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Plastikman: Arkives 1993-2010

img  Tobias Fischer

Even though numbers may suggest otherwise, the Plastikman saga did not start as late as 1993. Long before the release of his Sheet One debut, Richie Hawtin had discovered that, just a few miles across the American-Canadian border, a revolution was going on. To Hawtin, at the time still a mere teenager with an insatiable hunger for the thrills and mind-altering potentials of electronic music, the underground parties held in neighbouring Detroit, which he would visit every weekend, were the kind of events he'd dreamt about. Festivities were held in outwardly decrepit basements spartanically decorated with nothing but a strobe light and a couple of oversized speakers. And yet, the combination of unheard-of music, endless and feverish sets as well as the hallucinatory oscillation between complete darkness and futuristic lightning-showers provided for memories which would last a lifetime. Ever since, and regardless of his increasingly capital-intensive live shows and the sheer professionalism invested into every aspect of his career, Hawtin has tried to recreate the mood, intensity, rawness and force-of-nature-like-quality of these early trips, conceptualising his releases, performances and DJ-sets as multisensorial experiences washing over the audience with relentless force. As much as a high-tech experiment like Kontakt seemed to point to the future, it was always a look back over his own shoulder, too: Just as in love, nothing, it seemed, could beat the first time, when the pounding of a four to the floor bass drum became part of one's body and a multitude of individual dancers merged into a single organism loosing all sense of time and direction.

In retrospect, as is invariably the case when small events go on to become harbingers of seminal forces, these moments would inevitably seem whole lot bigger than they really were. Plastikman, too, became enveloped by its own little cloud of historical myth and hype. Today, the alias is credited with pushing electronic music beyond the threshold of mere novelty, of garnering wide respect and leading it into artistic territory, of bridging the gap between different media and of continuing the Kraftwerk'ean legacy of synthesizing music and technology. All of which is, actually, at least partially true. But it is equally important to note that, in doing so, Hawtin's endeavours were marked by an aesthetic perfectly in line with the philosophies and sounds of the Detroit pioneers, who, in turn, proudly saw themselves as harking back to P-Funk and Electro rather than burning all bridges and brutally breaking with the past. At least over the first three years of his career, Hawtin, just like the vast majority of his peers, mainly worked on the basis of individual tracks and through the medium of the 12inch rather than establishing long-form, narrative tension arches. In fact, just a few months prior to Sheet One, he had released the first (and, coincidentally, last) full-length under his F.U.S.E. alias (Dimension Intrusion), which still relied on the proven formula of adding a handful of new tunes to a compilation of "hits". Then again, that release would at least discretely hint at bigger and more challenging things to come: In combining cosmic chirps, elegiac pads and full-on Acid action, it was a state-of-the-art examination of the status quo. Its last track, a barely one-minute short miniature, bore the name „Logical Nonsense“ - a phrase which would, with the typical intentional mis-spellings, be picked up again on 1998's Artifakts (BC). And the all-decisive „the“ in the title of stand-out composition „Into the Space“ pinpointed the subtle yet substantial difference between the likes of Derek May and Juan Atkins, who drew heavily from Science Fiction and Hawtin as an artist fascinated by space as a metaphor for a void canvas and the endless expanses of human imagination instead.

