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Clicky Disco: Microhouse's Forward March (2002)
Dave Stelfox

One year after the baptism of a newly sensual, dancefloor-oriented branch of minimal house music, a brace of albums by Berlin's MRI and Montreal's Akufen has broken the mould, fusing disco, soul, new wave and offbeat sampledelia with this sultry take on traditional club rhythms.

Classifications and subcategories are the bread and butter of the music critic-neurofunk, socabeat and Yardcore being just a few favourites. However, the genre fetishist's work is not solely confined to the ongoing mutations of the hardcore continuum. The stripped-down sensibilities of the clicks + cuts and avant techno scenes inspire equally creative penmanship.

Accordingly, MRI's Stephan Lieb and Frank Elting have lately been placed in many brackets. By far the most germane is that of microhouse; a term coined by The Wire's Philip Sherburne in July, 2001 to describe the spectral, hypnotic interpretation of classic Chicago grooves emerging on labels such as Perlon, Kompakt, Playhouse, Ongaku, Klang Elektronik and the Mille Plateaux family of imprints-most notably Force Tracks and Force Inc- at the turn of the millennium.

Adhering to a reductive blueprint of skeletal rhythm, lilting textures and undulating, dub-inflected basslines, a loose grouping of producers, mainly based in Germany and including Isolée, Losoul, Thomas Brinkmann and Jan Jelinek, took house music back to basics while looking steadfastly to the future, creating a curiously seductive aesthetic of propulsive minimalism. Indeed, on 2000's acclaimed rhythmogenesis LP, Lieb and Elting presented an especially lissom, sinuous vision, inspired by an unlikely and audacious idea.

"As we started making music, especially working on rhythmogenesis, we wanted to do something special," Lieb says. "We came up with the concept of a type of biological reaction caused by nightlife-excessive dancing and the great force of the volume, possibly combined with other substances-and the way it takes over your body and mind. We wanted to transfer all this into our music to such perfection that a record could recreate that reaction when you are alone at home, listening on headphones or doing the dishes; to create such monotony, intensity and depth that what you could really hear was the rhythm of life."

Now, their second LP on Frankfurt's Force Tracks marks something of a departure from this notion of subliminal rhythms as a cyber-shamanistic intoxicant. Instead, it represents a fleshing out of microhouse's frame with shimmering disco-inspired instrumentation, crystalline melodies and sumptuous, smoky voices. "In the time between rhythmogenesis and now we have been listening to a lot of things like New Order, Depeche Mode and the Pet Shop Boys," Lieb adds.

As evidenced by the track title 'Tied To The 80s', All That Glitters draws heavily on this era's legacy of sleek new wave and hook-laden pop. Yet the end result is a world away from the art school swagger of electroclash or the saccharine kitsch of Daft Punk's Discovery. Instead, 'Deep Down South' glistens like a thousand mirrorballs while 'Next Step' and 'Nightclubbing At Home' throb and ripple with Lieb and Elting's bubbling brand of bass.

A twist also sure to confound instrumental purists is MRI's embrace of vocals, heard to best effect on 'Sane And Sound', featuring luxuriantly melancholic lyrics by Pat Appleton of German band De Phazz. Like Vladislav Delay's Tantrically slow-burning song structures as Luomo, the human voice gives a touching sense of soul to MRI's music. The end product is a million miles from US garage's wailing divas-poignant as opposed to euphoric-yet, somehow, it just sounds right. And according to Lieb, it's a theme the duo, who also live in Frankfurt, are keen to elaborate upon. "Maybe our next album will be pure pop, full of songs and you'll see us on MTV!" he says.

This proposition is not necessarily as ludicrous as it at first sounds. After all, All That Glitters is dedicated to the late R&B star Aaliyah and even features a tribute to the performer in the form of 'Blue', a version of her hit 'Try Again' sung by Hacienda's Kerstin Pfau. Neither are Lieb and Elting scared of "selling out", the classic jibe levelled at underground artists who get glitzy, having recently provided the music for the opening of Dior Homme's flashy Milan store.

