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The first clue that Gui Boratto's Chromophobia is an extraordinary Kompakt disc a song collection that places the German label back at the forefront of the best electronic music can be found on its cover art. Since its inception, Kompakt has had a signature clean design style for its releases. Developed by one of the label's three co-owners, Wolfgang Voigt, it's made great use of simple circles and basic color combinations. For Chromophobia, the São Paulo, Brazil, musician called on his friend Felipe Caetano to create a cover. Caetano came up with a beautiful piece of color theory that layers a series of primary-color Kompakt circles over the edges of one another to form a variety of new-hued combinations.
"Our first idea was to do a black-and-white cover, but we decided that was cliché," Boratto says from São Paulo, referring to the title word, a term for the fear of color. "The decision to make the cover colorful was ironic. But for me, chromophobia is like simplicity the same type of meaning as monochromatism within an architectural point of view."
Got that? The affable Boratto is no club drone whose scope of experience remains as narrow as a programmed and endlessly looped 4/4 beat. He's a married father of one who has studied architecture in addition to music. "I think architecture and music are almost the same thing," he says, his accent bringing an alternately questioning and singsong quality to English words. "They're different means of expression, but they treat spaces in the same way."
In Chromophobia, Boratto builds and creates a variety of attractive spaces, without pretension but with a sensibility perhaps informed by a love of modernist architectural pioneers such as Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. "Within the modernism movement, you can find the same ramp used in the garage and in the dining room," he observes. Such functionality could be ascribed to many tracks on Chromophobia, which entwine rhythmic and melodic complexity and simplicity in a manner that can add vivid atmosphere to private interior settings, natural panoramas, and though not in all cases the dance floor.
A major part of Chromophobia's appeal apparent from the crystalline descending melody of the opening track, "Scene 1" is that Boratto knows how to construct a strong simple motif or riff. "My first instrument was guitar, and when I was 10 or 11, I was really into Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin," he says, breaking down his musical background into shorthand. "But in the mid- to late '80s, my older brother lived for a while in the south of France and then in London, and when he came back he brainwashed me."
The glorious results of that brainwashing are apparent in Chromophobia's most-discussed track, "Beautiful Life," on which Boratto's wife, Luciana Villanova, plays the role of a female Bernard Sumner, quietly singing some affirmative words alongside a mammoth guitar line that invokes the unmistakable bass lines of New Order's Peter Hook. "It was really a joke," Boratto says with bashful enthusiasm when asked about the track, which Web sites such as Resident Advisor have singled out for special praise. "There's no complex textures [to "Beautiful Life"], as there are on some of the other songs [on Chromophobia]." True, but the song is no mere retro exercise: as much as New Order, the sunny feminine grace of "Beautiful Life" also calls to mind Ricardo Villalobos's epic 2006 update of his own "La Belle Epoque," probably the only time Boratto and the Chilean Villalobos have crafted a similar definition of techno.
Still, Chromophobia's truest pleasures might be subtler ones, such as the alternately shuddering and sinuous propulsive energy of "Terminal" and "Gate 7" (the latter of which takes its title from the number of the TAM Airlines boarding gate for all of Boratto's flights to Europe). On "Acróstico," Boratto provides a reprieve from this momentum, fashioning the electronic equivalent via an array of low-key chirps and whirring sounds of a nature scene at dawn or dusk.
"The title of 'Acróstico' stems from the fact that the high bass notes complete the lower notes if you see a drawing of the notes, it looks like an acrostic," Boratto explains. For a musician who specializes in instrumental tracks, Boratto has a flair for linguistic matters. After bringing up Franz Kafka in response to a question about Chromophobia's final track, "The Verdict" which takes its name from a Kafka tale often published in volumes of The Metamorphosis he comments on a certain similarity: "One thing I noticed is that with Metamorphosis's Mr. [Gregor] Samsa, if the two s's in his name turn into k's, and the m's turn into f's, you have Kafka. It's fiction, but it's his story."
By no means is Chromophobia Kafkaesque. But a dynamic between colorful optimism and an undercurrent of gloom gradually courses through the album, growing deeper as it progresses. On the penultimate track, "Hera," Boratto crafts a coda so poignant that it easily eclipses the best recent tracks put forth by Booka Shade and other instrumental acts on Get Physical, perhaps the one German label to overshadow Kompakt in recent years. Kompakt is definitely on a roll as of late, thanks to the long-awaited and underrated second volume of label cohead Michael Mayer's Immer (2006) and the ambient in comparison to Boratto allure of the Field's acclaimed From Here We Go Sublime. The Field's Axel Willner is inventive enough to tap into the so-ghostly-it's-frightening essence of the Flamingos' "I Only Have Eyes for You" (also a touchstone on the soundtrack of Kenneth Anger's 1950 film Rabbit's Moon), yet Boratto's palette is broader, connecting techno's chillier reaches with the warmth of Antonio Carlos "Tom" Jobim.
Jobim may be "the master," in Boratto's words, but the man behind Chromophobia also loves US brands of soul especially Al Green and Stevie Wonder. Likewise, while the "little Paris" known as Prague might be Boratto's favorite city in architectural terms, he's looking forward to his SF visit. "I really love San Francisco," he says, remembering the "mainstream" charms of a club like Spundae, where he once saw Boy George. "I actually lived near Berkeley, in Pinole, for six months in 2001. I studied in Berkeley, and I had two American friends. This one friend had a big house in a nice neighborhood in Berkeley, where we had barbecues and never-ending parties. We used to party in San Francisco too, at some clubs and friends' apartments."
This week, as Boratto returns to the Bay Area, he's going to find a lot more than just two American friends or at least American fans at his party. And deservedly so he's made one of the best records of this year. *
With Gui Boratto and Michael Mayer
Thurs/24, 9 p.m., $15 advance
444 Jessie, SF