Review Summary: Masters of hypnotic subtlety, Basic Channel have built a reputation on their acute attention to detail.
It’s to their credit that Basic Channel’s Mark Ernestus and Moritz Von Oswald both created and redefined the sound of an entire genre in the space of just a few years. What pushed two Berlin-based record shop owners to mix the sonic elements of Dub music with the dance-ready electronic sounds of the nineties nightclub is anyone’s guess but the result both captivated and alienated the electronic music community – who were still on the fence as to whether or not “techno” was exclusively dance music.
From the first few records released on their own label, the blueprint for Dub Techno had been laid – minimal arrangements consisting of pulsing 4/4 kicks and deep, hypnotic basslines formed the core of their music, with sparse splashes of synth stabs and clanging percussion used to add variety in the most pure sense. The appearance of Basic Channel in the underground Berlin techno scene had indeed posed more questions than answers: shrouded in mystery, few were sure if Basic Channel were a group or simply a label. They continued to release EPs and 12-inches under a variety of different aliases with little to no extra information aside from the audio etched into the grooves – appropriately in tune with their minimal aesthetic.
However, as if they had realized the limitations of their own sound early on, their releases started to morph into an abstract territory where texture and rhythm were as emphasised as they were continually obscured. As their first full length release, BCD serves as a compilation of this particular sound – far removed from virtually all other dance music which (at the time) relied heavily on epic builds, pounding beats, catchy hooks and hi-fi clarity.
On BCD, repetition is merely a deception and very slight changes in the elements of their sound occur frequently and in an unpredictable manner. Subtlety is certainly the key to the sound of Basic Channel in that there are little to no sudden changes, memorable melodies or any sense of linear structure to their songs. Instead, Ernestus and Von Oswalt create environments of sound which morph slowly but organically, running a short palette of sounds through a wide variety of custom effect-chains and loops, constantly tweaking knobs and fiddling with faders in order to create the desired sense of movement amongst the few layers of sound in their tracks. Their penchant for delay-based effects (a key element in dub music) combined with intricate attention to detail with their sequencers allow Basic Channel to constantly vary and shift the sense of rhythm that is pulsing throughout these songs.
Using this technique, BC are able to get away with tricks like stretching out a simple synth riff at the start of "Radiance II" for nearly 5 minutes before the kick drum sneaks in almost unnoticed, taking shelter under the washes of dubby reverb as filters shape and morph what’s left of the original sounds. It’s a remarkable effect that is best listened to with an open mind – on the surface it’s easy to see why some would dismiss this music as bland and repetitive but if you have the patience to absorb the sonic elements and appreciate the level of minute detail that went into producing them then the result is richly and deeply hypnotic.
In keeping with the dub aesthetic (and perhaps as a reaction to the clean production values that were present amongst the majority of techno records at the time), Basic Channel opt for a homemade, gritty feel across the board in virtually everything they do and, unsurprisingly, BCD is no exception. Each track here is layered with light sheets of hiss and buzz that do not pass by the ears of their creators unnoticed or ignored – instead, this noise is (somewhat amusingly) treated like any other element in their music, with subtle modulations and filter sweeps colouring what would otherwise be considered unwanted artifacts to most other producers. "Mutism" is the flagship example of this approach – clocking in at nearly 6 minutes of abstract static and noise punctuated by scattered, melodic fragments and deeply distant rumbles and clangs, which brings to mind the experimental glitch music that was still to come a few years down the track from labels such as Mille Plateaux (which was also based in Germany).
More than 15 years on from this release, it’s a testament to both Ernestus and Von Oswalt that people are still building on the formula they quietly perfected back in the mid-90’s.
Unfortunately, too many Dub Techno producers took the musical influence on face value and pushed the limits of repetition without the subtle attention to detail that makes the music of Basic Channel so widely worshiped in the first place. Instead, their influence was best felt through the music of artists like Boards of Canada – who shared a similar sense of the complexities of fine detail without the same minimal approach (which resulted in classics like Music Has the Right to Children). In-between the endless echoes of their various delay units, the skanking organ stabs of "Radiance I" and the warped, constantly shifting melody of "Lyot Rmix", Basic Channel’s message was as stripped down as their music: it’s not the sounds you use, but what you do with them.