Of course, Hawtin wasn't the only one wishing to take Techno to a new level, either. Between 1992 and 1994, no less than a dozen seminal albums would see the light of day, all motivated by the desire of creating continuous, coherent journeys rather than mere singles collections – among them classics like Sven Väth's Accident in Paradise, Aphex Twin's Selected Ambient Works I, Underground Resistance's Revolution for Change, Autechre's Incunabula, Wagon Christ's Phat Lab. Nightmare as well as the Paris EP by Laurent Garnier's project Choice, which combined psychoactive Acid bleeps with lush, heartbreaking string arrangements. Labels like Warp, which had actually released some of Hawtin's earliest productions, and Mille Plateaux stood for a new kind of ambition transcending the initial search for the most extreme music imaginable and for fusing Ambient and Dance into a new genre. What made him stand out from the fold, however, was his unmatched ability of simultaneously co-shaping this development towards composition and structure, while creating a music which did not actually represent a rupture with club culture, but rather sought to cast it into epic containers suitable of transporting its magic to listeners' living rooms. There was nothing overly polished or pretentious about these pieces, no program or concept outside of the actual music itself: With its LSD-tab-style cover-artwork, Sheet One, as well as the maddening 909-metrics of „Spastik“, clearly represented a nod to the ecstatic and free lifestyle of the community. As much as it may now seem like headphone-music par excellence, this was, at least at the time of its release, music drawing from and feeding back into the scene.

There is, therefore, nothing strange about Arkives - released in five different versions, the most luxurious of which comes as an eleven CD, six LP, multiple-download, one DVD and 64-page booklet box set, and billed as a sum and summary of the Plastikman legacy - working not just as a collection of seamless records but as a vault of big, stand-out tracks as well – because, almost by default, Plastikman was always about both. Eleven and a half minute „Plasticine“ from Sheet One is a striking example of Hawtin's approach rooting firmly in danceable minimalism, yet seeking to present it as being part of the same lineage of Tangerine Dream and Pink Floyd: For the roughly forty seconds of the introduction, alien sounds are ominously bubbling to the surface like a burglar alarm on Alpha Centauri. An airplane approaches in the distance, the noise of its engines rising to a roar, then being suddenly cut off. And then the beats kick in, monotonously pushing forward, yet imbued with a strange sense of groove and physical sensitivity – exactly what Hawtin implied when speaking about wanting to award his music a „sexy“ edge. At around the two and a half minute point, a soaring melody kicks in, which will keep running for the entire remaining duration of the piece. Hawtin refrains from excessively embellishing this framework of parameters, merely adding a growling, one-note bass here and a whispering voice there, in a bid of sustaining the spooky and unreal feel of the music. On paper, nothing about these elements reveals their potential for an anthem and in the hands of a different producer, they would hardly amount to more than an insignificant sidethought. It is the sheer power of intention and will which forces them through the funnel of Hawtin's mind and, by means of nothing more than some standard filtering operations and various breakdowns, attaining its grandiose design.

As recognisable and unique as this approach remained on subsequent Musik, still hailed by many as his most refined effort to date, Plastikman would hardly have reached its quasi-legendary status without Hawtin refusing to repeat the formula forever and, on 1998's Consumed, making true on his promise and truly going „into the space“ and opening up worm holes of reverb and delay, which lead straight into a galaxy of surreal reflection and meditation inspired by the likes of Miles Davis – a Dub album in concept, if not in style; a work of Jazz in feeling, if not with regards to genre conventions. It is true that, in many ways, the record was consciously intended as a counterintuitive statement, as a work disappointing expectations on purpose. It wasn't that Hawtin had lost his knack for penning sweeping, sensual music, after all, as some of the cuts from subsequent Artifacts (BC), actually written before the release of Consumed, but sneakily published shortly after it, still powerfully demonstrated. Neither did the album, for all its uninviting grimness and frosty atmospherics, turn his aesthetics upside down. But just like he would, at incisive moments of his career, decamp to change his angle or perspective – founding M_Nus at a time, when his first imprint Plus 8 seemed poised for fully-fledged international breakthrough and moving from Windsor to New York and eventually to his current homebase of Berlin – the desire to turn a rewarding yet essentially predictable practise into something exciting again, took over. There was a host of reasons as to why subsequent Closer, an even darker, more sparse, uncompromising and cold effort based on notably shorter, far less immersive cuts, marked the temporary end of the story. But the possibly most important of them was that, at least for a few years, there was nothing left to say anymore: Hawtin had left his safe harbour, gone through personal changes, broken with the past, exorcised his demons, bared his own voice on record and embarked on a fresh leg of the journey. And there no longer seemed to be place for the brooding mindset his dark alter ego had always represented.

