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Planetary Assault Systems: The Messenger

img  Tobias Fischer

For someone as closely associated with the advent and rise of techno as a serious artform, Luke Slater enjoys a rather peculiar image of a musical conservative. Already in 2002, German magazine Intro referred to his style as „somewhat dated“. And when his Planetary Assault Systems alter ego returned after a temporary suspension of eight years in 2009, someone commented that „this would have been a nice album - but still not great - if put out in 1997“. Questions of taste and quality aside, these observations are, in fact, not entirely beside the point. For a period of roughly half a decade, Slater's combination of ultra-precise sonic brutality and otherworldly ambient beauty was generally considered groundbreaking and visionary, a four-to-the-floor club-pendant to the so-called intelligent dance sound of the Warp tradition. And yet, progress for progress's sake was never of interest to him: After he'd found his personal voice, Slater would continue to expand upon it – creating courageous juxtapositions on mix-CD Fear and Loathing and contributing to a contemporary ballet performance – but stay true to his time-honoured script. Ever since, just like much of his music, his discography has moved into the depth rather than forward, with each release moonwalking the invisible outer rim of his own, entirely idiosyncratic universe.

The Messenger, too, follows seamlessly in the footsteps of its predecessor. Which is perfectly in keeping with expectations: Slater's „comeback“ as a recording artist, after all, was seminally sparked by his Berghain appearances and the Ostgut Ton label, whose love for raw and exacting club music have turned them into the spiritual center of the movement. Here, Slater would not just find recognition, with Planetary Assault Systems tracks featuring on two of the imprint's first three mix-CDs, but, more importantly, a shared understanding of techno as being about „clarity, deepness and simplicity“, about „character, soul and a kind of hypnotic, industrial feeling“, as Marcel Dettmann once put it – rather than worrying about shaping the future. And so, the majority of the material included here is again composed of the  trademark materials that have characterised his style for more than twenty years: Paranoid sequencers and creepy apocalyptic soundscapes, almost apathetically pounding drum tracks, voices-of-the-dead-like murmurings hidden in the cracks of the arrangements and metallic clicks and crackles that pan from the left to the right and from the fore- to the background like electrons in search of a core.

From the extended opening ambient section to the burning-flesh-sounds ripping through „Beauty in the Fear“, from the schizophrenically detuned bell-patterns and psychedelic tweets rocking appropriately titled „Bell Blocker“ to „Wriss“, which, whose maniacal repetition of the title phrase awards it an uncanny resemblance with label mate Tobias Freund's „Sticky“, the album spans a timeless space which is as instantly familiar as it is alien and bizarre. Clearly, Slater feels like a fish in water in these freezing oceans, perfectly happy to work with a bare minimum of ingredients and a handful of basic transformatory operations. On many occasions, a track will start out with all elements already in place, with Slater merely tweaking, twisting and turning them upside down to create fluent, all but liquid constellations of continually morphing shapes. These are signs that, to Slater, working with rigid loops on the one hand and organic, real-time events on the other is still capable of producing astounding effects - clearly, this music is only monotonous and unmelodic to those who feel change and melody should take place at clearly designated spots within the arrangement: Underneath the surface of stoically marching machines, shredded figments are fusing into fully-fledged themes, as sonic pressure is compacted to the point of nuclear fusion.

These tactics have, of course, been part of Slater's vocabulary for years and initial listening sessions accordingly result in The Messenger sounding like a solid rather than a spectacular affair. As so often with his work, however, there is  a point when the impeccable craftsmanship of his technique slots together into something more far-reaching, suddenly awarding the entire work a new and deeper meaning. On The Messenger, this epiphany is most likely to occur on epic, pitchblack techno meditation „Kray Squid“. For four mortal minutes, the piece burns on a carousel-on-acid bleep-line, shakers so out of sync that they appear to be running backwards, occasional ripped apart piano clusters and a bass drum pounding somewhere far away in half-time, which further slows down the already nightmarishly turgid tempo. And then, out of the blue, a relentless groove kicks in and every single cell in the track's organism is put into vibration. On paper, it would seem inconceivable that an entire club would be grooving away to the track, but the notion that something as bewildering as this could make your body itch and twitch with anticipation only increases its out-of-this-world intensity. Rather than sounding anthemic, Slater's pieces are like burned-out stumps of club tunes, like sonic sculptures rather than songs. On a scene which once made the race towards the „loudest“, „hardest“ or „fastest“ music imaginable its holy grail, he may well have arrived at the „weirdest“ and „most bizarre“ mutation of the original techno DNA.

There is a nice story, recounted in an interview for mnml ssgs, of how Slater was once faced with a broken mixing console at a DJ gig and ended up using the white noise produced by the device as a musical element in his performance. Conservative or not: Imagination like this will never feel dated.

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Luke Slater / Planetary Assault Systems
Homepage: Ostgut Ton Records

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