Over two decades into a DJing career that has taken her from the murky origins of Berlin’s nightclub boom of the early 1990s to one of the most visible electronic artists in the world and owner of a label and fashion brand, Ellen Allien has thankfully shown no signs of slowing down. In addition to the occasional mix (Watergate 05 is the most recent), Allien has delivered original full-length material regularly since 2001’s Stadtkind. One of her most appealing traits is the unpredictability of her material. Every release date announcement comes coupled with a host of questions wondering just how accessible or experimental the release is going to be.
When Dust, her fifth solo full-length, was announced earlier this year, the big question was not how accessible or experimental it would be, but how much more; in many ways, 2008’s Sool felt like a departure from her colorful earlier work and into the heady minimalism producer Antye Greie (a.k.a. AGF) is so fond of. The intense remoteness of the songs turned a fair amount of her fans off for not leaving an immediate impression, but those that stayed behind were rewarded by an astounding amount of microsounds and production detail of the highest order. In many ways, it was more a spiritual successor to 2005’s Thrills than the 2006 Apparat collaboration, Orchestra of Bubbles.
It takes about a minute and a half to discover Dust is not an extension of Sool’s departure. Instead, Allien has finally proven that her albums aren’t as unpredictable as was once thought: Dust falls right in line with the more pop-oriented LPs she releases as breathers between the more polarizing challenges of her experimental side. “Our Utopie” opens up with bell chimes and an echoing guitar that have as much brightness in the basic loop of their melody than all of Sool put together. It’s an immediate indicator that we’ve turned the clock back to Apparat or Smash TV times, except now her producer is 20-year Berlin techno veteran Tobias Freund. Freund and Allien are less concerned with the spaces between sounds; like Orchestra of Bubbles or Berlinette, there is an emphasis on melody.
There are still the more challenging moments of her experimental side, the insistent radar ping of “My Tree” or the stuttering “Dream” obvious examples in this regard. By and large, however, this album is full of pop moments: “Flashy Flashy” would work well in a DJ set with the ”flashy flashy disco lights” she describes. “Sun the Rain” and “You” are out-and-out pop numbers with lead guitars, bridges and choruses anyone can sing along to.
While those songs represent Dust’s extremes, there’s also the rest of the music, which drifts somewhere between the two poles. “Should We Go Home” is a menacing nocturnal instrumental which somehow still remains catchy, and album closer “Schlumi” has an elastic synth lead that sounds as buoyant as any ’90s Euro-pop production. Guitar fuzz buzzes around the speakers, and clarinet appears as an airhorn. These two songs best encapsulate what Dust feels like as a whole: constantly bouncing between styles without sacrificing a welcoming melodic vibe.
How much you enjoy Dust, then, is how much you enjoy Allien’s penchant for indulging in this accessible side. There are plenty of moments for the Stadtkind/Thrills/Sool crowd to enjoy, but this is not their record. Ellen has swung the pendulum back the other way as relief from the remoteness of Sool, and the reward is a record that sounds like you’d expect it to, but never exactly so. Few pleasures equal the excitement of a new Ellen Allien record for this reason. If Dust is a departure from anything, it is from the point where we stop asking the question, “How accessible or experimental will this be?,” and start asking a much simpler question that speaks to the heart of her greatness: “Have you heard this?”