Music and art tends to thrive when it has something to react against, and the protean nature of techno has often made it seemed like a lab experiment for this idea. Usually the spark that provides techno with its desire to tear everything up and start again is more techno; it reacts against itself, growing bored with whatever dominates until it begins to shoot off in a different – and usually polar opposite – direction.
Compared to the major part of electronic music in the first years of the millennium’s last decade, electronic music which was loud, large and brash, and coloured by the experience of acid house and rave, dub techno offered a very different trip. Stripped down, built on the throb of the bass and scrambling effects, and more focused on the journey than the destination dub techno provided a deeper experience, and one that seemed designed to luxuriate in and take your time over. In its way, dub helped to reset techno’s value system. It ushered in an era where sound design and structure took on a paramount importance, almost as if techno was beginning to really mature and take itself seriously.
Almost as quickly as it arrived, it seemed to be joined by other forms that shared an interest in this approach. Minimal techno in particular, which had already been defined by Robert Hood’s lean, naked grooves, seemed to take the lessons dub techno taught to heart. The early minimal teased out ideas from a deliberately limited palette. The emphasis on drums and bass, and the exploration of the space between the sounds had their strong parallels with dub, but seemed more analytical, more precise. Good dub is frequently hazy and heavy; it works its tricks through the deepening repetition that can be both expansive and claustrophobic. Minimal often seemed to sidestep this, using effects to accent instead of define, and building on the interplay between the handful of elements to push forward.Here the repetition was tighter, verging on something hypnotic.
Wolfgang Voigt’s Studio 1 project was designed to explore minimal techno over 10 records released in the mid nineties. Listening to them in order, it is easy to sense a development of the ideas. Each of them are very much dedicated to the genre’s austere approach, lacking almost everything but kicks, bass and perc, but here and there are touches of a more fluid take, either subtly making their presence felt on the surface, but more often appearing like one of those dried up river beds on Mars: defining and influencing but no longer really there.
Grün 1, the first track on the very first release, shows this cross over between dub techno and the ideas of artists like Hood, Dan Bell and the other early movers. While there is a crispness to it, and an arrangement which is impressively empty of anything ephemeral, it is the massive throb of the bass that defines it. Cleaner perhaps than it would be in dub, the bassline carries the tune forward, creating the bedrock that everything else clatters against. It is also more driving than most dub manages to be, harder too: Dub’s softened, rounded edges are sharpened here, more angular, providing a raw skank that is as sleek as anything that came out of Detroit.
Like any successful genre the stars in the firmament soon became crowded by the smaller, more leaden bodies. Both dub and minimal were easy to make but very hard to get right, and the heritage of both suffered from music that failed to understand that the lack of clutter throws the light on everything that’s left. Dub seemed to become marshier, perhaps more one-dimensional as people gave too much attention to the bass. Minimal seemed to lose sight of the fact it is the way in which the barest necessities work together to create the groove rather than how few or clever those barest of necessities are that was the point. Not that it mattered by that point. The job had been done and new ways of doing things had been cast into the air to pollinate new minds. Before long the shoots of new music began to bloom and techno’s protean, almost Darwinian nature reasserted itself once again.