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Thomas Fehlmann - Visions of Blah

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Artist: Thomas Fehlmann

Album: Visions of Blah

Label: Kompakt

Review date: May. 21, 2003

Cologne Cool

Thomas Fehlmann’s Visions of Blah is a cool, clean, assured take on the current Cologne microhouse sound. While Fehlmann is the elder statesman on the scene, his aesthetics are well suited for microhouse’s attention to detail, both for the dancefloor and the living room.

In the late ’70s, Holger Hiller and Fehlmann formed Palais Schaumberg, soon to become one of the more innovative Neue Deutsche Welle (German New Wave) bands. Their sound was danceable yet avant-garde, incorporating sharp rhythms with Fehlmann’s bouncy analogs and Hiller’s wound-up expressionist vocals. In one case, with both hands in harmony and dissonance, the varispeed tape vocal experiments and heralding, deflating synth horns on “Wir Bauen Ein Neue Stadt,” applauded and doubted the building of a new city. Most interestingly, as a cheeky appropriation of Paul Hindemith’s 1931 operetta Wir Bauen Ein Stadt, it connects to (and questions) an earlier generation; Hindemith’s compositions were banned in Nazi Germany for their dissonance and modernity. But ignore the politics, history, and experiments and it’s still a great track, probably the standout off their eponymous 1981 full-length.

In 1985, the Palais Schaumberg bubble palace burst, and like so many others, Fehlmann (as Ready Made) began experimenting with newly cheap digital synths and samplers. In 1988 he started the Teutonic Beats label, releasing Detroit-influenced 12”s from the nascent German techno scene. Alex Paterson caught on, and soon Fehlmann was permanently contributing to the Orb’s perpetually floating sound in the studio and as a tour DJ. A residency at Tresor followed, and Fehlmann was later able to put art school to use, assisting in the design, visuals, and installations at Berlin’s Ocean Club.

These days, Fehlmann has been producing microhouse on the Cologne-based Kompakt label. With house’s beat and glitch’s attention to detail, microhouse is more a description of process than sound, aimed at constructing textures, layers, and space, but with the dancefloor in mind. And this subdued, precision-guided four-on-the-floor has proven surprisingly varied: there’s MRI’s glam-glitter, Matthew Herbert’s jazzy, composed grooves, Green Velvet’s straight-jacketed narratives, the density and vivisected vocals of Luomo (b/k/a Vladislav Delay), and Andrew Weatherall’s Hypercity takes a survey of the Mille Plateaux / Force Tracks sound.

Kompakt’s brand of microhouse is minimal and dub-influenced, and Fehlmann fits in perfectly. There are no vocals samples, and the beat itself is always subtle; texture gets equal (if not more) attention. In Fehlmann’s hands, this allows for a mélange of sounds, from reggae keyboards drenched in echo, to ambient jetstream tones, to building breakbeats, to acidy, pixelated, midi-nonsense 8-bit samples, never once falling for clichés. Certain fleeting moments feel like casual examples of a golden era in the history of house or techno. But with Fehlmann (and basically nobody else on the scene), these feel more like oral narratives than studied references. And like any good story, it knows how to keep your attention. Granted, Visions of Blah doesn’t make you want to lose your mind only to try and find it again, but it’s varied and competent enough to fit into any set.

By Elliott Brennan

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