In a way, this leave was never going to be permanent: Hawtin has always considered Plastikman to constitute an integral side of his personality rather than just another fancy moniker to hide behind. In one significant aspect alone, therefore, Arkives is different from similar, albeit considerably less monumental, efforts like his eight-track Kompilation and the star-spangled remix-sampler on Plus 8: Juxtaposed in between a widely acclaimed past and a wide-open future, it is about putting things into historical perspective without ever reverting to nostalgia. Rather than closing a chapter and wiping the slate clean, it is submitting the past to interpretation and opening new doors: All Plastikman full-lengths have been carefully and audibly remastered, occasionally even subtly altered. There is bonus material from all phases of his output, including a peel session and previously unreleased music. There is a look at his live work, which has generally been underrepresented in medial terms, with regards to its often overwhelming power. There is a three-quarter-of-an-hour session of him editing „Spastik“, offering an unprecedented insight into the creative process and his two-way interaction with machines. There are all the Plastikman-remixes of other colleagues' work – some of them, such as the relentlessly pumping System-7 edit, essentially constituting Hawtin-originals, as they hardly ever resign themselves to merely re-arranging a few basic tracks. And there is, in turn, a fresh string of remixes of his own work by colleagues such as Erasure's Vince Clark (who, here, delivers a quirky, chrome-polished and spartan take on „elektrostatik“) as well as François Kevorkian, Moby, Chris & Cosey and Flood – artists, in short, who have influenced Hawtin in his early phase and who are now evaluating the flow of inspiration.

In this sense, the only Arkives-version which really offers the intended immersive and illuminating experience is the komplete edition, on which all facets of the Plastikman oeuvre are being examined. It is here, too, that one can find ample evidence for and against Hawtin's position as a creative explorer and as an artist truly leading the pack. His own position on the question, meanwhile, is pronouncedly subdued and exemplified by a six and a half minute, initially discarded track called „Slinky“. Written around 1995, working with gradually shifting rhythmic pulses on the basis of a rubbery bass line and a seemingly primitive melody, which is constantly tweaked and occasionally reduced to a single, nerve-wrecking tone, it may seem the epitomisation of a very particular moment in time and of working with now vintage equipment in an instantly recognisable way. And yet, to Hawtin, who was instantly „grabbed“ when re-listening to it after fifteen years of being confined to the vaults and within the context of the musical landscape of 2010, now seemed like the ideal moment for it to be published: „It's tough, it's analog, it's acidic, it's driving and it doesn't sound like anything else out there.“ The relationship between future and past is therefore not as linear as it may appear with other artists, rather presenting itself as a question of finding the right timing for something to come out. The most intriguing aspect of Arkives is how remarkably coherent, rather than innovative and eclectic, Hawtin's vision has proved over time and how, in an intriguing way, the different parts of his oeuvre, often regarded as each other antipoles or contrasts, connect into a unified larger work.

Over 160 tracks and hours and hours of music may seem to contradict the simple premise of merely wanting to explain one's origins to a new generation of aficionados. And, yet if this indeed an overdose, then it is well-calculated one: „I need to play for two hours just to get to the point where I want to start doing what I really want to do“, Hawtin once said in defence of his expansive DJ-sets, but the same is true about his discography as well. The last seven years of the 1993-2010 period Arkives is covering was actually filled with silence, but that doesn't mean it was devoid of meaning. Perhaps the world, the persona calling itself Plastikman included, simply needed a period of rest to move on and devour the decade of music preceding it.

By Tobias Fischer

Arkives 1993-2010 can only be ordered directly from the Plastikman and M_nus websites until December 31, 2010 as a personalised edition.

Homepage: Plastikman
Homepage: Plastikman Arkives
Homepage: M_Nus

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