Review Summary: A criminally overlooked collection of seminal detroit techno and electro that should have been a lot more influential than it was.
Dopplereffekt's 90s work dipped into an aesthetic and tone so genius I'm honestly shocked it didn't become widespread. What they've essentially done is taken two things from the mid 80s - sparse electro/detroit techno and widespread fears about technology, authoritarianism, and the moral degradation of society - and transported them to a solidly post-Cold War world to explore some charmingly retro sounds and grooves.
They seem to have nailed the kind of indirect messaging and sterile dysfunction of late Cold War artwork perfectly. Imagine a work like Sandy Skoglund's famous 1980 print Radioactive Cats. The print very clearly reflects fears of radioactivity and the way it invades places unseen and destroys them silently, fears that would become amplified by the 1986 disaster at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, but it does so without ever directly implying a stance. Skoglund's work does not seem to have any direct message about radiation or nuclear power. Unlike the frighteningly direct messages being shouted by punk bands of the time, she seems to present a more neutral statement of existence. However, the work still projects loneliness, decay, and anxiety through its grey-dominated colour palette and use of elderly subjects among a dilapidated environment.
Dopplereffekt does much the same with the songs collected on this album. The first half, taken from the 1995 EP Fascist State, has a distinct focus on technology and science, with tracks like Cellular Phone, Satellites, and Scientist. These tracks make no attempt at having an inherent message, and yet the manic energy of Satellites and the jittery groove of Cellular Phone perfectly encapsulate the fears that technology would lead to destruction and oppression.
Elsewhere on the record, songs like Plastiphilia and Pornoviewer embrace sexuality with an almost industrial attitude. Pornoactress in particular revels in the desire of both a porn star and a porn viewer. Just as with the songs about technology on the first half of the album, these tracks present no real message. They're too neutral, too stripped back to really say anything, and yet they seem to say everything through the general tone of the record.
Don't let the lengthy waxing about Cold War aesthetics fool you either; even with all the thematic elements removed, this album just kills. Dopplereffekt has an astoundingly good handle on how to make the most out of incredibly minimal songs. Infophysix may well be the most complex song on the entire album, and it skirts by comfortably with a whopping five elements at its busiest. Tracks like Cellular Phone, Voice Activated, and Scientist all display the band's ability to create memorable songs out of just a few repetitive sounds.
The most impressive display of the band's powers comes fairly early. Only the fifth track on the compilation, Superior Race (amusingly retitled Master Organism on earlier printings) is a mammoth tune that alone could make a very strong case for detroit techno's existence. At most it has exactly four things going on - a fairly simple electro drum beat, a pulsing sixteenth note riff, a distant whine, and a positively iconic bassline. Oh man, that bassline. It oppresses the track like nothing else could, locking you into a tight and inescapable groove. I've heard a lot of dark techno tracks in my time, many of which utilize walls of thick sound to drive home their overwhelming presence, but Superior Race outdoes many of them handily with a hilarious minimal selection of sounds and riffs at its disposal.
The first half of the record is largely an exercise in consistency. Every track does exactly what it sets out to do: arrest you in a mechanical groove that shrouds you in steel. This makes it ultimately the more enjoyable half of the album on its own, but apart from the chiptune-rooted Scientist you're dealing with songs that largely sound quite similar. With this in mind, the second half (mostly pulled from the Infophysix EP with the A Side of Sterilization and (as far as I can tell) compilation original track Gesamtkuntwerk tacked on at the end) does the job of providing the album with some variety. This is where Dopplereffekt really stretches out and explores some of the elements they'd embrace on later albums. There are a number of tracks here that break from the style of previous tracks; Denki No Zuno has more of an electropop feel, exploring a proper melody and a more robust structure, while Infophysix is distinctly warmer and more atmospheric than anything else on the record, almost recalling the sound of dream trance in its aquatic bliss. Gesamtkunstwerk does away with the groove entirely and instead throws 6 minutes of dizzying progtronic at you, offering the album a perfectly dark closer. The second half of the album is undoubtedly the weaker half - despite the attempts at diversity, most of it still consists of minimal bitty electro and detroit techno, and the consistency diminishes a little - but it remains extremely enjoyable and provides a little bit of fresh air to an album that might have been a little stifling if it was an hour of straight intense minimal grooves.
I wish there were more albums like this out there. There are lots of albums with minimal, driving electro grooves. There are lots of albums that take on the darkness of 80s experimental synth music. There are lots of albums that use themes of fascism, technology, and sexuality to create a harsh atmosphere. But there are few albums that perfectly encapsulate the bleakness of the Cold War and the fascinating music that came out of early experiments with budget synths and programmable drum machines so well, especially not ones made after the fact. This is a sublime collection of music that you owe it to yourself to know a lot better if you claim to know anything about oldschool techno or electro.