Michael Mayer: Touch

VA: Speicher 2

These are busy times for Mayer, one of the governing operators of the Cologne-based Kompakt juggernaut which he has co-run with Wolfgang Voigt and Jürgen Paape since 1998. Not only does Mayer handle distribution duties during the week but on weekends morphs into a globe-trotting DJ with years of experience behind the decks. He's produced genre-defining 12” stunners like “Love Is Stronger Than Pride,” “17 & 4,” “Privat,” and “Speaker” and acclaimed mix CDs like Fabric 13, Immer, and Speicher 1. So no one should be overly surprised to learn that the plan for a full-fledged solo album was hatched eons ago. What does surprise is that he began working on it in 2001 but after starting and then stopping three times, ultimately created it in a mere three weeks. Better yet for Mayer fans, his second Speicher CD mix arrives at the same time. Once the excitement dies down, however, those same fans may ask how well the two measure up and whether the solo work meets expectations inflated by years of anticipation.

Let's focus on the mix first. Its seamless flow of fifteen tracks weighs in at seventy minutes, and like Speicher 1 draws from the label's 12-inch series of the same name (Speicher 19, for instance, features “Wurz + Blosse” and “Kisskisskiss” and 15 “Ari” and “Use Case”). The disc convincingly simulates the trajectory of a live set, beginning with a brief overture (a spoken German intro of gravely inflection underlaid by a dramatic orchestral passage), moving into deep slices of classic Kompakt styles, growing heavier with pumping tracks, and escalating into big beat schaffel by disc's end. Following the intro, the set begins stunningly with the rubbery, coiled bass lines of Wighnomy Brothers' “Wurz + Blosse” accompanied by the subtle hook of a faint machine clank and a softly skipping shuffle rhythm. Here Mayer's execution is at its most masterful as a potent, hypnotic piece is created using the most minimal means. From here on in, the mix grows denser yet never reclaims the magnificent subtlety of this opening. Wolfgang Voigt's “Nachschub” and Magnet's “Kisskisskiss” integrate the metallic sheen of dubby Basic Channel-Chain Reaction burble into their respective swinging grooves and pounding 4/4. Tension builds through the elastic throbs and ringing cymbals of DJ Koze's “Brutalga Square,” the jackboot pounding and lashing of Joachim Spieth's “Use Case,” and reaches another peak with the Voigt brothers' “Vision 04,” whose incessant repetitions of vertiginous synth whorls gradually induce trance.

Mayer's mix oozes a sheen as sleek and bright as a black Jaguar racing across the tundra and yet, in the end, the disc doesn't entirely satisfy because sometimes it's just too repetitive, relentless, and unvarying. Tracks like Fuchsbau's (Wolfgang Voigt) “Null/Eins,” for example, begin strongly (in this case a buzzing and grinding schaffel episode) but then hammer unremittingly with too little variation. Naum's closing “Ari” by contrast includes a couple of bridges to break up the throb of synths and 4/4beats, and escalates its pounding attack climactically to end with a spectacular flourish. (Admittedly, any such criticism should concede that the disc is created with a club setting in mind.)

To some degree, Speicher 2 understandably hews to the template of its featured contributors; Touch, by comparison, affords Mayer the chance to fully indulge a personal style. So how interesting it is to discover that Touch is almost old-fashioned in its adherence to an archetypal techno template as opposed to any of the fashionable microsampling and house-related strains of recent days. At eight tracks and fifty-two minutes, it's admirably concise, clean, and crisp. The album brings out Mayer's talent for dynamics, his ability to carefully modulate crescendo and dimuendo within a given song. Like Speicher 2, Touch begins masterfully if rather unassumingly with an ominous three-chord piano motif that ever-so-gradually escalates into a bombastic array of dizzying swirls and then explodes into … disco? Yep, classic disco, but only for a moment before skipping hi-hat patterns reposition the track firmly into techno territory. Almost unnoticeably, its initial rising-and-falling theme re-emerges in the background, abruptly arresting the song's propulsion as the intro swells again, repeating the disco rhythms and hi-hats before ending with an abrupt cymbal splash.

Another peak arrives with “Lovefood” where a whispered female voice sensually pleads (“Give me love, give me lovefood”) accompanied by a mysterious, Eastern-tinged melody of zither-like tone joined by a classic soul bass line. Magical moments emerge in the middle of the song when instruments drop away, leaving a creeping bass line punctuated by a gunshot clap and a squelchy, scratchy guitar. “Heiden” and “Neue Luthersche Fraktur” are notable too, the former for how cleverly Mayer isolates its fourth beat by giving the snare hit extra oomph, making it a slamming accent in every bar, and the latter for how masterfully Mayer escalates its hammering techno into roaring ghostly swirls that ultimately dissolve in a cloudburst.

But again lesser moments mute the overall impact. “Privat” is a great soul-funk groove but ultimately a groove only, and the minimal techno of “Funky Handclap” is credible but unexceptional, given the quality level one expects should reign throughout Touch. At over ten minutes, “Slowfood” is the album's epic centerpiece but it takes five minutes for its stuttering, lumbering rhythms to really start churning. From then on, bolstered by labyrinthine electro lines, it becomes a chilled meditation that reaches for elegiac grandeur yet somehow falls short. While a model of construction and execution, its pretense of emotional depth isn't wholly convincing.

Hardcore techno purists will be heartened by the simultaneous release of discs that traffic in an uncompromising brand of techno that generally eschews vocals and pop elements. Still, even though Mayer's disc is elegant and well-crafted, Touch ever-so-slightly disappoints and to some degree that may be attributed to the hyperbolic weight of expectation that's accumulated over the years. By comparison, Speicher 2 isn't encumbered by any such complicating considerations and, with nary a sign of self-consciousness, simply rocks from the outset.

November 2004