Label Watch: Tresor
More than just a record label, Tresor is a Berlin club which since the early 1990s has been synonymous with an almost militantly underground strain of hard techno.
Despite Tresor's antipathy to any form of mainstream commercialism, both the label and the club have proven to be hugely influential. In hindsight, Tresor was maybe always destined to occupy a pivotal role in the development of electronic music due to an amazing confluence of factors - a case of being in the perfect place in exactly the right time.
The Tresor nightclub was set up by Dimitri Hegemann in the decayed underground bank vault of what had been Europe's biggest department store in the 1920s; a building that had languished in the restricted zone of central East Berlin since the fall of Nazi Germany. Just a few months after setting up the club, the Wall came down and Germany was reunified: Tresor found itself at a temporal and spatial nexus that couldn’t have been more opportune, with East Berlin now open to the world and ready to face it with a mix of unconstrained party energy and a radical future focus. This burgeoning Berlin subculture found it had an affinity with a distant US city that had already found a musical form that perfectly expressed this spirit– that city was Detroit.
The stripped-down, dystopian futurist-funk of Detroit techno producers like Juan Atkins, Blake Baxter and Underground Resistance provided the perfect soundtrack to the newfound freedoms (with its paranoia inducing caveats) of this new generation of Berlin nightclubbers. Their sound soon caught on elsewhere, particularly in the UK, with Tresor soon releasing 12”s and LPs by Cristian Vogel, Neil Landstrumm, Surgeon, James Ruskin and The Advent. Though the original club premises moved to a new venue in 2007 (Kraftwerk, a former power station), Tresor continues as both club and label, developing its roster of new talent from all over the globe, releasing cutting edge DJ mixes, as well as reissuing classics of deep electronic music.
Often hailed as the Godfather of techno, Detroit producer Atkins first began releasing radically futuristic funk music in the early 1980s along with Rick Davis as Cybotron. In Cybotron you can hear the influence of Funkadelic and Kraftwerk fuse into something new, which was basically electro. Cybotron’s legacy didn't lie just in their sound though, Atkins was the person who appropriated the label ‘techno’ from the writings of futurist theorist Alvin Toffler. After Cybotron, Atkins set up his own Metroplex label and continued releasing futuristic, extraterrestrial funk as Model 500. He also releases more hard-edged techno under the Infiniti moniker. But like his fellow first wave Detroit techno producer Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson (all three are collectively known as the Belleville three for the place where they grew up), Atkins’ productions always retain a certain lushness, a dreaminess that plays against the tension of the beats with sublime effect.
Jeff Mills is part of the second wave of Detroit techno producers. Renowned for his super intense, sparse yet dense tracks and revered for his incendiary DJing skills, which earned him the nickname ‘The Wizard’. Alongside ‘Mad’ Mike Banks and Robert Hood he was a founding member of the Detroit techno collective Underground Resistance, whose records where like communiques from some bemasked paramilitary organisation engaged in war with mainstream culture.
As his reputation as a DJ grew internationally, partly due to his residency at Tresor in the early 1990s, Mills set up his own label Axis along with Robert Hood. Over the years he has experimented with mixing with three decks, live drum machines and scoring soundtracks to early science fiction films like Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. He’s also more recently collaborated with orchestras, jazz groups and legendary afrobeat drummer Tony Allen.
Also from Detroit, Robert Hood cut his teeth as the ‘Minister of Information’ in Underground Resistance. After setting up his own M-Plant label in 1994, Hood developed an idiosyncratic, hard-boiled sound in which all elements of his music are stripped down to the bare essentials for groove, momentum and soul. This approach spawned the ‘minimal techno’ subgenre taken up by a profusion of producers from Richie Hawtin in Canada to the UK’s Regis. For Hood, the turn towards more minimal techno was invested with spiritual significance, a move away from the ‘harder, faster’ lack of dynamism he increasingly encountered on DJing tours. This spiritual path eventually led to his ordainment as a church minister in 2010, along with him resurrecting his Floorplan alias (now a father-daughter duo) through which he releases gospel-inflected, deep house.
Another iconic producer from the Techno’s halcyon days of the early 1990s, Joey Beltram grew up in Queens, New York. That city’s historic underground disco movement with its connection to Chicago house music can be heard in Beltram’s music, in which syncopation is always tight no matter how abstract its basic elements are. Two of his early 12” have become anthemic club staples: Energy Flash with its infectious rolling bass groove setting the scene for the famous cosmic duck riff and ‘Mentasm’, its pitch-mangled synth sound replicated in countless hardcore and jungle tracks.
