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V/A - Total 9

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Artist: V/A

Album: Total 9

Label: Kompakt

Review date: Aug. 12, 2008

For those of us not inclined to flick through the fortnightly Kompakt singles bar, the label’s annual Total hug-ins are essential listening. Of course, now that the critical bottom has fallen out of the ‘minimal thang,’ I’m expecting Total 9 to garner some pretty shabby responses, in line with the Kompakt exhaustion that I’ve seen setting in among crit-hipster types over the past few years. I guess we are a fair way gone from the Total 3/4, Immer honeymoon phase, when the Kompakt team were saint-like creatures sent to save microhouse from picking its navel lint to death, but the collective ass can stay safely free of cover: Total 9’s mostly a safe bet.

But whereas you could once gauge changes in the wind through licking your finger and sticking it in front of the speakers, Kompakt’s reach is so manifold right now – trance as soft as downy pillows, introverted disco, willowy tech-house, globular ambience and on – Total 9’s defining context is its lack of definition. At the most, there’s a shared production style somewhere between wilting bedroom electronica and chart-bound takes on house/electro/etc. So Justus Köhncke’s opener, “No Thanks for the Add,” sits between two poles – it develops slowly and thoughtfully but never breaks out. Here the little touches matter, like the off-center placement of maracas, stumbling hi-hats, and the wraithlike drone slithering in the undergrowth.

Similarly, figures like Superpitcher, Burger/Voigt and Thomas Fehlmann all turn in good, reliable yet resolutely not-surprising tracks. It’s up to DJ Koze’s “Zouzou” to provide the first genuine moment of weird: jittery arpeggios pingponging under a steady, muted boom, sounding as though they’re lifted from an ‘80s news report. The 1980s also crop up in Partial Arts’ “Telescope” – this is pure calligraphy and pointillism, drawing from early electro and techno. It’s surface-gorgeous, and epic/grandiose in patented Ewan Pearson style, but do I hear distinct and unwelcome recall of Vince Clarke and Yazoo in those melodies?

There’s some nice, low-rent chugging Moroder action here, too – disco is one of disc one’s subtexts, from the aforementioned Partial Arts and Köhncke, through Superpitcher’s “Disko (You Don’t Care),” where a stuttering diva babbles vocal science, to the nervy, jabbing guitar figure in Supermayer’s “Hey Hotties!,” whose breakdown is absolutely fruity. Total 9 would benefit from more oddness like this, more touches that throw these songs slightly off kilter. Jörg Burger’s “Modernism Begins at Home” is an indie cover of Human Resource’s hardcore classic “Dominator,” mere millimeters from Hot Chip territory. Stationed in this middle ground, parts of Total 9 pass you by and land on the coffee table.

Sometimes, though, it’s so lovely you can’t deny the appeal. Dubshape’s “Droplets (Early Night Mix)” is a sleek autobahn glide of Detroit dandyism, trilling arpeggio patterns bouncing across muted chords that recall Sascha Funke’s “Drei Auf Drei” from Total 3. The faltering vocal on the following “I Can’t Stop Loving You” humanises Jonas Bering’s race for the pop prize, and the production is feather-on-the-breath light, but undeniably beautiful for it – high on laughing gas. And while Kaito’s numbed-out trance is both dated and pro-forma, it never fails to thrill: his “Everlasting Dub” is gorgeously dewy-eyed.

Somewhere in the middle of everything, but way above the crowd, stands Matias Aguayo’s “Minimal.” Sexy without trying, seductive when merely flicking his eyebrow, Aguayo’s effortless charm works wonders on “Minimal”’s sinuous, stumbling groove. Its ‘performative imperfection’ flags what’s missing from Total 9’s small clutch of staid productions: the tics and falters of the body, the pre-quantised shakes and shimmies of the groove. With a sighing female chorus on hand to swoon across a steamy scrum of clacking percussion, “Minimal”’s the second coming of Ze Records, with Aguayo the charmer/chancer, a la Kid Creole; alternately, it picks up on the erotic heat and languor of Loose Joints’ “Tell You Today.”

So, Total 9’s a good listen. Nevertheless, while stranded somewhere in the middle of disc two, a slightly unpleasant sensation gripped me: this could be 2020, I could be listening to Total 21, and it could well sound exactly the same. Around the same time, while flicking through Simon Reynolds’s recently published ‘remix’ of Energy Flash, I read his description of microhouse: ‘hedonism tempered by taste,’ a phrase that fits Kompakt’s project like a glove. It’s both positive and negative: tastefulness leads down cul-de-sacs of bland, but in the right hands it makes for complex worm-turning tracks that lose nothing for their seemingly in-/super-human generation.

I can still handle Kompakt’s ‘tastefulness’ because their gestures toward populism are so witchy, but if I’ve one suggestion, it’s that they need to be careful to avoid turning their label into a flat-pack Ikea stable for techno-pop: 12”s of interior design, digital décor, the new white cube. (Some people, of course, have been saying this all along – but they’re no fun.) Kompakt have done a good job micro-managing their brand, but they need to watch a tendency toward tediously tweaking the same parameters. I have an odd feeling Total 10 will be particularly telling…

By Jon Dale

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