Perfect Sound Forever


Photo by Maryse Lariviere

by Jonathan Dale
(March 2003)

If it's often said that the music of German duo MRI exemplifies the genre of MicroHouse (a reduced, glitchified form of House music), what's not observed is how the duo pull the rubric of said genre in so many different directions. Over a period of almost four years, they've released a clutch of 12" singles and two albums, throughout which they've managed to concurrently reduce MicroHouse to its purest, most aesthetically rigorous form, and expand its brief to include the blasted 'heroin house' of the Basic Channel roster, melancholic pop, R&B, and the shivery textures and glimmering lights of disco.

The duo met at the tail-end of 1999 in Frankfurt. Stephan Lieb had recently relocated from Cologne and met Frank Elting (who had also shifted, but from Würzburg) through an advertisement in a newspaper. Both have interesting histories: Lieb's musical epiphany involved a crappy phonograph and a copy of Chic's "Le Freak." Soon after, he discovered the 'Neue Deutsche Welle' (German post-punk) before finishing school, completing national service, and had a second epiphany about House and Techno, which he proclaims "outshined all I knew about sound structures." Frank Elting's history is similarly snaky: bass guitar, woodshedding with friends, before graduating to the local jazz circuit. On relocation to Frankfurt, Elting began an apprenticeship as a sound engineer, before hooking up with Lieb. The duo's quartet of sonic configurations - MRI, Blake C., Kingsize XS and Elting_Lieb - may have all produced fascinating music (Blake C.'s Traveling Without Moving is a rare shot-in-the-arm for blissed-out, dreamscape ambient techno), but it's the MRI branding that has made for the most consistently startling aesthetic maneuvers.

A handful of singles emerged on the then-nascent Force Tracks label before MRI launched their debut album, Rhythmogenesis, in 2000. Once you've immersed yourself in the steely-gray yet doey-eyed sublimity of the album, Stephan Lieb's background in medicine seems oddly appropriate. The micro-biologies of sound which inhabit Rhythmogenesis hint at an almost clinical purity- sound at its most reduced, technically predicated, and micro-managed. Yet their music never fails to be sensual and sexual. The extasé of these seemingly never-ending tracks (which don't so much develop as slowly unfurl, existing on an elevated plateau) are exemplary of the way in which the motor of dance music - the incessant hypnotism of the rhythm - still allows for the most experimental sonics. Listening to Rhythmogenesis makes for a curiously sensual experience: music that seems to skim the surface of the listener's body, like watching tiny snowflake swarms mutate and spin around each other in an impossibly rapturous dance.

The story behind the Rhythmogenesis album is fascinating. Lieb: "As we started producing music, we had the idea to create something special. We didn’t think about terms like MicroHouse. We wanted to produce sounds that lead away from the music, using elements and sounds that lead one away from attention, from the precision of pursuing individual thought steps. A type of biology surplus to the accommodation, which is only possible through nightlife, e.g. through excessive dancing, the great force of the volume and/or by substances. All that we wanted to transfer in music to such a perfection that it also can be transferred alone at home, completely alone, with quiet listening over headphones." That captive moment - the dance floor being analogous to micro-biological pursuit, a kind of biological reaction cause by the sweat and sizzle of night-life, of bodies moving and wrapping/warping around each other in an impossible dance - is caught in tracks from Rhythmogenesis like "To Be Honest" and "Human Patterns," both of which feature little clicks and trebly stammers that move around and mutate into each other like DNA chains. It’s music placed under a microscope. It's what Australian dance critic Tim Finney identified as MicroHouse reduced to its bare essentials: a kind of scientific attention or scrutiny to miniaturised details, the little crinkles in sound fabric (or, as Stereolab recently put it, the 'black ants in sound dust') that swim and flutter around MicroHouse's four-to-the-floor substructure. "Rhythmogenesis was an absolutely reduced album, a concept album" says Lieb.

Rhythmogenesis pushed MRI to the forefront of MicroHouse (even if, in many cases, it was a recent perspective trick as I only really latched onto MRI just before their second album was released). But in the two years between Rhythmogenesis and their second album All That Glitters, changes were afoot. As with a lot of dance producers and fans, for a lot of house and tech-house fanatics, the mind-altering productions streaming out of American R&B were having major effects. Lieb states that "in the time between the two albums, we were influenced by the really great Timbaland productions," particularly his startling work with the late Aaliyah. "For me, "Try Again" was weird, definitely crazy. It had brought back the kick into R&B. That's what I like most." MRI paid tribute to Aaliyah by dedicating All That Glitters to her and doing a meta-cover of "Try Again" under the new title of "Blue." It sounded like Timbaland trying to fight his way through a massive burst of steam, hiss and fog, with the 'kick' of the original version sublimated under layers of post-Chain Reaction bliss-scape texturology. The romantic devotional of Aaliyah's original vocal was likewise upturned and re-written with a more despairing, melancholic feel. "Blue" works as one of the hinges upon which All That Glitters sits- MRI's ability to re-wire pop music into house productions that still carry the meta-effects of populist phenomena. Neither completely mainstream nor completely obscure and underground, MRI bask in a kind of 'becoming-minor', which theorists Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari claim "doesn't come from a minor language; it is rather that which a minority constructs within a major language." Situating their work somewhat between two polarities, MRI discredit any desire to romanticie the marginal nature of so much underground or tech-house music or to privilege mainstream thought as a kind of reactionary, knee-jerk response.