Surgeon is the best known pseudonym for Birmingham-based electronic music producer Anthony Child. Since 1994 the industrial-tinged techno he first became known for has won favour with big DJs like Jeff Mills and Dave Clarke, eventually leading to a 3-year residency as a DJ at Tresor during the mid 1990s. While you can hear a definite affinity with Jeff Mills’ swirling intensity in his music, Child also draws inspiration from the rich legacy of the UK’s experimental underground through acts like Coil and Whitehouse. These darker, more abrasive elements informed his British Murder Boys collaboration with fellow brummie Regis; together they released a series of greyscale excursions into brutalist techno that trawls the gutter of a particularly British form of harshness.
He’s also done a fair bit of remix and collaboration for big names like Thom Yorke and Mogwai; even opening for Lady Gaga with an improvised live set alongside Lady Starlight. Most recently his experimentalism has seen him turn to ambient synth works layered onto field recordings of the Maui jungle released on Editions Mego.
Chilean born producer Cristian Vogel grew up in the UK and came to prominence in the mid 1990s with techno tracks on Dave Clarke’s Magnetic North label that were noteworthy for their unusual, experimental edge. Hardly surprising given that by day he was studying 20th Century Music at Sussex University while raving it up in Brighton by night. Anyhow, his avant garde tendencies earned him a debut album release on Mille Plateaux, also the early home of Oval and Alva Noto. He went on to become the first UK artist to sign to Tresor, releasing several 12”s and no less than 5 LPs of eccentric yet pumping techno for the label that make crafty use of rubbery synths, sliding into spaces you weren’t expecting them to go.
Over the years he’s also worked alongside Jamie Lidell in Super Collider and also collaborated with Swiss choreographer Gilles Jobin, composing several electronic scores. He’s also done his fair share of remix work over the years for the likes of Radiohead, Maxïmo Park and Chicks on Speed as well as continuing to release his own music on Shitkatapult.
James Stinson and Gerald Donald formed this electro duo in Detroit and began releasing tracks on labels like Underground Resistance in the early 1990s. Preferring to eschew any public attention and operate under the radar, they have nevertheless become one of electronic music’s most studied and mythologised acts, precisely because of their talent for myth making. Everything about the group, from their name, the artwork and even their sonic palette with its liquid synths, depth-charged bass and silvery rhythmic surges relates to the ocean and the Drexciya myth.
The myth goes back to the transatlantic slave trade and the pregnant women who were thrown overboard because of illness during the voyage from Africa to the Americas. Not having acquired the need for air, the unborn children of these women survive and set up a colony of water breathing beings known as Drexciyans at the bottom of the ocean. The colony grows into an underwater metropolis, a centre of advanced learning where the Drexciyans patiently await the right moment to intervene and restore order on dry land.
As fantastic as the story may be, what seems to have captivated so many is how it taps into Afrofuturist tradition, where present injustices are met with vividly imagined alternative futures. Add to this the duo’s use of a new form of completely electronic music that is rhymically sharp and evocative, then you’ve got an irresistible combination.
A towering figure in Berlin’s electronic music scene, Von Oswald is best known for being one half of Basic Channel along with Mark Ernestus. It all started back in 1989 when Ernestus and Von Oswald opened the now famous Hard Wax record store in the city’s now hip Kreuzberg neighbourhood. So enamoured were they with the techno imports coming in from Detroit that they decided to fly there, which eventually led to the Tresor connection with the city. Ernestus and Von Oswald put what they learnt from the Detroit producers into a series of sublime 12”s under the name Basic Channel, with no press, no photos or even names given. Basic Channel’s music is techno refracted through syncopated delay lines, hissing reverb and gradually evolving hypnotic resonances. These records still form the holy grail of what came to be known as dub techno.
Von Oswald and Ernestus went on to produce bliss-inducing, endless groove techno as Maurizio and impossibly deep electronic dub arrangements as Rhythm & Sound –often with superb reggae a dub vocalists. Von Oswald also formed a trio in 2012 with Max Loderbauer (Sun Electric) and Sasu Ripatti (Vladislav Delay) –and even had Tony Allen on drums on their last album. Since 2013 he’s also been working again with Detroit pioneer Juan Atkins in their Borderland series.
