Monolake: Hongkong Remastered
Imbalance Computer Music

The release of Monolake's Hongkong in 1997 was a watershed moment in multiple respects. Certainly it was a significant moment in the evolution of contemporary electronic music, plus its release was pivotal in helping to heighten the profile of Berlin label Chain Reaction. In terms of impact, Hongkong was a transformative recording in another sense, too, since its release generally coincided with the appearance of numerous other equally influential Chain Reaction releases: Porter Ricks' Biokinetics, Substance's Session Elements, Various Artists' Decay Product, and Vainqueur's Elevations. It's telling that, of those mentioned, Monolake remains the most vital presence within today's electronic scene. Such longevity can be attributed to the imagination and artistry Robert Henke (partnered at different times with Gerhard Behles and more recently T++) has brought to every one of the group's releases, with each one a logical advance on its predecessor.

One imagines Henke must have been tempted to alter more than the production design of Hongkong when he decided to re-visit it eleven years after the original release. Wisely he chose not to, for despite the comparative “simplicity” and elementary quality of its programming, the music sounds as beautiful today as it did when it first appeared. The bubbling beats still percolate seductively (hear, for example, how nimbly the motorik beats race in “Cyan”) and just as insidiously insinuate themselves into one's cranium after repeated listenings. Had Henke revised the recorded materials, the music would have lost some of its innocent charm, a precious quality that only makes it all the more appealing today. (There is one change to the content, however, that may disappoint those enamoured of the Chain Reaction original: having decided as far back as 1997 that it didn't “fit in,” Henke and Behles have opted to exclude the original release's “Index” track from the second edition, a move that shaves ten minutes from the still hour-long re-release.) What has changed, and dramatically so, is the recording's sound design. The music now has greater dimensionality, clarity, and presence, and the separation between elements is more strikingly defined than before. Everything seems more alive, more vibrant and strong. The thunderous rain that introduces “Cyan” now sounds capable of submerging an entire city, the crickets that chirp during “Lantau” and Japanese voices that babble at the start of “Occam” now sound like they're doing so right next to your ear rather than in the immediate area.

Being so long ago, it's easy to forget that much of Hongkong was compiled from a series of 12-inch releases; nevertheless, though Gerhard Behles and Henke enhanced the original songs with material derived from the field recordings made in Hong Kong and Guangzhou in 1996 (and added the closing track “Mass Transit Railway” too), the CD holds together strongly as a complete work, not unrelated pieces. It's also interesting that “Mass Transit Railway” is the sole track that overtly references propulsion despite the fact that so much of Hongkong's material exudes such relentless forward momentum (e.g., the incessantly clattering two-step steaming through “Macau” followed by the funkily swaying, machine-like churn of “Arte”); ironically, “Mass Transit Railway” is virtually free of propulsion and instead closes the recording in a state of pastoral, synth-heavy reverie. Most importantly of all, however, the re-issue brings into sharp relief the material's prescient character, as one hears the seeds of atmospheric dub-techno—an unusually high-octane kind, admittedly—being sown during “Occam.”

February 2009