It was 2005 when Berghain, born a year prior from the ashes of Ostgut and soon-to-be world’s most famous club, launched its own record label, Ostgut Ton.
The two have always been closely interwoven. The music released on Ostgut Ton, mainly by Berghain and Panorama Bar residents, makes you think of that monolithic building, while the former power plant with its cavernous main floor perfectly suits the stripped-down techno that marked the label’s initial life. Over the years, Berghain’s fame has become a worldwide affair, and Ostgut Ton has expanded its sound palette as well.
To celebrate its 15th birthday, the label has called one of its mainstay’s into action: UK techno heavyweight Luke Slater aka Planetary Assault System aka L.B. Dub Corp aka The 7th Plain.
Big celebrations are not new at the O-Ton headquarters. For their 5th birthday we had Fünf, a compilation of tracks made from field recordings captured in the empty club. Fast forward 5 years and they released Zehn, a 10 x 12’’ vinyl box. What could they do for the 15th birthday?
Well, Luke Slater doesn’t like it the easy way, and he chose to go through the entire (!) O-Ton catalogue as a music surgeon. Dissecting beats, isolating loops, sampling tiny fragments, he came up with 26 new tracks, each built on pre-existing material yet entirely new. Of those 26 tracks that form a two-hour DJ mix, 7 have made it onto this release.
Slater challenged himself to raise the bar of what a mix could be, even developing a technique he named “rip the cut” (which is also the name of one of the most iconic tracks on The Messenger, his 2011 PAS album on O-Ton). Slater gave himself three strict rules: “The rules were: 1. It shouldn’t sound like a remix or a mash-up. 2. The track had to stand up on its own as a well-produced new track. 3. Don’t get influenced by your favorite Ostgut Ton tracks or in discovering new ones”.
So, what we have here on Berghain Fünfzehn are not simply remixes nor remakes, but assemblages and recompositions. Über tracks, showing an uncanny and perverse fascination with layering and shaping new forms out of minimal building blocks; it’s as if he was translating into sound the rigid conceptual boundaries that visual artist Sol LeWitt set up for himself. Even the track titles follow LeWitt’s neutral descriptive titles, each simply labeled “O-Ton Reassembled” followed by numerical progression.
Musically, Slater indulges in long passages of prototypical Berghain techno, while clearing space for left-field turns and broken beat mutations. “O-Ton Reassembled 4” and “7” are pure Berghain techno. Cavernous, monotonous, austere, they show the starker side of the label, an endless descent into a greyscale void. “O-Ton Reassembled 1” and “3” shine a light on a slightly different side of techno, well-balanced between restless kicks, hypnotic melodies and trippy textures. The highlight of number “I” is the breakdown around the 5 minutes mark, where a dramatic echoed organ over muffled drums recalls the feeling when you glimpse the sweaty bodies around you following the rhythm of the strobe lights, before being swept away by the relentless four-to-the-floor, occasionally switched for a broken beat. On the other hand, “3” is a masterclass in minimal techno, a 12-minutes long journey which goes as deeply into the O-Ton catalogue as it does Luke Slater’s craftmanship. He samples and plays with a Virginia vocal loop, using her voice as the lead instrument in the mix. The track becomes more melodic as it unfolds; at the end one loses the count of how many times its simple structure has morphed.
But this selection doesn’t stick only to the 4×4 template and delights us with fine examples of the broken beats that made it into O-Ton catalogue. “O-Ton Reassembled 2” is as deep as it gets, with its pounding kick echoes, meditative tones, and overall dubby aura; 5 foregrounds the broken techno crafted by Martyn, Shed and Answer Code Request, while 6 is an excursion into the bleak, greyscale tinged sound that brought Berghain and its label to wider fame around the turn of last decade.
Berghain Fünfzehn highlights Slater’s ability to put together different bits and pieces, making each track a dynamic environment in which tiny fragments seamlessly merge to create a new entity, constantly morphing. It shows the magic of micro variations in electronic music, and techno in particular, deploying even the most unnoticeable element as an engine to keep the machine going. While some genres of dance music favor immediacy and intensity, Slater here shows that the best techno relies on the subtle art of layering and gradual shapeshifting. Indeed, Berghain Fünfzehn is a matter of layers: the tiniest samples, the simpler patterns, the more extended sections, the tracks – and, in its original form, the full two hour mix.
Spanning 125 Ostgut Ton 12”s and 30 album releases, not only do these reassemblages give new life to a catalogue that has already defined an era, but they take the very concept of a DJ mix and a label retrospective to the next level.
About this gigantic work, Luke Slater said that he “had to wear the hat of producer, engineer, DJ, entertainer, nerd, performer and psychologist at the same time”. He managed to do it flawlessly.