An impressive album debut from the Dystopian boss.
Berlin’s Rødhåd (Mike Bierbach) has operated in the city’s underground as a DJ and party promoter since the end of the 1990s. A techno advocate from the beginning, he launched his Dystopian events in 2009 and built up a cult following with parties at Berlin’s best subterranean spots. Later taken under the wing of the Berghain crew, playing at the storied club regularly, his legend grew, and he began to spin at respected venues across Europe. Voted for by Resident Advisor readers, he placed highly in the site’s DJ poll in 2013 (No.38) and has been a big DJ draw ever since.
Techno lovers might be less aware of his considerable production back catalog. His 2012 debut Blindness on Dystopian was a dark, beatless miasma of sinister sound design and gothic vocals (from Sara Clarke), while the follow-up, the George Orwell themed 1984 EP —remember, the label’s called Dystopian folks—delved into groovier, dubwise Detroit techno beats (as on “Newspeak”).
His recent material, such as “Oblivion” on Modeselektor’s now kaput 50 Weapons, is a better indication of Rødhåd’s current direction: moody yet intricate, a detailed portrait painted in shades of grey. His debut album Anxious fleshes out this sound further, adding deeper melodic textures to an already compelling sonic palette.
The opener “Unleash” starts with a disturbing drone, but blossoms into a beatless ambient piece with spiraling arpeggios suggesting a shimmering neon cityscape—did he get an early screening of “Bladerunner 2049″? It suggests a hitherto unseen skill for atmospheric soundtrack material, further strengthened by the break-laden tension of “Withheld Walk,” where these dark tones—a Rødhåd trademark—are decorated by discordant metallic bleeps. “Escape” introduces a heavy 4/4 kick for the first time, yet it’s not aimed at the dancefloor; instead, a pipe organ drone starts up, melting into half-heard voices and all manner of effects. It’s an impressive, spacious sound signature.
“Awash” breaks with tradition somewhat, an IDM piece that builds with beautiful ambient pads and a high flute-like melody. “Glimmer of Light” is an acid-laced techno cut not quite as bright and breezy as its name suggests, but just as immersive as the rest of the record. “Target Line” (featuring Vril) is a highlight, built of granite kicks and a growling synth bass that circulates with diaphanous keys and trippy bells for a lost-in-the-moment dancefloor gem. Similarly, “Burst” is epic: a slow burner of majestic synth strings and heavy stop-start Amen breaks that suggests an appreciation for another techno fusionist, Shed. “Left Behind” is a dubby techno cut that doesn’t really stand out, yet “Cast a Shadow” is a masterful piece of ambient sound design that allows a few sunrays to penetrate the gloom.
Rødhåd is brilliant at crafting these atmospheric pieces, and it’s an intriguing extension of his art beyond his obvious skill as a DJ. He’s already found his musical niche, and it’s engrossing to listen to him make real the dark dreams of his imagination. His love of sepulchral sounds does make Anxious samey, but at its best, as on “Target Line” and “Burst”, it’s incredible. Tracks such as these hint that Rødhåd may have more captivating creations to come.
Anxious is out now via Dystopian