Neominimal techno finds its footing on the Bay's dance floors
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SUPER EGO Swooning in the aural vortex of the last How Weird Street Faire, I lean against the central shade tower heavens, it's hot! as four separate whiz-bang DJ arenas writhe at my compass points like electronic eels. Psytrance, tech house, tribal, and jeep beats overlap in a fun fuzz of dissonance: a Euterpean kaleidoscope, if you will.
A shirtless Pan in crooked BluBlockers emerges from the sonic haze and politely offers a welcome quench from his Camelback. Ah, agua ... that's better. Pan hightails it back into the neon-freaky crowds, his shadow a tongue of purple flame darting through the throng. Uh oh, the colors they're starting to come alive. I can see the music. I am the Lizard Queen. Goddammit, I've been dosed unbeknownst!
Does that mean I'm still cute enough to date-rape? Whew.
There's no real need for chemical alteration at Burner-powered musical affairs like How Weird. The beats are gleefully conservative, locking hearts and minds into a virtual retro techno shroom step of the middlelate '90s. You can just stop dropping and roll, Siddhartha. Close your eyes, and Smurf the vibe.
The ultimate expression of this baroque kind of bubble-icious bounce back is the continued global triumph of DJ Tiësto's 2005 Eurotrance classical gasser Adagio for Strings (Universal France) from Barber to Burner, via Coachella, with a $50,000 light show, a Lycra Tony Montana jersey, and a passé Jesus pose. Gord lord, lady. Tone it down a little. Tiësto's not the lowest of the low some trancers still work bastard Carl Orff tracks and the high's all the dedicated protofairies making laptop tribal in their parents' incense-clouded basements. Whether they'll trade in the oms for Armani once they graduate to clubland is anyone's guess. It's become such a thin, thin line. Still, you know if you threw on some neu-rave Klaxons at the pre-Compressions, the kids would have an air-horn breakdown and an alien breakthrough.
Yep, in these fractious times, the speakers overflow with comfort food. And there's another retro techno movement snaking its way into the clubs, a splash of cool blue against the electroshocked Day-Glo patchwork of today's dance music: neominimal. Incubating for the past few years in art galleries like Gray Area and Rx, underground parties like Gentlemen's Techno and Moxie, unlikely bars like Detox, 222 Club, and the Transfer, and occasional Blasthaus and Daly City Records events, neominimal techno has lately come to the official fore, with major regular parties at the Endup and Fat City taking root and sold-out one-offs at Mezzanine fierce ruling.
The neominimal kids take their cues less from '90s London big beat and depunked Prodigy than from '80s acid house polychromatics and the Warp RecordsSheffield bleep scene, while paying heavy dues to laser-eared Detroit techno pioneers like Kenny Larkin and Richie Hawtin, whose classic 1999 full-length Decks Efx and 909 (Mute) kick-started the original minimal movement (he'll be at the Mighty on June 1). Hawtin told me at the time of DE9's release that he wanted to "cut through the clouds of contemporary techno" to produce something more loop focused, software malleable, and dynamic in terms of live manipulation. Eight years later, neominimal's tweeter-oriented arpeggios, atonal motifs, staticky sprezzatura, and clean, focused bass lines plus a reliance on laptop programming and a healthy nullity of bombast and breaks bear out his intentions to the nth. It's unimposing, almost shy music that hooks you with its lack of superstar pretense and leads you gently by your ears to the dance floor. Not that it doesn't have soul or humor, as anyone entranced by groundbreaking neominimal releases like "The Sad Piano," by Justin Martin (Buzzin' Fly, 2003), and "Deep Throat," by Claude VonStroke (Dirtybird, 2005), can attest. It just doesn't wear them on its digital sleeve.
Internationally renowned local boys Martin and VonStoke spend a lot of time touring the world these days, and both are stabled at well-respected San Francisco label Dirtybird (www.dirtybirdrecords.com ), but promoters here have only recently been able to convince club owners that neominimal's a good regular bar draw. Now some much-loved AWOL promoters from the past are rising with the neominimal boat.
"I call it Windex music," promoter Greg Bird no relation to Dirtybird, but there sure are a lot of birds in SF techno told me over the phone. "It's crisp and clear and a lot more funky in a kind of grown-up way." His bangin' Saturday monthly, Kontrol recently relocated from Rx Gallery to bigger, all-night quarters at the Endup celebrates two years of being head above the rest June 2 by bringing in legendary tech heads Baby Ford and DJ Zip to supplement hot-topic Kontrol residents Alland Byalo, Nikola Baytala, Sammy D., and Craig Kuna.
Bird cut through the cork-popping, lounge-heavy blahs of the Internet boom club scene in 2000 with his fascinatingly minimal Clean Plate Club monthly ("clean plate" = minimal groove). "After 9/11 and the bust, I could tell the whole club scene was headed south, so I concentrated on my personal situation. But a couple years ago me, Sammy D., and the others felt the need to bring our sound back to the clubs," he says. Bird emphasizes that Kontrol is all about mixing and making music live, in both a digital and a performance context: "We like to sound immediate." He name-checks Perlon Records, Hawtin's Minus label, and Los Angeles's wacky Experimental Liquor Museum collective as current influences. "There's a ton happening right now," he says. "This summer is going to blow up big for techno in SF."
Another blast from the boom and a delight for old-school minimal and nonorchestral house fans is the return of the Staple crew, in this iteration composed of Fil Latorre, a.k.a. Fil Noir from the early '00s out-of-control Staple and Refuge monthlies, and Dave Javate, a.k.a. DJ Javaight, formerly of the giant Optimal techno parties. Over e-mail, both cite scene burnout and a lack of feeling from the dance floor as reasons they closed up shop, coyly proffer "ichibana, Muay Thai, and pharmacology studies" as the reasons for their absence, and say a recent sense of receptivity to techno, the trend toward live acts, and greater technological capabilities in the form of Ableton Live and Traktor software pulled them out of early retirement. Staple just launched two monthlies at Rx and Anu and brought in Kenny Larkin in May to wow sold-out crowds. "It's like reloading on experience and refocusing creativity once again on new output," Latorre writes.
I detest it when writers hype new movements. Indeed, almost all the DJs and promoters involved in the latest scene balk at the neominimal and even minimal moniker, differentiating themselves from the juggernaut with alternate adjectives like "modular," "organic," and "digital live." But all agree that they're trying to wipe the tired commercial techno slate clean and with it, the bad taste of overworked electronica most clubbers still have in their mouths. Many admit that the minimal tag is what's helping them most to get their music recognized on a grand scale. And there's definitely a local groundswell of interest in techno. (We gays have forward-looking neominimal heroes too, in DJs Kendig, Nikita, Pee Play, and Robot.Hustle, who keep one ear trained on the alternaqueer retro disco scene.) So for now neominimal's the name of the Bay techno game. And that may be one to grow on. *
First Sat., 9 a.m.6 a.m., $15
401 Sixth St., SF
MINUS RECORDS SHOWCASE
With DJs Richie Hawtin and Magda
Fri/1, 9 p.m.2 a.m., $22
119 Utah, SF
Second Fri., 9 p.m.2 a.m., $10
Featuring DJ Mike Huckaby, June 8th
132 Eddy, SF
Fourth Thu., 10 p.m.2 a.m., Free
43 Sixth St., SF