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Dance music: Minimal techno makes way for something more... maximal

Towards the end of last year, a mild frisson developed on dance blogs and forums regarding the diminishing merits of minimal techno. Why the fuss over a genre big in Germany but with a profile as low as its deliberately muted beats pretty much everywhere else? Well, it turned out to be just one manifestation of a recurring worry. That dance music has lost its way, proliferating into ever more microscopic genres which appeal to ever more microscopic audiences.

Here at the beginning of 2009, it’s hard to discern any greater sense of convergence. But there does seem to be a continuing shift away from the stripped-bare beats of minimal techno and dubstep and amove toward something more… maximal. Musically speaking, the compacted, multi-layered dubstep of Neil Landstrumm’s Lord For £39 (Planet Mu) may not have much in common with Dan Deacon’s album Bromst (Carpark), a collision of high-BPM percussion and chanted melodies reminiscent of Brian Eno, circa Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy). But sonically, they evoke a similar kind of high-density rush.

The twisty techno-house of Hamburg’s DJ Koze is more concerned with space. But on remix collection Reincarnations (Physical) his apparently freewheeling approach proves gloriously inclusive, whether unravelling Battles’ uptight math-rock into a sprawling assemblage of shuffling beats and weirdly pitch-shifted vocals or inserting a kazoo into his discotised remix ofMatias Aguayo’s ironically titled “Minimal”. He even closes the collection with a ballad by the late German actress Hildegard Knef.

UK-born Berlin resident Jesse Rose’s pneumatic “wonky house” on the other hand proves oddly conventional on debut albumWhat Do You Do If You Don’t (Dubsided), the aural equivalent of being trapped in a bouncy castle. He is, though, a friend of Hot Chip – he remixed last year’s single “Ready For The Floor” – which earns him a winning cameo from Joe Goddard on “Forget My Name”. It’s no coincidence that the album’s other stand-out track, “Miss Taker”, also features a guest vocalist – David E Sugar, the electro scene’s answer to Jamie T.

Perhaps more dance producers should put themselves in front of the microphone. Especially if they sing in an android baritone which is then chopped up and inserted into a bipolar glitch-attack that switchbacks from concussive techno to frenetic drum’n’bass – as on Tim Exile’s new single “Family Galaxy” (Warp), a suitably baroque taster for his forthcoming, and unequivocally maximal, album Listening Tree.

Naturally, though, there are still times when less is more. Songs About Dancing And Drugs (K7) by Circlesquare – another Berlin-based expat, Canadian Jeremy Shaw– variously recalls Junior Boys, Matthew Dear and the lo-fi, post-punk electro of Young Marble Giants.

As for the raucous electro party which ruled for much of 2008 – it’s still going strong. And while ideas are being furiously recycled, there’s no doubting the energy in the machine-gun synth riff Etienne De Crécywelds onto his remix of Beni’s “My Love Sees You” (Kitsuné), London DJ Hervé’s hyperactive electrotechno- hip hop mix “Ghetto Bass” (Music Response), or even the globalised “shanty house” pioneered by Philadelphian producer Diplo, subject of remix retrospectiveDecent Work For Decent Pay (Big Dada) which features a blistering Brazilian funkmakeover of Daft Punk’s “Harder Better Faster Stronger”.

Even one of the electro scene’s early success stories, Zombie Nation, aka Munich electroclash DJ/producer Florian Senfter, is back. However, new album Zombielicious (UKW) often seems like it’s stuck in some kind of undead limbo, like the one-note stutter-riff which animates “The Fact”. Nothing comes close to Senfter’s still-awesome debut “Kernkraft 400”, a scuzzy, electro-punk reworking of an old videogame riff which gatecrashed the UK Top 10 in 2000 – and saw Senfter and pals appear on Top Of The Pops covered in fake blood and waving around prosthetic limbs.

Unashamedly theatrical and seemingly unburdened by cool, Zombie Nation were like a European response to earlier UK acts such as Stafford rave pranksters Altern 8 – who popularised breakbeat hardcore while dressed in chemical warfare suitsandbright yellow facemasks. But while the background image on ex- Altern 8 man Mark Archer’s MySpace page dates from his masked, early- Nineties heyday, his new Ring Of Gyges EP (Mutate), sees him revisiting not Altern 8’s rave euphoria but the Detroit-style techno of his other alter ego, Nexus 21. None of the tracks disappoints, exactly. But it feels like he’s the safe option. And set against the vivid sounds and controlled chaos of a DanDeacon, say, who needs safe.