- One of techno's great contemporary artists returns to form.
- Nostalgia in dance music? No, no. Bad. Don't do that. Deconstructing the past? Yes. More of that, please. Very clever. I'm being simplistic and facetious, obviously, but it's interesting how differing contexts and the perceived intentions of an artist can affect our feelings and definitions of what they do. Shed, the main production alias of the German artist René Pawlowitz, is an interesting case. Here's an artist whose music is absolutely dripping with sounds and moods of the past, yet is rightly known as one of the scene's sharpest innovators. The thinking goes that Pawlowitz's borrowing from hardcore, jungle, bleep, bass music and rave since the mid-'00s shows enough tweaks and twists to consider it original. Where that line resides, exactly, is impossible to say. But with his vast body of work—spread across some 20 aliases—considered among the very best in contemporary techno and its related scenes, Pawlowitz feels like the right kind of jumping off point for such a sprawling conversation.
Pawlowitz also seems to think about all of this. The title of his first album back in 2008 was Shedding The Past, an album on which he talked directly about the paradox of using club music's history to move forwards artistically. In 2017, he told Joe Muggs of his own productions: "It's simply this kind of music where I feel something, where emotions take me back to good old times… So that's why I like to make music like from the early '90s, because that's what I'm into." On Pawlowitz's last album, The Final Experiment, there was a feeling that'd he'd become focussed on a particular old sound—breaks-driven ambient techno—to the detriment of the album, which didn't match the quality of earlier experiments in this style while lacking the variety that had so successfully shaped his last three full-lengths.
Oderbruch, his newest album, might be his most overtly nostalgic yet, but this is nostalgia of different kind. The title refers to the borderland between Germany and Poland where Pawlowitz grew up. From the artwork to its track titles, the album is full of references to personal memories and symbolic places. It is also, apparently, a reflection on the area's violent history as a major eastern front in World War II, referenced in "Seelower Höhen," a soaring techno track that takes its name from one of the war's final battles. These themes seemed to have stirred something in Pawlowitz. The album is a return to form. The variety of old is here. There is a new vigour and poignancy in his rave memories. You won't mistake anything here for anyone other than Shed (despite the large number of artists who have taken a big bite out his style) but the pieces have fallen in a fresh layout.
I wasn't expecting this from an artist who comes across as a gruff engineer who casually turns out excellence and doesn't know why others can't do the same, but the influence of Oderbruch's natural landscape seems to have played a role. You'll hear this on the gorgeous "Nacht, Fluss, Grille, Auto, Frosch, Eule, Mücke" (night, river, cricket, car, frog, owl, mosquito), an ambient track with a bedrock of field recordings and an evocative organ-like lead. But this is also a sense I get from tracks like "Die Oder," (which features some guitar!) "Sterbende Alleen," "Trauernde Weiden" and "Das Bruch," where synthesisers resemble dappled sunshine, and the instrumentation seems somehow more alive and organic than before. This wide-eyed quality doesn't always land. "Sterbende Alleen," for instance, is a little too earnest in its quest to bring a tear to the eye. But, nature inspirations or not, Pawlowitz's emotional range feels refreshed.
As do his drums and rhythms. The first four tracks cover four-on-the-floor techno, breezy downtempo, tricky breakbeat and drum & bass. This isn't just about ticking off a diffuse range of styles, though. In most cases Pawlowitz changes the angle of attack on a style to offer something of his own. "Trauernde Weiden" and "Das Bruch" push things further, and are both strong examples of that groovy yet strange thing he does so well. Between the former's monsoon of hats and latter's monstrous kick pattern, these are likely to be among the more singular rhythms you hear this year.
In his review of The Final Experiment, Will Lynch talked about the inevitable ebbs and flows in quality of an artist as prolific and celebrated as Pawlowitz, even as someone whose music mostly hits the target. Not to heap extra pressure on the guy, but there's also the fact that this massively influential Shed style he's cultivated is more than ten years old, making listener fatigue something he also has to contend with. For now though, those are questions for the future. On Oderbruch, folding Pawlowitz's personal history into the writing process has again allowed him to move forward by looking backwards.
01. B1 (Anfang Und Ende)
02. Die Oder
03. Menschen Und Mauern
04. Sterbende Alleen
05. Nacht, Fluss, Grille, Auto, Frosch, Eule, Mücke
06. Der Wolf Kehrt Zurück
07. Seelower Höhen
08. Trauernde Weiden
09. Das Bruch