Plastikman ‘EX’ (Mute)

Ritchie Hawtin is back with the first new Plastikman tracks for over 10 years – and they’re recorded live too

For most of his life as an architect, Frank Lloyd Wright was relatively slow, some might say resistant, to embrace modernism. When he finally took on more progressive ideas, he did so as if he’d always had complete mastery over the modernist rulebook and had simply been obtuse by avoiding it in his work, even bringing an organic quality to his designs. One of his final flourishes, the circular Guggenheim Museum on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, knocked everything else into a cocked hat. Not only was the pure white building round, but it got larger as it ascended.

In contrast to Wright, Richie Hawtin has always been forward-looking in his sound design. The leap between the acid-heavy heft of his earliest work to the first Plastikman releases represented a huge stylistic jump, transforming his initial club-focused sound into a futuristic, atmospheric world filled with rhythmic trickery while simultaneously linking back to his pre-Plastikman days via judicious use of the 303 to provide a clinically smooth acid ambience. As DJ duties began to take over from the Plastikman tours and releases, the peripatetic Hawtin developed ways of introducing 303s and drum machines into his club sets, fully realising his singular technique with short loops of tracks integrated with his own beats and synth sounds to create a sort of painstakingly prepared mash-up that no one has had the dexterity or ambition to emulate since.

Richie Hawtin has long been in the premier league of globetrotting DJs and for many years he seemed to have little appetite for returning to the icy sounds of Plastikman, his last studio album being ‘Closer’ in 2003. The eye-wateringly expensive ‘Arkives’ boxset even had the look (if not quite the weight) of a tombstone and appeared to be the final nail in the koffin. But as a man whose gaze is perpetually fixed on some elusive point on the horizon, it was perhaps not surprising when he launched his ambitious Plastikmanlive concept in 2010, which saw him once again letting his elastic-limbed creation loose.

The release of ‘EX’ is also probably no surprise. It’s not a follow-up to ‘Closer’ though, not strictly speaking, because it’s not a studio album. The seven tracks are all new, but they were recorded live at the Guggenheim, where they were performed at the behest of Christian Dior fashion designer and artistic director Raf Simons for the venerable art establishment’s annual fundraiser at the end of last year. It’s typical of Hawtin to opt for crafting something entirely fresh for the event rather than performing a Plastikmanlive set.

The sequence of tracks – all prefixed with ‘EX’ – seem entirely in harmony with the surroundings in which they were recorded and entirely consistent with the earlier Plastikman albums. Like the inward sweeps of the gallery and the external inverted upward thrust of the building itself, they feel like they are gliding and swelling simultaneously. Deep bass tones emulate the robust load of the architecture, while the trademark manipulations of rubbery acid house gestures echo the sheer preposterousness that Frank Lloyd Wright’s architecture brought to a relatively staid part of New York. 

As with most of Hawtin’s work, the sleight of hand is always in the way he can manipulate some of the most minimalistic elements – a skeletal beat here, a buzzing saw-wave tone there, a reverb-soaked acid riff on top – into an absorbing framework that carries all the thrilling pitches and turns of a DJ set without much more than a tweak or two to set off a complex chain reaction. What you won’t find on ‘EX’ is any of the jackhammer urgency of classic Plastikman moments like ‘Spastik’. This is an altogether more subtle and engaging affair, one might even say more respectable, and there are times when it does feel like ‘EX’ could do with a bit more wildness among its futuristic flourishes. By the closing bars of the last track, the noodling ‘EXhale’, it does start to feel like the autopilot switch has been flicked on. 

That said, the average listener is unlikely to be able to ever fully appreciate what ‘EX’ is meant to sound like. Richie Hawtin has partnered with SubPac for the album, the idea being that you can only truly experience the complex nest of low end frequencies by shelling out $400 on a bit of audiophile equipment. Expensive hardware and private concerts at gallery fundraisers curated by Dior designers? Who knew that techno had gone so upper class?

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