So it comes as no surprise that, after making their 'absolutely reduced' album Rhythmogenesis, the duo should turn their hands to pop music, disco, R&B and pure pleasure on All That Glitters. And, of course, it makes perfect sense that MRI can be both consistently clued in to micro-movements in the tech-house brigade (they're close to the Kompakt and Force Tracks labels) and simultaneously listen to "New Order stuff, (Mark) Bell's Depeche Mode production, and a lot (of) old Pet Shop Boys". But Lieb claims there was a more pivotal moment which decided the direction of All That Glitters: "while producing All That Glitters, there appeared this Alcazar track, "Crying at the Discotheque." A marvelously simple song, with the great statement "join the disco tribe." The tracks "Tied to the 80s" and "All That Glitters" are influenced by it, even if we used no vocals." All That Glitters seriously upped the ante with a selection of glitzy MicroDisco stompers that gave off an oddly synaesthetic feel, as if one was listening to the lights glinting off of a revolving mirror ball. "Tied to the 80s" in particular glimmers with a chintzy disco gleam, like Kraftwerk circa-Computer World and Basic Channel duetting on a cover of Kylie's "Can't Get You Out of My Head" at a karaoke night in Studio 54.

I asked Lieb what the meaning was behind the title "Tied to the 80s." It seemed to be either prophetic or damning, depending on how you looked at it. While the eighties are definitely 'back in fashion' (check both Electroclash and the juicy-disco of acts like Metro Area and I:Cube), a lot of the music produced is somewhat lacking. Lieb concurs: "during production time, I often visited a friend of mine who moved to Berlin. When I went out with him to clubs like WMF and Ostgut, there was this big ‘80’s hype, not only in music. You saw people running around with the old ‘80’s clothes, looking horrible hip, listening to old-school ‘80’s remakes and stuff. I hated it, in fact I grew up in the ‘80’s so I didn’t want to see and hear the old shit again. Only a few artists in the ‘80’s were really creative and important in music. For me, the ‘80’s were a very commercial and materialism influenced time. So the title “Tied to the 80’s” has a really sarcastic meaning."

But musically, "Tied to the 80s" is one of the most important tracks on the album. It's where MRI shows that they are totally savvy vis-a-vis the tricks of the trade. They extract an almost torturously long build-up out of thumping house-disco rhythm before letting the piece unfold with a pirouetting, rotating string sample that's so shivery-spangly, so trebly and tickly, so amazingly rapturous, you feel like you're about to explode from the pure absolute pleasure of it all. It's tracks like this that had people on the 'I Love Music' website asking "what, if anything, is MicroHouse about All That Glitters." Lieb sees it a little differently: "even if some people say to us (that) we turned our backs to MicroHouse, it's quietly (in) the same way. Sequencers, drum machines and sampler. Only this time, we used some more glittering items and vocals. We selected some warm and discoid sounds, because we liked the feeling suggested thereby. It is produced with everything which one could call 'dance technology'."

All That Glitters did definitely signpost a sideways shift for MRI but their production is still as micro-managed and intricate as before. This stands MRI in good stead for their future, which Lieb claims will see them "definitely going POP, whatever that means. More song structure, vocals etc. I like songwriting the most, like Depeche Mode, New Order or Pet Shop Boys. They do pop in their own and unique way. Depeche Mode are working with unique sounds, of course (in) their style. My personal impression is that the Depeche Mode’s days are over but it's of course a fact that Martin Gore does perfect songwriting. He's the best in writing songs about the boringness of life." (Although the Pet Shop Boys gave it a bloody good shot with "Being Boring," you'd have to admit.) The most recent example of MRI's work is their track "Disco Discovery" on Force Tracks' recent Digital Disco compilation. The song has a pop sheen that also hints in yet another direction- a kind of glam rock take on MicroPop and Digital Disco. Because it certainly shares a certain stomp and shiny glitz with T-Rex and Roxy Music, Lieb observed that this track "has a sarcastic, cheesy touch and in fact [is] not really [in] a songwriting or uptempo disco style, but it's quite groovy." Indeed.

Between MRI's ongoing pursuit of the perfect concatenation of pop, house, micro-production, disco and abstract electronics, the duo also curates two record labels, Resopal and Konvex|Konkav. Lieb: "the main idea behind the labels is to release music like our Rhythmogenesis stuff as well as abstract electronic music. I love to receive demos from people who produce music in their home studios, have great ideas. I listen to it and release the tracks. We have international artists like New York's Alka whose release Deployed is out now, as well as Chicago based Billy Dalessandro, Cologne's Misc., G-Man, Akufen, etc."

With a double-life of music production and label curation, it looks like the duo of Elting and Lieb could well become the heads of the post-MicroHouse diaspora, which is an idea I could warm to quite readily. Such is the way dance subcultures work that one can't utilize clichéd quotes like 'cheat them out of obscurity' (due to the vast turnover rate of dance culture, 'obscurity' is a ridiculous, rock-journo, record-collector predicated conceit). But I think your life would be better off for having heard and loved their records to date: they put a spring in the step like little else.

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