In fact, the clean lines of high fashion may demarcate the perfect setting for All That Glitters. While still closely allied to the sludgy, noirish pulse of labels such as Chain Reaction that moved Hyperdub's New York City agent Simon Reynolds to conceive the category of "heroin house", MRI's style is strikingly light of touch-joyful, immediate and unafraid to reinvent itself. If we're sticking to intravenous analogy here, it would have to be more akin to shooting up sherbet: effervescent and sparkly sweet.

Meanwhile, another artist pushing the genre's boundaries further still is Canadian Marc Leclair. His work as Akufen is a fulsome whirl of skipping, Matthew Herbertesque rhythms, splashes of white noise and the minutest melodic oddments. So intricate is its upshot (a random 10 seconds of My Way, Leclair's new album on Force Inc, can shower the listener with just about anything you care to imagine-from bursts of Motown horns and funk guitar to sprays of analogue fuzz dappled with stuttering Todd Edwards-style cut-ups of public service announcements) that on first listen, the term microhouse seems barely relevant.

Throughout his numerous releases on Perlon, Trapez, Background and several other labels, Montreal-based Leclair has honed an intriguing methodology, taking these disparate and seemingly haphazard elements from the airwaves of commercial radio by sitting for hours in his studio with a transistor, surfing its frequencies and recording fragments of whatever happens to be on at the time. Thus, his sources can be as prosaic as long-forgotten pop hits, a generic advertisement or a talk show. However, he then liberates these sounds from their original milieu by weaving them into elegant tapestries over a frame of driving 4/4 beats-hacking the flotsam and jetsam of pop culture into tiny pieces, and lending brand new context, colour and life to the shards in a way that neatly parallels the cut-and-paste montages of hip hop turntablism.

Akufen's 'My Way' albumConveniently enough, he describes his technique as "microsampling". The resultant compositions are perfect material for headphones as their sophistication rewards close listening. For instance, after a while it becomes clear that My Way is at its most musical when its components are actually gathered from the spaces between music, such as a sudden spurt of interference crackling away like so many Roman candles.

That's not to say Leclair doesn't have a wonderful ear for harmony, though. 'Deck The House''s swirling sound collage creates an impression of being constantly on the verge of falling flat on its face, top-heavy and rhomboid. Yet it maintains its footing by splattering its incongruent ingredients over a hyperactive backdrop of clicks and thudding kick drums, while 'Wet Floors' shimmies and slithers like Thomas Bangalter at the very top of his game. 'In Dog We Trust' and 'Jeep Sex' are a different story again, fusing the whimsical and quirky (hiccupping voices, Professor Longhair-style pianos, sweeping strings, spangly guitars and countless other bits and bobs) with soulful groans and insistent, burbling beats.

Hearing Akufen live elevates the concept to another height entirely. A recent performance at London's Fabric club saw Leclair rocking a peak-time, Saturday night crowd with a set of irresistible and often astounding tonal mosaics, specially crafted for maximum dancefloor impact. This is crucial in as much as neither Akufen nor MRI's music is meant solely for the "intelligent" home listener-microhouse has always been unashamed of its status as club music and is made to get booties shaking, regardless of its formal sophistication, theoretical daring or any amount of post-structuralist analysis. Then again, who said you can't cut a rug and dig Gilles Deleuze at the same time?

That's the thrill of these records, the way they set the cognitive machinery whirring and feet tapping in unison. And when you come to think about it, as startling and as they may initially be, these latest shifts are pretty much inevitable. Like an inner-city clearance project, microhouse simply razed house music to the ground and dug deeper foundations for further development. Now we're beginning to see the outcome, you can guarantee plenty more surprises waiting right around the corner. As Stephan Lieb says: "Who knows what the future will bring? We certainly haven't left that style behind, though, we've just moved on to the next level."

For more microhouse writings, check Philip Sherburne's excellent online column Needledrops at http://neumu.com/needledrops/.

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