Over the last two or three decades, techno has repeatedly returned to its soul roots. Some older fans might even remember the term, “Techno Soul”, pioneered first and foremost by a certain Eddie “Flashin’” Fowlkes, who from that point went on to anoint himself the “Godfather of Techno Soul” without a trace of irony or false modesty. But did his undoubtedly enjoyable, warm, deep techno-house brand “Detroit” really have more soul than any other “just pick one” enjoyable, warm, deep techno disc from Berlin, London or New York? Detroit? Well, don’t the alleged mother-town of techno’s roots run deep into the early 60s and the Motown label with its stunning array of artists, making Detroit one of the most important and commercially successful production locations in the world for soul and R&B music, an undisputed Shangri La of soulfulness? Under this assumption, it didn’t take long before any old tired 4/4 production from Detroit was cloaked in the myth of true soul, as if the body and, um, soul of soul music could be resurrected automatically with the 313 telephone prefix and pressed directly onto vinyl.
One of the very few major exceptions to this particular musical fairytale answered (and still answers) to the name of Kenny Dixon Jr., better known as Moodymann. One of his masterpieces, the 12-inch “The Day We Lost The Soul”, a memorial to the day Marvin Gaye died, is one of the very finest examples of how a simple system of signals, references and sounds can merge into something that is invisible yet sublimely tangible; something we can neither see nor even really hear, but instead that we simply feel and therefore call “soul”.
But moments like these are often only found, and yes, excuse the emo terminology here, in “real pain” and “real life”. We’re talking about grief, loss, finding love and watching helplessly as it slips away. Marvin Gaye’s 1971 masterpiece “What’s Going On” is practically the prototype.
Fritz Kalkbrenner of course is not the new Marvin Gaye, and his musical terrain is equally different from that of a Kenny Dixon Jr. But his music, which I’ve followed enthusiastically now for years and his debut album “Here Today Gone Tomorrow”, still prompt me to reference the common threads that run between techno and soul.
Naturally, before we go any further we have to talk about this voice, his voice, the voice heard on tracks by people like Alexander Kowalski and Sascha Funke with which Fritz Kalkbrenner has…what? He’s filled them with soul? People meeting Fritz for the first time are often stunned to discover it’s really HIS voice they’re hearing. What’s even harder for many to believe is that somebody can actually sing like this without getting on your nerves, without Olympic-style “look at me” vocal acrobatics, without dumbing down for the charts and without rushing into the next studio to cut a maxi single with David Guetta. It’s almost inconceivable that a man with this voice isn’t sewn into a chequered neo-soul cap, probably turned around backwards, or doesn’t at least sing in one of those abominable and subsequently enormously successful a cappella groups. No, this guy just does techno…with godlike vocals.
One day “Sky & Sand” came along. And with it for me the indelible memory of one Paul Kalkbrenner completely lost within himself on the Bar 25 dancefloor at the first light of day. I see this picture and this moment of consummate transcendence, this image of him before “Berlin Calling”, when no film on techno, to say nothing of a fictitious one at that, had hemmed him in; I see Paul moving his lips to lyrics that don’t go “Uh baby” or “Pump it up”, but instead lyrics of real pain, real life, of grief, loss, finding love and watching helplessly as it slips away. I found myself alive in the palm of your hand. How many times have you played that one and almost (?) cried? But Fritz Kalkbrenner can do even more than just co-write THE anthem of the Naughties. And to reduce him and his soul simply to his unique voice would do a great disservice to his music and his first album. Soul, after all, is in the sounds, and often enough in the spaces between them. So Fritz is by no means the Jan Delay or even the Xavier Naidoo of Berlin techno; on the contrary, he knows exactly where he’s from, and he knows where and with whom and above all why he’s spent the nights of the last 15 years in very dark, very loud clubs.
The result in “Here Today Gone Tomorrow” is a wonderfully silky, sophisticated techno album that need not pick between heads or tails. Like any good pioneer, Fritz Kalkbrenner knows how to mediate between the various musical poles that are in constant need of reconciliation. The instrumental pieces, like the vocal numbers, come across as well-structured little stories, while the vocal tracks adeptly avoid drowning the dancefloor in a flood of self-pitying, melancholy tears. With the two spectacular hits “Facing The Sun”
and »Sideways & Avenues«, the dark “Was Right Been Wrong” and the countryesque “Right In The Dark”, Fritz effortlessly pulls enough pop music aces out of his sleeve for the rest to feel right at home in the club world, always finely balanced between techno that equally rocks but also swings; sounds that are unmistakably in the family and that are mildly reminiscent of the opulent, enchanted moments we know from Sascha Funke or Superpitcher.
Lavishly sprinkled throughout the album, the listener also finds little beat miniatures that remind one of Kalkbrenner’s socialisation with hip-hop icons like Eric B. & Rakim, KRS-One or the Wu-Tang Clan, and that radiate enough relaxed premium quality to make up a whole album for less gifted artists. In his way, he actually is a kind of Moodymann, straight out of Berlin-Lichtenberg, ladies and gents. And then there’s that beard…all that’s really missing is the afro.
Tobias Thomas, Cologne, Germany, July 2010