Electronic music is one of the few genres that will never stop evolving. Fads, styles and trends come and go, but as the technology evolves so usually does the sound. It’s embracing this evolution, even trying to stay one step ahead of it, that ensures longevity for an artist or producer. Someone has neglected to mention this to Ellen Allien. A purveyor of ‘minimal house’, once alleged to be the thinking man’s dance music (presumably women aren’t permitted to be so cerebral about it), Allien’s creations are not to be confused with the so-called Intelligent Dance Music tag that American journalists slapped onto the truly experimental music coming out of the Warp Records stable (and others) in the early ’90s, to help the US market ‘get’ the likes of Aphex Twin. Comparing Aphex Twin’s “IDM” with Allien’s minimal house is almost akin to comparing Joni Mitchell with Kate Nash – a tad snobbish perhaps but nonetheless true.
The opportunity to welcome another woman to the tiny club of female electronic producers is ordinarily a wonderful occasion, so infrequently does it happen. But Allien is increasingly losing respect by failing to evolve on a sound that was once a charming nod to its ’90s influences. 2008’s Sool was admittedly an attempt at a darker, more twisted feel, and though somewhat lacking in anything truly memorable, it was at the very least a notable change of pace from her typically more chilled electro/minimalist vibe. Dust, however, returns us to more familiar terrain, only without the tangible rhythms or enjoyably solid BPMs boasted by older efforts like 2003′s Berlinette and 2005′s Thrill. If that sounds like a pity, it is.
Things don’t start well. ‘Our Utopie’ eases in with a field recording of birds tweeting in the wind before a painfully ’90s, mid-tempo beat with opposing chimes kicks in as a distorted Allien chats mindlessly over the top, and it doesn’t really go anywhere beyond that. ‘Flashy Flashy’ tries its hardest to make mid-tempo disco interesting, but some cringeworthy lyrics (“Together we’re rolling around and around / flashy, flashy, flashy disco lights!”) and, again, a dated production comes off more like an old ‘Smack The Pony’ dance music parody which they used to nail at the end of each show. Fourth track ‘Sun The Rain’ finally gives the listener something to latch onto, adding electric guitars into the equation and delivering a track that’s both groovesome and almost the direction you suspect Allien was actually aiming for.
Momentum does pick up in places, but evidence of Allien’s once-ripe imagination remains rather thin on the ground. Dust swerves from the embarrassingly stale, cherrypicked noises of what could be any random ’90s club remix (‘Ever’) to tracks that stick out like a sore thumb (‘You’ being the main offender). As near to a conventionally structured ‘song’ as Allien has managed in some time, the chugging guitars and sleepy electro vibe of ‘You’ sit on top of bleeps and glitches as Allien delivers a solid lyric and interesting vocal. It’s not bad per se, it’s just a bit of a headscratcher and jars terribly as the album’s seventh track. Granted, it’s really not helped by being followed by three more terribly dated minimal dance ditties, which between them filter every naff MIDI sound you played around with on your first Casio keyboard back in the day through a few reverb or delay patches. And that’s pretty much it.
Ellen Allien is no doubt a crafty businesswoman with an eye for a good opportunity, and one who has carved a respectable niche for herself; DJ, remixer, label owner and even “fashion designer” are just a few of her titles. However, just one browse of her own discography suggests that her endless appearances on random dance compilations is likely where her bread is actually buttered, and fair enough. But the benchmark for even the most commercial of dance music has been raised considerably higher than what Allien proffers on Dust. There’s no excuse for her not being aware of this, not with having the likes of Modeselektor on her label – a duo currently dictating what the fine line between high-profile, commercial dance and credible electronic music is.
Alarmingly, Dust is the first of Allien’s releases that puts an elephant squarely in the room. The unaddressed question being, if she wasn’t releasing her own albums through her own label and licensing the tracks off to whomever needs a compilation filled, would anybody else? Must try harder.
[BPitch Control; May 24, 2010]