90s by Berlin's dub-techno label, Basic Channel — in particular, its Chain Reaction subsidiary, wherein dank whorls of heavily treated keyboards floated like gray mist over rhythm patterns that sounded as if they were echoing off aluminum siding. (Aptly if problematically, Chain Reaction CDs were packaged in tin cases, which often cracked the discs.)
In 2001, the DJ, producer and journalist Philip Sherburne coined the phrase "microhouse" to describe artists such as Luomo and Isolee, who merged pumping house tracks with rattling minimalism and the period's vogue for glitches — sonic accidents resulting from skipping CDs or crashing hardware, whose high-tech grit and depth lent the music a kind of lost-in-the-data-stream poignancy. (Luomo's Vocalcity, from 2000, is the textbook example.) The glitch vogue was finished by mid-decade, but it had helped make scurrying found sounds — always more common in IDM, electronic music's head-music wing — much more common in house and techno.
Pantha du Prince's music is the most vivid culmination yet of this approach. That's in large part due to the way we hear him: on albums. The album may be on its way out as a marketplace necessity, but it's doubtful musicians will ever abandon it completely; it's like expecting artists to stop painting by hand just because, strictly speaking, they don't have to anymore. But its penchant for futurism aside, electronic music is one of the most romantic of styles, in part because the aura of the artist expands beyond creation into re-creation, secondhand authorship, the flexible auteur — DJing.
The DJ As Producer
As a rule, producers are DJs and DJs produce. You're as good as your last record, whether you made it or played it. So dance culture is in constant flux, even when most of the running around is being done in circles. Albums are as likely to be compilations or mixes as by single artists. The 12-inch — or its digital equivalent, the 320 kbps or FLAC download — still reigns supreme. DJ sets online form an avalanche. The turnover is impossible to track. So albums are especially reassuring to dance-music fans. We're used to trends that suddenly dead-end. We appreciate a little vision and longevity, however circumscribed.
And Pantha du Prince's music sounds most complete in album form, more than it does in single-track isolation or as part of a DJ mix. A compilation of like-sounding stuff by different artists might produce a more varied album; see Kompakt's annual Total series, which just turned 10. But Black Noise is all of a piece compositionally as much as sonically. The glimmering high-hat, owlish bass and sustained, subdued feedback wail dotting "A Nomad's Retreat" are pleasurable in themselves, but that pleasure is filled out in concert with the hesitantly unfurling, bell-tone melody of "Welt Am Draht." You get to explore a sensibility; the album feels more like a portrait than a snapshot. That's valuable during a time when dance music's here-today-gone-tomorrow aspects seem to pale by comparison to the culture's at large.
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