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Marcel Fengler: Berghain 05

img  Tobias Fischer

Spinning records is often likened to telling a story. But what if nothing but the story's beginning were certain at the outset and if the story's denouement  depended as much on the author's imagination as the spatial qualities of the club, the interaction with the dancers, the records in one's bag that night and, as Heiko Laux once fittingly described it, „taking the right decisions“? To the residents of the Berghain, searching for the answers to these questions has become a way of life. Their sets have taken on almost ritualistic qualities, not  least because they tend to begin when most go to sleep and only hit their acme while others are enjoying their first cup of coffee. And yet, despite its image of a temple of pure techno culture, Berghain is one of the few clubs that fosters, rather than discourages, risk, improvisation and unconventional thinking. To someone like Marcel Fengler, who spent pivotal parts of his youth watching Beat Street and listening to Hip-Hop, it was precisely its openness towards other genres, which made the place stand out: „I owe my love for experimentation to the many opening slots I played at Berghain“, he told me for an interview, „During the many hours of these long nights, you can play anything from ambient to peaktime-techno.“ Which is why, for artists like Fengler, Ben Klock and Marcel Dettmann, who will, on a regular club night, write veritable aural novels, the condensed space of a mix-cd represents an entirely different challenge altogether.

Which may be precisely why none of them has treated their slots as part of Ostgut Ton's residents series as business as usual. For Fengler, too, Berghain 05 marks a special moment in his career and the instance that his status as the club's most underrated artist, which never seemed to be based on fact anyway, is finally coming to an end. During the record release party at Berghain, his creative signature and personal presence can be felt everywhere, from the tiny note „cd available now“ greeting visitors at the wardrobe to the careful selection of live acts, reflecting or at least stylistically corresponding to, the selection on Berghain 05 – including a sinisterly glowing, ferocious opening set by Sandrien, which goes from moments of ascetic aural sound sculpting to athletic trance-infused outbursts, a grimly grooving live performance by personal favourites Ratio and, of course, Fengler's own set, which begins at the club's peak time of 5am. Fengler may have put off his debut album as a recording artist, mainly because he seems to consider the format an ideal to be aspired to rather than a fleeting documentation of one's status quo. Nonetheless, Berghain 05 can  be considered a compendium of his activities as a DJ, artist and label owner – and as a tribute to the place which his name is now intricately connected to: Shortly after Sandrien's set, Fengler finally appears in the small DJ-booth - a warmly lit cave by the side of the cathedral dancefloor - radiating satisfaction and positive energy. Just as with most of the Berghain residents, the relationship with the location has been a mutually beneficial one, and it shows.

The latter seems to be a Leitmotif of the club's mix-series overall. Dettmann once claimed, in an early article about the Berghain-phenomenon in German monthly Groove, that he always built his sets with the club in mind, regardless of where he was playing, even taking the spatial aspects of the venue into consideration when producing in the studio. His self-titled debut album on Ostgut, meanwhile, rather served as a counter-argument to that claim, representing a self-sustained suite of interrelated pieces fit as much for headphone listening as club consumption. In sync with this philosophy, the Berghain mix-series, too, represents a cosmos onto itself, with its own rules and aesthetics: Intriguingly, the last four installments have all featured an almost identical number of tracks and a healthy blend between popular tunes and exclusives, between Berghain-related artists and outsiders, between catering to expectations and rudely disappointing them. From an external perspective, a sense of collegial competition appears to have snuck in between the different entries into the catalogue as well, with each participant not just trying to bring out his own personality but adding something genuinely unique to it. Perhaps the best way to appreciate them, then, is to spin all five volumes – which include an exploratory first entry by André Galluzzi recorded as far back as 2005 for the Berghain's predecessor Ostgut – in a row and creating a sort of virtual club night from one's comfty chair.

As much as many journalists have tried to group these acts into an indivisible phalanx, however, there were incisive differences between their visions. If Dettman's Berghain 02 consciously spanned a wide arc from the 90s into the new millennium and back again and Len Faki's 03 burned its path through the borders of genres and scenes, Ben Klock's Berghain 04, which was widely considered the most successful of them all, went into the depth, where dub echoes collided with otherworldly bass pulses and minute variations in hi-hat-patterns could turn into the most intriguing musical processes imaginable. If Klock's main ambition was to sculpt the moment, meanwhile, Marcel Fengler is a man of contrasts, all but imperceptible gear-shifting and upholding the mystery: Even after listening to it for the tenth time or more, Berghain 05 doesn't quite reveal its secrets. It remains up to the listener to decide why these tracks, whose stylistic content ranges from classic minimal house to dubstep and from experimental electronica to industrial-tinged techno, make for such an organic match. Even Fengler himself has claimed that dissecting his working process is of desperately little interest to him: „I don't really think about what makes the transition between two tracks a good one", he simply puts it, "If I feel like combining them, I just try it.“

There are plenty of these fascinating „tries“ on his very first mix-cd, moments that feel perfectly reasonable until you start thinking about them. And who knows what the album would have sounded like if Fengler had managed to license all the pieces he originally envisioned for its track list. And yet, needless to say, these magical passages have not been wrung from the moment and paid in blood, sweat and smoke. Instead, they have been minutely crafted in his home studio, with each and every track being submitted to some form of editing and processing. It has only served to make their impact more powerful: Peter van Hoesen's „Axis Mundi“, a trio between a chrome-coloured sequencer-line, a static drone and a stoically pounding kickdrum, segues into the classic electro-groove of Terrence Dixon's „Tranquility“, which thrives on a rich, virile bassline. Vril's „AV“, an archetypal Berghain-tune with its blend of seduction and intensity, is juxtaposed with Fengler's dark, isolationist house-tune „Sphinx“, a taster of an upcoming EP on his own IMF label. And right at the heart of his set, Claude Young and Takasi Nakajima's „Think Twice“, which prominently features a jazzy piano lick, bleeds into Puresque's „001A“, a hypnotic slab of machinal rigour. Hip-Hop has remained absent from the mix on this occasion, but dubstep is notably present, appearing at some of the record's most memorable instances. Clearly, Fengler doesn't so much hear differences here – he hears complements and missing pieces of the puzzle.

Does that make the album a disjointed affair? Not at all. Although he does admit to a personal preference for cracks and fractures („I still find it fascinating when, during a changeover, I can sense how I'm gripped by the fusion of two pieces“), Fengler's mixes are marked by a clear forward movement and conceptual momentum, even if it may not be quite as clear-cut and pronounced as with some of his colleagues. Berghain 05, too, feeds from a steady move from the textural – Dr Walker's remix of Byetone's „Plastic Star“, for example, is pure soundscaping propelled by a mantric beat – to percussive drive, with the drums steadily growing more functional and the inner complexity of the music shifting towards the physical. What this means is that, to Fengler, there can never be a division between the DJ as a curator of great tracks and a creator of epic tension arcs – both are always inseparably connected in his work, just like a careful preparation prior to a gig can never substitute the magic occurring when the feedback from the crowd  pulls a set into an entirely different direction.

With this in mind, Berghain 05 is not a substitute for a visit to the club, but it does make full use of the opportunities of the format. The less external factors, after all, the more Fengler's storytelling qualities are coming to the fore. Still, he's never giving things away too easily: It is a testimony to his skills, rather of a failure, that you've never quite sure what the plot and his next step might be.

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Marcel Fengler
Homepage: Ostgut Ton Recordings

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