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Ellen Allien - Thrills

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Artist: Ellen Allien

Album: Thrills

Label: Bpitch Control

Review date: Jul. 1, 2005

It may not be as apparent here in America, where import 12” techno and electro singles trickle in and rarely find an audience outside of Wire-approved dancefloors where more chinstroking is done than bodyrocking, but there’s a whole cottage industry in Germany based around Ellen Allien. A respected techno DJ who successfully made the transition into tastemaker, businesswoman, and now fashion designer, her Bpitch Control imprint works as an electro-popsicle foil to Kompakt’s chillier mechanical funk omnibus. And with both labels churning out a sizable chunk of back catalog and developing a formidable stable of artists, the onus is on Ms. Allien and her compatriots to find new sounds for the forwardthinking DJs and dance crowds who follow her every move. After over five years, most of Bpitch’s output stands up: they had one of the original electroclash breakout hits (Toktok vs Soffy O’s still-bracing “Missy Queen’s Gonna Die”), and leftfield successes from artists like Allien, Paul Kalkbrenner, and Kiki. Bpitch hasn’t come close to toppling Kompakt’s staggering amount of releases and sub-labels, and while I’m sure it’s not a contest by any stretch, it’s up to No. 2 to try harder. It’s refreshing to see innovation in any long-term musical project, at any rate, and as the founder of the label, Allien’s initiative for change is as much of a top-down mandate as the mark of a true innovator.

Which makes Thrills, her third studio album, an intriguing proposition, as the very technology that’s propped up her career thus far is not the star attraction anymore. The music here feels not so much modern as refurbished. Where her debut Stadtkind sounded like wringing out a towel soaked with digital sweat-bits onto a chrome dance floor, and Berlinette loped atop a billowing swarm of nanobots in the sky, Thrills stays within earthly, already imagined confines, like a factory full of Kraftwerkian showroom dummy b-boys getting down in sync while playing Yar’s Revenge. Much of this comes down to the gear: Allien fished out a working ARP 2600 synthesizer off eBay and dusted off the Roland TR-808 and used the hardware as a primary tool for generating the sounds on this album. The beats on an 808 block themselves out in rigid quarters, and the analog buzzing, chirping and endlessly tweakable permutations of noise lend themselves to the kind of music on the album, the least pop and most straightforward she’s made yet, and the most minimal since her harsh, clipped 2001 single “Erdbeermund.”

And yet Allien finds ways to play by her own rules, even as the technology plays her. The leadoff track, “Come,” is a dramatic shuttle down dark and reverberating corridors of guitar, bass and synth oscillated until it sounds like a jagged sculpture looming above. Tracks made specifically for the dancefloor finally get their moment onstage; “Magma” rides the Moroder-designed U-Bahn through murky, underlit tunnels, “Down” is this year’s Man Parrish award winner – the robot workout that Daft Punk failed to deliver, and “Cloudy City” builds an architecturally distinct yet nervously heads-down race through the streets of an imaginary Gotham. And “Ghost Train” is a fantastic, poppy instrumental that fuses Krautrock-limbered bass with a propulsive beat and enthusiastic synth buzzlings. That the remainder of the album doesn’t work as well is almost saved by these tracks; its inertia would have sunk less buoyant material, and her flat voice desperately needs the vocoders and digital manipulation ever-present on past releases. That Ellen Allien can still make the record stand on its own, and open up to us another facet of her creative world, is her graceful and knowing secret. And the remixes will no doubt be killer.

By Doug Mosurock

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