Max Graef, the Berliner who initiated, in my opinion, the new wave of Berlin Electro, has spent a rather questionable time behind closed doors in recent memory, no hair nor hide of him visible, nor sight of his extended entourage daring to raise their heads over the parapet for a rather insufferably long period of time. Indeed, I asked myself whether this was in fact the beginning of the end for the Tegel-based boy wonder, who’s breakout record Rivers of the Red Planet redefined the landscape of modern electronic music, it’s trickle down effect still felt in electronic production to this date. Well, I stand corrected.
Ratgrave—Max Graef and Julius Conrad—signals a metamorphosis from techno and stuttering, hip-hop infused housed into a genre-less, unquantifiable sound space, piling years of influence, expertise and good taste together in one fell swoop—the official genre-designation given by both of the album’s creators leaves as much to the imagination. “Electronic P-Fusion from earth. Recorded over a period of 3 years in different locations. Stop Wars and investors”—a quip no doubt aimed at directly towards the gentrification of Ost Berlin; Kollwitzkiez, Prenzlauerberg, Pankow and Friedrichshain, marginally further across the Spree river from the decadent and developed West—in which most of them live—home to their families, who grew up in the former communist Deutsche Demokratische Republik. From first hand experience, they have seen the areas that they grew up in change inexorably through fluttering tides of Swabian migration, tourism, new money and infrastructural investment, designated to refurbish these areas but socially cleansing them all the while by dragging up local rents in the pursuit of Luxus Wohnungen für alle...
Although Max hated to be pigeonholed in terms of Genre when I knew him in Berlin —much to the annoyance of record dealers and wholesale merchants wanting easily catch-all descriptions of the music for marketing purposes—Max and Julius seem to have emancipated themselves from the shackles of expectation—warranting a clearly definable sound—through the release of this record. There is no overt influence on show, rather a smorgasbord of different influences and intoxicating chord progressions. It is uncharacteristically unique, at times veering off into an Atari style soundtrack, visions of Crash Bandicoot scaling mountainous landscapes seared into my mind almost heinously.
Ubi Hubi almost sounds like a Specials interlude, with a-tonal progressions and a pseudo new wave disciplined soundscape wrapping itself around a keyboard-demo tape drum pattern almost with a sense of sarcasm and fluid ease, taking pleasure somewhat in its pronounced departure from the type of music Herr Graef has been associated with since his early foray into production: house and techno. The initial guitar riff sounds like a Jimmy Page toilet break during a Led Zeppelin III recording, guitar in hand and straining from heroin tinted haemorrhoids. I remember speaking to Ludwig Labuzinski in his flat in Gesundbrünnen a few summers ago for an academic piece I was writing at the time about the Neue Welle —new wave—of German music. Young Turkish kids were letting off fireworks in the Innenhof of the Ludwig’s block of flats which, upon exploding, cannoned phosphorescent material into people’s windows and stunned local dogs into silence. His record collection—a representative sample in this instance for the Box-aus-Holz mentality and musical persuasion, spanned across all genres and left no stone unturned, barring no musical or regional holes. It is this mature and all encompassing approach to music that has eventually culminated in this release, the body of influences and accumulation of knowledge materialising itself within Max and Julius’ musical output.
Labuzinski admitted to me in a recent chat that although his input was sparse, he maintained somewhat of a presence within the record—slinking around in the background with masterful electronic manipulation and special effects, a subliminal master, who’s role within the Box aus Holz crew—although not markedly recognisable—has had an unequivocal bearing on the musical and technical orientation of the ensemble, a family centred collective, non-plussed by commercial fame and in it for the art and weirdness.
Most of the record sounds as though it has been recorded on reel to reel: warm analog swells trundle along the underbelly of the track like sonic central-heating. It is funk infused, lofi and drenched in dusty, crate flittering soul—this time upsampled and prodigiously performed by Julius Conrad; take a bow, dear boy. His basslines, raunchy and articulated, sound quasi Jaco Pistorius-esque, played low down towards the bridge in a fit of flatulent funkiness, lo-pass filters taking things to Bootsy Collins extremes. All thats missing from the record, in this instance, are some star-rimmed sunglasses on the cover. Aquaboogie, baby. The presence of Gerry Franke in this record hasn’t gone unnoticed either, Max’s father who teamed up with him in 2015 for an EP eponymously named Random Funktion after the name of the group they co-founded, Max on bass and Gerry on guitar.
