Sharps & flats

Carl Craig and a new Detroit techno compilation examine past futures and futures past.

Published October 20, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

The Planet E "Geology" retrospective sounds best when mixed with the spontaneous vibrations of the street. Police sirens, ambulances, street car gurgles, cell phones, home boys with pumped sound systems -- these urban sound bites sound natural next to the minimalist tones and pulses of techno. "We are approaching noise-sound," wrote Italian Futurist Luigi Rossolo 81 years ago in his "Art of Noise" manifesto. "This revolution of music is paralleled by the increasing proliferation of machinery." Rossolo wasn't writing about techno, of course, but his idea still applies today: Mechanized music suits a mechanized world. As long as cities and technology persist, electronic music will continue to be the most environmentally reflective soundtrack.

The diverse sampling of artists on Planet E -- the label run by Detroit techno innovator Carl Craig -- proves that the techno aesthetic still thrives in the Motor City, where the music was pioneered by Kevin Saunderson, Derrick May and Juan Atkins in the late '80s. The classic Detroit sound is loosely characterized by sparse instrumentation and limited vocals alongside a hybrid of electro, funk and dramatic deep house dance rhythms and melodies. The sound is the antithesis of the speedy, hard European variety that eventually took over in the early '90s and stigmatized the original Detroit product.

Lauded as visionary musician and DJ by his peers, Craig devised "Geology" to navigate listeners through the roots of Detroit techno as well as illuminate the current direction of soulful techno, which now also stretches into drum 'n' bass. In addition to tracks from Craig's own projects (69, Innerzone Orchestra, Paperclip People), the album also features a number of influential early cuts by artists such as Moodyman, Common Factor, Gemini and Jason Hogans -- not all from Detroit, but all dedicated to the sound of Detroit.

The Planet E artists build complex rhythms and melodies through a very frugal, controlled use of sound. The machine is their palette. Craig's "If Mojo Was AM," an ode to an old Detroit radio DJ named Electrifying Mojo, is a sublimely simple, purely hypnotic dance track built from a conga drum loop and laid over a deep, steady bass line. Nick Calengart of Common Factor brings in a straight-ahead techno house sound with Horizons, a beautiful, house-club-anthem worthy single that kicks into pared-down funk, uplifting keyboards and happily frantic disco beats. Drum 'n' bass filters in through Jason Hogans' "Esteem," a gradually building, spaced-out break-beat jazz piece, while Felxitone keeps the bass lines wobbly with the acid house and electro inspired Electricity.

"Geology" is filled with a broad range of sophisticated dance music sounds, and poses a challenge the emotionless, misinformed stereotype of techno. Detroit techno is still first and foremost about soul. Listen closely with your windows open and you'll hear the city cry along with it.

By Amanda Nowinski

Amanda Nowinski is a freelance writer in San Francisco.

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