Techno has a history of hiding its oddballs in plain sight. As the more dancefloor- and minimal-oriented alias of DJ/producer Lawrence (né Peter Kersten), Sten might seem like an excuse by Kersten to offset his moody, often unpredictable work as Lawrence with more coolly formal exercises. Following 2004’s Leaving the Frantic, The Essence is Kersten’s second long-player under the Sten moniker, and while he continues to draw heavily from, and pay tribute to, Detroit techno and Chicago house – filtering their clockwork-like rhythms, sense of propulsion, and glossy sheen through a minimal attentiveness to pacing and development – The Essence is more than a producerly homework assignment.
Never losing a sense of forward movement, the nine songs here are, like Rhythim is Rhythim or Juan Atkins, the ideal kind of driving music. Unlike those Detroit techno pioneers, however, Sten has shaved off the bleeding-edge futurism of his machine music, opting for percussive filigrees (see the glassware clink-track on “Unknown Faces” or the title track’s ebbing bongos), thrumming basslines, and slightly dim synth. Sten really knows his way around a 4/4 beat: when he drops the snare in favor of a handclap or uses a more open-sounding hi-hat, he shifts the song’s mood and pushes forward its narrative, subtly but completely. More importantly, though, he’s able to arrange each song’s other elements in a way that allows the listener to slip outside of the 4/4 beat every so often – at points, “The Gate” conveys the feeling of slipping away from friends at a club, finding a pocket on the dancefloor where the mix gets inverted and you can imagine the DJ is playing something from the latest Pop Ambient compilation.
Ultimately, though, this proposition does not apply to the whole of The Essence. At points, the music contained here seems as willfully under-lit and potentially ad hoc as its cover art. This is perhaps a function of its aesthetic allegiance to minimal techno – a track like “More Stash” gives the sense of living in a musically childproofed world, all smooth plastic curves and rubber floors. The album has no moments of real release or transcendence, insisting stubbornly on teasing its small, but no less real, pleasures out of subtle gradations in texture.
In a sense, the lack of climaxes here allies itself as naturally to the art-historical intimist movement – its deformable shapes, bright colors, and pure domesticity – as it does to minimal’s ostensibly reformist goals. It would be a stretch to say that the minimal subgenre’s mission is some sort of universality, since minimal is uniquely well-suited to localization; The Field’s mix for the Nordic Light Hotel is exemplary in this regard. But despite its implicit aims, the goal of minimal is no less expansive than the rest of techno, and is guilty of its own brand of excess. In drawing on largely American sources and applying a minimalist sense of arrangement, Sten nevertheless manages to create a middle ground that both suggests and integrates itself into domestic as well as social scenes.