The body of the work has a dreamy, artificial intelligent glint to it, sounding like a Grand Turismo body-shop sound track, staggering and gyrating from lysergically altered musical direction, wonkier than a Red Rack’em fever dream. Rather conversely it sounds futuristic but also retro, a somewhat timeless body of work that doesn’t clearly identify itself—for good reason—within any sort of movement or epoch—aside from its own—in a staggering demonstration of originality from both protagonists. Jitter jitter jitter slide slide slide, this ambience is far too remarkable to make an immediate imprint, but perhaps this is something that sociomusicologists in the not- too-near future will unpick as a blueprint for the death of genre, or the genesis of new-age electro-Kraut (one for the genrephiles among you).
Meandering guitar riffs intersperse the tracks with a mature and gathered timbre. It seems as though Max’s time in the wilderness has allowed him to mature and think about the musicality of his productions in greater detail, the end product sounding like Bobby Lyle and Tom Driessler locked in a pressure chamber for 4 months with nothing but analogue, Casio equipment and an MPC to keep them company. The drumming and programming is subtle and doesn’t play a dominant role at the forefront of the tracks, a concept that perhaps realigns the musical direction of the record towards a band-centric release, something that separates the album from the standard production techniques and methods of techno music—a genre that Max and Julius have traditionally been associated with and no doubt a label that they both want to shake off in their quest for creative purity and serious, thought provoking musicality. In a sense, the drumming harks back to early Sly and the Family Stone demotapes where he used a Maestro Rhythm King MRK-2, posthumously named “The Funk Box”, giving the songs a regimented and staccato percussive feel and a metronomic simplicity.
Fantastic Neckground, beginning with the down pitched vocal “Eine Wirklichkeit in Technicolour—a technicolored reality—harks more traditionally towards the Berliner Techno associated with this general movement and Max’s back catalogue. However, something almost trappy and sporadic envelopes the track with wild Hancockian rhodes mewing in the near distance, assonant and brooding, a mercurial shimmy of bass underlying this new musical phenomenon. Berlin has always been a forward thinking and remarkable space for artists of all calibre to express themselves sonically. Even Bowie’s hiatus in Kreuzberg produced a record that sounded like nothing that came before, the free-mindedness of Berlin’s inhabitants allowing genuine, unabashed creativity to thrive and incubating freedom of expression to grand heights. This record is typical of this laissez faire attitude towards creativity, written by musicians who are genuinely unconcerned with convention.
Time was needed for the concoction of this record, a masterpiece hitherto unheard of or conceptualised. This isn’t dance floor music. This is the maturation of concept and method, underlined all the while by Max’s creative genius. Wu-style strings underlie Ein Kola Bitte, a song that Dam Funk or MNDSGN wished that they had the musical chops to put together. It comes across as boogie-sounding, DJ Harrisonesque and Stones Throw ready, strung with ethereal female choir vocals and Pistorian bass skills, naturally funky—taught yet smooth, syncopated yet teutonic.
A swelling and visceral jungle overture collides into frame and takes the listener by surprise in El Schnorro, a song that sounds like a combination of 4AM by Herbie Hancock and Inner City Life by Goldie. During the jungle interlude, a jagged and tense amen sample is chopped up to great effect—oftentimes a difficult sample to use without making the music sound slightly cheesy— while a warping and furious bass synth oscillates and swells, imbibing a hallmark dark, Berliner tension.
In all, this release signals a new chapter in Berlin’s rich musical history, an LP aware of its musical influences and styles and a cocksure and multicoloured expression of talent in an otherwise monosyllabic and grausam Techno-umfeld that has come to dominate Berlin, a style of music that is heard even in supermarkets and at standard-issue train station bars, strained and overplayed, although a key source of revenue for Berlin and a credible slice of the city’s cultural capital. Ratgrave is a wilful exploration of other. Critically speaking, it could be viewed as art for arts sake but that isn’t a notion that I subscribe to. I think that it is music for musicians, those who are serious about sound, texture, timbre and structure, music that isn’t played at weekends in Tresor or during sticky fingered sex parties at Berghain. Listening to this LP is an ephemeral experience, steeped in musical legacy and prestigious talent.
Ratgrave is available on Apron Records.
Words by William Fox