Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Basic Channel - phylypstrakII

There have always been innovative record labels, and there have always been innovative artists. In electronic music, the innovators tend to have been vastly outnumbered by the imitators, and only rarely does an artist or a label emerge that really breaks huge new ground.

In the early 90s, a shadowy record label emerged from the post-reunification debris of Berlin, and turned the underground dance sound upside down. Sounding like nothing that had come before, Basic Channel (the brainchild of Mark Ernestus and Moritz von Oswald) released 9 nearly perfect 12” singles, fusing techno, dub and reggae into noise-strewn endlessly repeating tracky grooves, shot through with tiny mutations and variations. In the interests of getting exactly the sound they wanted down on vinyl, they also mastered their own records, setting up the Dubplates and Mastering mastering studio to achieve the perfect final sound on vinyl.

The main Basic Channel label stopped after the first nine releases, and sired spin-off labels and projects such as the less noisy and more clubfooted M releases, the vocal and housey Main Street, Chain Reaction (which kind of started from where Basic Channel itself had terminated), and a range of less techno and more dub fired labels such as Rhythm and Sound, Burial Mix, as well as Dubplates and Mastering, and the legendary Hardwax record shop in Berlin.

My introduction to Basic Channel came in the form of the final (9th) release, “phylypstrakII”. Probably the most accessible entry point, one side is a heaving and grinding thudding track swathed in huge washes of noise and grit, which I couldn’t get my head around at all. The other side is so crisp and minimal it took my breath away at first – it was so different and alien.

A kick, an open hat, a dull snare on the backbeat, and a minor third chord playing the 2nd and 4th beat – it could hardly have fewer sounds in it. At first I couldn’t understand how anyone could make music so minimal, it was like nothing was going on. But the more you listen, the more it opens up, and the more you get from it.

The kick isn’t just a kick – there’s a sort of strangled bassline buried with the kick drum, articulating the whole beat. A favoured Basic Channel technique, it makes the entire drumbeat swing and sway. Then there are the effects, the EQing, the incredible metallicism of the noises, the irregular percussive clanking, like alien mine machinery. The tiny dashes of delay, of reverb, the way it’s always mutating and changing around, the once-off things that happen through the record.

While many came to imitate the loopy dub techno sound pioneered by Basic Channel, very few have even come remotely close to matching the visionary quality of the early 90s output of Ernestus and von Oswald. As their other labels continued to produce innovative and interesting music, the original Basic Channel was discreetly closed before there was any compromise.

It’s as close to a perfect legacy as I can think of - two years, nine releases, and dance music changed forever.


Anonymous said...

Ian from the UK.

Spot on with the commentary. Much copied, never equalled- Basic Channel has a sound which sounds as good on a massive system as it does on the cd player in the car. My all time favourite label and one of the best tracks long with M4 (although no strictly on BC). A treasure.

divot said...

Hey Ian,

Thanks - Basic Channel was really a work of perfection, I can't think of many other labels that timestamped the scene in such a way. Everything that followed was explicitly - and obviously - post-BC.

And yeah, M4 is also indescribably good - :)