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The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 abruptly offered sizable options for euphoric electronic music fans. Formerly grayed-out factories-turned-clubs played host to a flush of activity. Warehouse spaces — cheap, plentiful, and relatively unpoliced — bulged with the exaggerated frequencies of industrial dub, electro-tech, and Big Room chords. From this rerouted infrastructure emerged producers such as Nina Hagen–loving, subtlety-layering Ellen Allien. An active DJ for more than 15 years and BPitch Control labelhead for almost a decade, she has ridden a vanguard of pleated synths and aspirating percussion that has gone from emphatic to increasingly minimal, yet remains vital.
Allien's 2001 debut album, Stadtkind, was part affirmation, part declaration. Coming a decade after her DJ career began, it was as romanticized as it was corporeal, a rugged album "where I was saying, 'Respect my lifestyle,'" she says by phone from her Berlin apartment. Allien soon found herself doing more interviews, explaining to journalists the impact Berlin's "freeform living" had on her; the crisp clip of her second album — 2003's Berlinette — reflected that geographical vision. Two years later, Thrills came on the heels of even more traveling. "It is about the thrill in any club, or of just making music," she reflects. Now, having conveyed her unbridled, analog-addled side, Allien looks back inward with Sool, her fourth full-length (not including a 2006 collaboration with Sascha "Apparat" Ring or several mix CDs).
Indeed, Sool seems deliberately arranged to introduce listeners to Allien's redirected, digitally incubated mindset. The album opens with the beat-free "Einsteigen" ("Enter"), a simultaneous stylistic departure and arrival imbued with the chatter of trains and dissipating crowds. Following are 10 tracks, co-produced with AGF (aka Berlin's Antye Greie, known for fibrous tone poems) that eschew the immediacy of Allien's jukebox-educated melodies and galvanic drum contortions in favor of highly ionized drifts. Much of Sool is sheathed within asymmetrical grafts of conductive dermis, underneath which luminescent capillaries of rhythm dilate. While a good deal of Europe is embracing the full-body flush of deep house, Allien has pulled back, microediting expressionistic apparitions collected on streets from Bordeaux to Tokyo and then mulled over until they become intonations.
"Now I spend half the week not in Berlin, and I try to understand and respect cultures by learning them from their people," Allien says. "Sool is the world you see by yourself, and [that allows you] to show people there is always a dark side. It's also a planet I would love to live on, a dream world, the way I wish it could be. The first album just came out, but since then it's been concepts; I'm a big fan of structures."
Accordingly, there have been changes in Allien's DJ sets as well, which now incorporate structured ambiguity. She is now finding clubs are open to a style that is equally oriented to basslines and the sound of bytes regurgitated. She cites DJ-producers such as fellow Berliner Ricardo Villalobos as leaders of "feminine" sets more measured and tribal, which no longer have to conform to hot trance's pace. Allien is perfectly capable of peak-hour banging. But following a period of psychological introspection (and after reading a few too many depressing rock autobiographies), she now leans toward a compounding mix of post-hedonism recesses that shun dictatorial emotions. And Sool reflects this, its shifting filaments neither too rigid nor too slack.
"Maybe my music is sometimes melancholic because of Berlin, but I don't want to put my shit directly on people," Allien says. "I want to make them think, give them a peak to jump from — they can decide whether to jump up or down, be happy or sad, where they can take their own life."
Anchoring holograms of treble with reverberant bass, Allien's is the voice of an international clubbing subsect that often foregoes words for meaning.
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