- In 1996, Chain Reaction, the highly influential techno label run by Mark Ernestus and Moritz von Oswald, released Biokinetics, a CD-only collection of new and previously released material by the duo Porter Ricks. The album became something of a classic, albeit one that was firmly entrenched in the deepest niches of techno connoisseurship. Late last year, the Birmingham-born, Massachusetts-based Type Records announced it would reissue Biokinetics as its 100th release, this time on vinyl as well as CD, remastered and with new artwork. The result is a beautifully packaged and well-timed reintroduction to one of techno's finest albums, and one that seems to have flown under the radar for many of the genre's devotees.
Porter Ricks is Thomas Köner and Andy Mellwig, a dream team of techno sound design. As a mastering and cutting engineer at Berlin's Dubplates & Mastering (another brainchild of Ernestus and von Oswald), Mellwig has touched up countless house and techno records. His other projects include solo work as Continuous Mode and collaborations like Audio Experimental Research, an ambient drone project with Kevin Shields of My Bloody Valentine, Pete Kember of Spacemen 3, and Kevin Martin, AKA The Bug. Köner cut his teeth doing sound engineering for films. As a music student in Dortmund he became fascinated with the visual possibilities of sound, the idea that timbre could cross over into something like color. He always had one foot in the art world—he's been commissioned for installations and live soundtracks by The Hayward Gallery, Centre Georges Pompidou and The Louvre—but he found that nightclubs provided an especially fitting venue for the aural experience he was chasing.
One would expect credentials like these after listening to Biokinetics. Even at its most song-like, sonic imagery is the most important part of the album; the rhythms are very straightforward, and there's hardly any melody, but every passage contains endless details within details, like a fractal pattern. This is a result of ingenious sound design and meticulous use of stereo imaging. Take "Biokinetics 1." This song doesn't really go anywhere—within about 30 seconds, all of the loops have arrived, but as you stew in them for the next five minutes, a bizarre scene takes shape: there's this frantic gurgling sound in the center of the frame, panning slightly, with a metallic counterpart that's panning more frantically, sounding violent and chaotic. These two together (along with the little splat noises on the last beat of each bar) form an image that's part David Cronenberg, part Frozen Planet. "Biokinetics 2," though different in mood, takes a similar approach, drawing up a vivid scene and sticking with it for a few minutes, giving you time to take it in.
The remainder of Biokinetics is more conventionally musical, but only marginally so. Euphoric chords bookend the album (on "Port Gentil," by far the album's best track, and "Nautical Zone") but their purpose is mostly atmospheric—the presence of melody creates a bright scene, the absence a dark one. Even when there's a meaty kick drum or a soothing melody (or half-melody), whatever grounding effect these familiar sounds might normally have is offset by something disorienting, like the squishy percussive lead on "Port of Nuba" and "Nautical Nuba," or the hallucinatory undertow of "Nautical Zone." Ultimately it seems like Köner and Mellwig took the reverse approach to many of today's artists: rather than making techno with an experimental edge, they made avant-garde music with a techno pulse.
With any reissue there's the question of necessity—did this record need to be re-released? There can't be much doubt about this with Biokinetics. On a basic level, there's the fact that it was never available on vinyl, and many of the original CD copies were mangled by their own aluminum cases (apparently a common problem on Chain Reaction). And as an exercise in audiophile sound presentation, it deserves to be remastered. (The new artwork is fantastic too.) But most importantly, Biokinetics has aged so well that it could easily pass for a new album. The production level is exceptional by today's standards, and it has more teeth than much of the music it inspired, especially contemporary dub techno, most of which sounds vanilla by comparison. As with Biosphere's Substrata or Aphex Twin's Selected Ambient Works '85-'92, it's not only an early attempt at a sound, but one that's hardly been improved upon—surely the mark of a classic album.
01. Port Gentil
02. Nautical Dub
03. Biokinetics 1
04. Biokinetics 2
05. Port Of Call
06. Port Of Nuba
07. Nautical Nuba
08. Nautical Zone