Even though he’s already appeared on this list as one half of Drexciya, Gerald Donald gets his own entry for the idiosyncratic vision of electronic music he’s pursued since James Stinson’s death. Like a fair few of the producers on this list, Donald eschews any publicity, generally avoids interviews and releases music under a plethora of aliases, mostly solo, but sometimes in low-key collaborations. Here’s a list of just some of the artist names he’s released music under : Dopplereffekt, Arpanet, Heinrich Mueller, Japanese Telecom, Xor Gate, Abstract Thought, Black Replica, Daughter Produkt, Der Zyklus, NRSB-11 and Zwischenwelt.
While the music he has produced is extremely varied– with even just his Dopplereffekt releases ranging from sharp dancefloor oriented electro on 1999’s Gesamtkunstwerk, through to crystalline melodic abstraction of 2017’s Cellular Automata– his sound is almost always immediately recognisable. Each record features acres of analogue synths tracing lush emotional contours, shifting to intersecting melodic or rhythmic patterns, all arranged with a sense of icy detachment that feels half scientific, half supernatural.
This Berlin-based producer and DJ (real name TJ Hertz) has been creating a bit of a stir over the last few years with his highly detailed sound design and broad scope of influences. One early release of note was Ganzfeld, a split EP with Dopplereffekt. This was followed by his ambitious 2014 debut album Flatland on PAN; in which the tunnel-vision constraints of dancefloor-oriented techno were blown apart in favour of “a world in which any scene can be seen from every angle at once”. His 2018 follow-up album, Cocoon Crush, saw him hone his meticulous rhythmic agility but using more acoustic-based sound materials for music that’s texturally richer and more personal.
But it is as a DJ where Hertz seems to be re-igniting the field, bringing his intellectual heft, his technician-like meticulousness and taste for the unconventional and marrying this with sets that people can connect with emotionally and physically (i.e. dance to). His Tresor mix CD Kern Vol.3 is a pretty good case in point.
Jeff Mills comes across in interviews as quietly spoken, sincere and given to abstract theorising about the future and space travel. So I’m always blown-away by the ferocity of his aesthetic, like here with the aptly titled opener, ‘The Extremist’ pilling layer upon unfathomable layer of mind-boggling arpeggiated synth overload, with just the slamming beat pulling you through the tortuous maelstrom.
Elsewhere we get the brooding riffs with acid overtones of ‘Condor to Mallorca’, a snappy conga drum buildup breaking into a supremely funky metalloid beatdown. And then there’s the closer, ‘Basic Human Design’ with its syncopated alien textures and pounding kick, coalescing like some hostile planetary atmosphere- giving way to a brief snatch of some classic Detroit-style strings that are pitched down dark and grey– all ending suddenly on a strange melancholic note.
Just reissued by Tresor, this was originally put out in 1994 and marks Rob Hood’s definitive step away from the dense, abrasive overload of Underground Resistance. Despite having influenced a legion of techno producers and even spawning a subgenre, it’s amazing, even 25 years on, how fresh each and every track still sounds. From the opening ‘Intro’ with its mysterious descending synth arpeggio and reversed metallic percussion layered onto tabla-esque upper bass pops– the album exudes riveting confidence in its deft addition and subtraction of sonic elements that add to the essential groove. He manages to streamline elements of motown, Chicago house and even jazz into something that sounds aerodynamically sleek and unprecedented.
For the quintessential minimal techno experience, just listen to ‘Minus’ and let the various frequencies of the looped synth riff recede in and out of focus. It’s the aural equivalent of a Bridget Riley painting; music that taps into the way that we perceive extended repetition and patterns of subtle variation on a physical, intellectual and emotional level.
This LP from 1998 is only the second studio full length from Juan Atkins, following his masterclass of cosmic electro Deep Space under his Model 500 guise. For this album we get a deftly programmed set of deep house and techno tracks infused with bubbling, effervescent textures, gauzy melodies and that deep, dreamy detachment driven through with a questing forward momentum. It’s interesting hearing how Atkins responds to evolutions of the style he’d helped originate, particularly with ‘Walking on Water’, a horizontal dub techno affair replete with softened kick amid dappled liquid chords that wouldn’t have been out of place on a label like Chain Reaction; the Basic Channel subsidiary whose roster of artists liquefied techno into shimmering abstract expanses.
