The Shadowy World of Dark Techno
Since its earliest days, electronic music has had a sense of the dark and sinister written into its core code. From the first industrial experiments of Throbbing Gristle and Cabaret Voltaire in the 1970s, through the moody sci-fi visions of Juan Atkins at the birth of Detroit Techno, this darkness has fueled some of the most visionary musicians and propelled some of the genre’s most important developments.
At its peak in the UK, circa 1992 and ’93, rave split apart into two distinct cultures: the manic, piano-fuelled “happy hardcore” and its evil twin “Darkside,” which introduced horror atmospherics, along with the dread bass pressure of ragga and dub and the threat of gangsta rap (a key early track, “Nightmare” by Kid Unknown on WARP, sampled Ice-T’s line “I am a nightmare walking” for its hook).
There was, of course, a racial and cultural subtext to this: “darkness” became a metaphor, playing on and amplifying fears of blackness as the once-unifying rave scene splintered apart.
Almost a decade later, a few south London musicians turned the funky shuffle of UK garage into the starker, heavier “new dark swing,” which intensified and became dubstep. This time, the darkness was literal: a move from glitzy clubs and dressing up to introspective, hoods-up dancing on dark, smoky dancefloors.
In continental Europe—and especially Germany—there has always been a strand of techno that has its own, very different, very Gothic darkness about it. Though rooted in the earliest days of industrial music, its sound is defined by the latest technology, and it continues to provide bracing and sometimes bleak soundtracks to nights of hedonism.
In the last few years, acts like Ancient Methods have brought a heaviness back to the Berlin scene, in dramatic contrast to the airy weightlessness of the “minimal” scene of the 2000s. These sounds are epitomized by Berlin DJ/producer Rødhåd and his aptly-named Dystopian label. Dystopian has made a serious mark on the Berlin – and thus global
– techno scene, starting as a regular party, then evolving into the label which has racked up 18 12”/EP releases since 2012, and now takes another step forward with a new album by veteran producer Monoloc.
His album The Untold Way is extraordinary, parsing industrial, dub, and dancefloor heat into something never obviously brutal, but still unsettling and exciting in equal measure—a proper dystopian sci-fi movie in audio form.
Sometimes it has straight techno rhythms, at others, as on “Cloning Society” it resembles the wounded shuffle of UK producer Burial, ghostly vocal melodies and all, but with a creepy, scratchy physicality that makes it very much its own sound. It perfectly matches Rødhåd’s description of the sound of his label: “for me,
music with an emotional, melancholic touch is darker music. It shows that music can create an atmospheric touch in your mind without being cheesy or losing identity. That’s what I like about darker sounds.”
But this isn’t just a musical scary movie. It’s a complete work that manipulates the depths of human emotions as a kind of thrill ride. Just as when Detroit’s techno first emerged as a response to a formerly-thriving industrial city in economic collapse, Rødhåd says Dystopian is a response to the world around him. “That’s the really scary part about our label, to be honest,” he says. “
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