As impactful on the mind as it is on the dancefloor.
The term “ambient techno” implies a balanced blend of genres: cloudy atmospheres of ambient with the percussive grit of techno. But more often than not the latter half of the term feels secondary; rarely do you hear ambient techno albums that are as suitable for club play as they are for sedentary, “post-rave” listening.
Few have released ambient techno with the consistency of Dial, a label run by David Lieske (a.k.a. Carsten Jost) and Peter Kersten (a.k.a. Lawrence). Some of Kersten’s earliest music was released by his spiritual godparents at Kompakt, and the influence of those who founded the label, namely Wolfgang Voigt, Michael Mayer, and Jürgen Paape, on Dial’s output is easy to hear, particularly in the patient repetition and the prioritization of the whole work over individual moments.
While fellow Kompakt acolyte DJ Koze—whose early productions had a lot in common with those of Lawrence—has increasingly loosened his interpretation of ambient techno and morphed into a strange impersonation of a pop star, Dial has remained committed to understated minimalism. The focus has allowed them to cultivate their own definition of ambient techno, garnering as much critical adoration as Koze with a fraction of the media presence. Among Dial’s many admirers is fellow minimalist Francis Harris, who told Inverted Audio in 2014: “Dial is the quintessential label for me… I could blindly buy a Dial release and know I’m going to like it—from the experimental releases to house and techno. I think I own every single record they’ve put out.”
Kersten is responsible for compelling albums on both sides of the ambient-techno equilibrium. The largely beatless A Day in the Life and more rhythmically experimental Until Then, Goodbye offer plenty of music you might find on a Late Night Tales mix. 2013’s Films & Windows and 2008’s The Essence (under his Sten alias), meanwhile, are comparatively dance-oriented. (His sound might just as easily be defined as “deep house,” “microhouse,” “minimal techno” or some other such term, but because of its reliance on texture and inclination toward progression we’ll stick with the broader “ambient techno” for the sake of this review.)
Illusion, Kersten’s 10th studio album, sits abreast ambient and techno better than anything else he’s done. Like the best ambient albums, Illusion’s harmonic textures create the impression of a thick sonic mist, capable of not simply relaxing the listener but engulfing them completely. Unlike the more domesticated iterations of ambient techno, however, it also has the characteristics of more participatory dance music—infectious beats, stimulant low-end—that make it playable in dimly lit rooms during the small hours.
Speaking shortly before the album’s release, Kersten told me the album was inspired by sessions with his experimental improvisational band Sky Walking. With the idea of an imaginary club in mind, he sought to combine the deep hypnotism of techno with the strange, improvised sounds of kalimbas, steel drums, a vibraphone and a vintage zither, a many-stringed wooden instrument popular in 19th Century Bavaria. “I was obsessed with the idea of combining some recordings of acoustic instruments and the spontaneous approach of studio jams with club music,” he said.
The album does suffer from a mediocre start. The ponderous gurgling of “Crystal”’s two and a half minutes are fine, but don’t kickstart the record any better than a damp cabbage could kickstart a picnic. It should be noted that the tracklisting on Illusion is different depending on your chosen format. “Crystal,” for example, is placed at the end of the 2LP version but starts the album on CD and via streaming platforms, while a number of other tracks are moved around too. Kersten informs me the CD/streaming version is “the whole story” and that the discrepancies on the vinyl are out of necessity considering track length, but some transitions between tracks on the CD listing feel slightly forced. And even as a closer, “Crystal” is not rescued from the pitfalls of unsexy IDM, a bit like the wheezy wind-chime sounds of Four Tet’s overplayed recent output.
For the purposes of home listening—to which the notion of an album belongs—Illusion’s vinyl track arrangement is considerably better than that of the CD. For starters, it opens with “Treasure Box,” a deep, divine house cut made for the darkest depths of a late-night set. The track will change depending on how you listen, too. On weaker setups, its celestial chord-clouds float to the fore. On sub-heavy systems—or, my personal preference, headphones—is where it truly blossoms though, foregrounding a writhing bassline that refuses to sit within the confines of the beat grid.
Generally speaking, the bass is where most of the magic happens on Illusion. The forgettable mid-range melodies on “Flaunting High” are saved by a seriously strong low-end, monolithic bass loop, the type you might miss if you didn’t know it was there, that only gives way in the dying seconds to a golden stretch of beatless ambient. “Transitions” boasts a ghostly bass riff that will creep around your peripheral consciousness whenever you hear it, haunting you like a monster under the bed.
That being said, Illusion’s occasional moments of harmonious interaction between high and low are among the finest Lawrence has achieved. “Yu Yu”—named after a club in Mexico city—brings in another sinister, deeper-than-deep bassline after around two minutes before crafting a Wagnerian (or erm, GASeous?) string arrangement over the top, an interplay that makes it hard to say whether the song is melancholic or uplifting. The album’s title track is a brilliant, slow-burning grower, gradually overlapping high-pitched choral melodies over one another in a way that recalls Huerco S.’s “For Those Of You Who Have Never (And Also Those Who Have),” but underpinned by the sort of bass you might have heard on the same artist’s earlier, Opal Tapes-released material.
“Montreaux,” which comes towards the end of both tracklistings, is probably the pinnacle of Illusion’s perpetual above-and-below contrast. Its early introduction of an off-kilter hi-hat beat (15 seconds in) makes it the most irresistibly danceable track on the album, which combines with a leaden bass and blooms of light overhead to create a constantly evolving journey of a track.
Despite that, it’s hard to choose a favorite in a collection of tracks that reveal more and more with each listen. While such a facet is to be applauded, it’s also not without reservation. The “boring” tag sometimes attached to minimal music is done so lazily, but it must be said that—like many records on Dial—Illusion would be easy to dismiss as unremarkable if not paid due attention. For those patient enough, infinite treasures hide within, most often in the dark depths of the bass. That these only become obvious on high-quality systems or headphones raises a question or two about the production choices, which render these low-end delights difficult to hear—or easy to ignore—on a Bluetooth speaker or low-budget setup.
Yet music that reaches out to you, slapping you in the face and lifting your hands into the air has never been of great concern to Dial. Lawrence and his cohorts are far more interested in steadily burrowing their way inside your head, massaging your frontal lobes while all the while keeping your feet moving. “I am still a 100% vinyl DJ,” Kersten told RA back in 2008, hinting at which of Illusion’s tracklistings he might secretly prefer. His fondness for wax, for making music you can listen to at home like you would a Kraftwerk or Pink Floyd album, is clear, but he still places himself behind the turntables. It may just be that his latest record is that rarest of things in electronic music, a feat to which all ambient techno artists aspire: an album that’s as impactful on the mind as it is on the dancefloor.
Illusion LP will land on October 5 via Dial Records.