Joey Beltram - Places
Another mid 1990s gem that elevated Beltram as a producer of some of the deepest, most spacious techno out there yet retaining a tough, interlocking rhythmic tautness. As the album’s title suggests, you can hear New York in these tracks if you listen carefully enough. Just check out the percussive, syncopated chord moves on ‘Game Form’, like a cubist rendering of a Latin piano motif that gets suddenly whipped along by sharp hand claps and an acerbic, snarling bass line. Another great track, ‘5.7Litre’, references Beltram’s car obsession at the time and you can really picture driving around a city at night to this music. The stern kick, a rolling percussive loop and those tight hats and snares building before this sliding, phosphorescent synth drone shifts through the whole mix, coming and going like passing headlights. Funky, full of swagger and evocative to the point of otherworldliness.
Drexciya’s debut, which first came out in 1999, is regarded by many as the pair’s most wide ranging and definitive piece of work. Whether or not you agree with that, there’s no arguing that its 21 tracks detail a rich myth-making labour. The varied atmospheres and textures of the tracks serve to illustrate various chapters in the Drexciya story. These range from the breezy, airy light melodies of ‘Andrean Sand Dunes’ to the lurking bass menace and hovering cymbal hiss of ‘Habitat of Negative’. Razor sharp aquatic electro that’ll transport you to somewhere truly alien.
Tresor’s mix CDs are pretty renowned anyway but for their 200th release, they did something a really special. Scion is Pete Kuschnereit (Substance) and René Löwe (Vainqueur), who for this 2002 CD used the then new Ableton Live software to layer and splice elements from all 9 of Basic Channel’s stellar 12”s. The result is flawless trip through their particular brand of abstract groove, with its peculiar mixture of textural density and incredible sense of space. Like Carl Craig once said, whereas most producers paint pictures, Basic Channel create sonic sculptures, such is the three dimensional sensuality of their sound.
Something of a sleeper this one. One of the more low-key Detroit techno producers, Terrence Dixon actually gave up music altogether for a time in the twelve years that passed between his debut album and this 2012 follow-up. And thank God he was convinced back into the studio, with this album he’s gifted us with some of the dreamiest futurist techno you’ll ever hear. His productions are sleek yet rich and maybe because he pulls the drums back in the mix a little, they have this mesmerically detached, hallucinogenic kind of appeal.
Apparently TJ Hertz’s 2016 contribution for Tresor’s Kern series of mix CDs was some 6 months in the making, which isn’t that surprising at how finely put together it is in terms of track selection and its dynamic arc. It opens with an atonal dystopian electro wasteland, then some bright, zippy techno with some deeper melancholic strains surging in before a collapsing into a kind of ambient nervous breakdown around about the 50 minute mark. The big highlight for me though is the recovery from the lull, as Herz skillfully mixes in a Dresvn remix featuring the rough hewn rhyme style of Brooklyn’s illest MC: Sensational; it’s a moment that gets me every time.
The return of Thomas Köner and Andy Mellwig’s Porter Ricks in 2017 after some 20 years sent waves of excitement rippling through the electronic music community. Always one of the most distinctive acts from the now fabled Chain Reaction roster; they took the techno template and subjected it to all manner of dub processing and electro-acoustic treatments, opening up a sound world suggestive of infinite vastness and oceanic depth. In contrast with the myriad dub techno imitators who focus on gaseous delay-trails, Anguilla Electrica has plenty of grit with the growling, amorphous bass riffs providing jagged weight amongst mercurial watery abstractions. Immersive and infectious.
Yet another Gerald Donald alias, this time with an album of music initially commissioned as part of a 2016 exhibition at ArtCenter South Florida based on the geometric study of cone and plane intersections. Whatever the reason for its conception, it is immediately recognisable as Donald’s work and consists of eight episodic sections merged into one, completely beatless half-hour track. The music alternates between typically clinical-sounding studies of abstract sound and layered sonic structures to more melodic, elegiac passages of meditative synth arrangements, all flowing into each other with a haunted sense of space and irresistable alienness.
More stuff from Tresor that we're in to. Non-exhaustive, obviously!
- Donato Dozzy - Filo Loves The Acid
- Various - Kern Vol. 4 mixed by DJ Stingray
- Surgeon - Force + Form
- Terrence Dixon - From The Far Future
- Juan Atkins & Moritz von Oswald present Borderland - Transport
- Transllusion - The Opening Of The Cerebral Gate
- Jeff Mills - Waveform Transmissions Vol. 1
- Juan Atkins - 20 Years Of Metroplex
- Cristian Vogel - The Never Engine
- Various - Scopex 1998-2000
Lots more playlists (inc. our Friday Jukebox) available over on our YouTube Channel »