These days many things compete for the small space of our wrists: fitness trackers; smartwatches; regular old watches; and now the Basslet. The Basslet is basically a watch without a display, and it comes with a little transmitter device that can plug into anything with a minijack input, like an iPhone, stereo or laptop, and then sends very nuanced vibrations to your wrist. It’s the latest attempt to enhance the perception of sound while listening to music on headphones, which was attempted a few times in the past. For instance, the Subpack is a backpack with a subwoofer, and it’s very efficient—but you have to carry a large backpack around.
I heard about the Basslet because I know one of the people behind the startup that produces it, Lofelt, since we worked together at Ableton. All I knew was that he and a few other developers were working on a device, so I was quite excited and curious when I got the chance to test it. I was pretty convinced that it wouldn’t be a waste of my time, but nevertheless I was a bit skeptical, mainly due to the fact that I am not a “headphones person”—I always try to avoid wearing them, even though I own a pair of really good ones. I prefer to listen to music on speakers, maybe because I don’t like to be locked away from the rest of the world.
I tested it with a club track from Trentemœller, and the sensation was surprisingly convincing. There’s an element to the experience that you have to get used to—that your brain has to get used to—because the first reaction when the music starts is, “What the hell is going on on my wrist?” But once this initial confusion vanishes, you begin to focus on the music. One of the most exciting aspects of the Basslet is how precise it is; you can feel the contours of the bass and the different frequencies of the low end very clearly. It’s not like it’s just some undefined rumbling on your wrist.
The lowest vibration setting is 1, and you can increase the intensity up to 10 on the Basslet itself or through the volume of your music-playing device. I was curious to hear how non-electronic music would work, so I put on “Take Five” by Dave Brubeck. I wanted to see how the double bass did on the Basslet, and again, the experience was fascinating. I could actually feel the stand-up bass and drums perfectly.
One thing that becomes immediately obvious is that there are strong differences in how music is produced concerning low frequencies, from highly compressed bass-heavy club tracks to classical music or jazz, for instance. I had to use one of the higher settings for the same intensity when listening to jazz, so it makes total sense to have different level settings of intensity. But to be honest, the lower the vibration’s intensity, the more I enjoyed the Basslet. On the higher levels it can become very obvious. My feeling is that the Basslet’s vibrations don’t have to be that obvious, and the device is at its best when its sensations are very subtle.
But technology seems to evolve in such a way that we start with the maximum sensation and then reduce it until it makes sense. Look at 3D cinema; at first we were thrown into this new world that was overwhelming and quite exhausting. Today, most movies use 3D in a very subtle way, and it’s clear that it’d be boring without it. With the Basslet it is very much the same. What’s important is that it’s very precise, which allows it to be subtle while still having a noticeable effect. Turning it off is actually quite shocking, because you instantly miss something.
I think there’s still a lot of headroom to optimize the Basslet—not on the mechanical side of the transducer, but on the side of the electronics inside it. I can envision that you could push the experience even further with a little bit of fine-tuning of the frequency response. The has a lot of untapped potential.
Looking at it as a music producer, I can imagine this little device could be of great use, but on the road more than in the studio. One of the key components in the creative process is getting in the right mood. If you travel a lot, your working conditions become dictated by the environment, like an airport, hotel room or plane. If the Basslet allowed me to enjoy making music in those conditions more, then I could see it becoming very valuable in the realm of music production.
And on a more geeky level, I don’t think it’s necessarily limited to enhance sound experience. Since it’s capable of transmitting such a variety of vibration signals, it could also be used to transmit all sorts of signals for messaging. It could be of great use for blind and deaf people; it could be a communication tool; it could even be used as a navigating system where specific vibrations tell me where to go. The Basslet has a lot of potential there that goes way beyond music.
Kobosil belongs to a group of artists that I always keep an eye on. He’s probably one of my favorite techno producers at the moment for the simple reason that his music has a particular mood I enjoy: dark and full of character.
The first time Kobosil caught my ear was when Marcel Dettmann sent me his first EP on MDR, EIN. I had never heard of him before, and although I expected something interesting, I was still totally surprised by my first listen. All the tracks were excellent. I was immediately caught up in Kobosil’s universe. When I later met him on an early Sunday morning in Berghain, we had a nice chat about music and I saw that he’s an artist who’s totally into researching the history of electronic music, from EBM to new wave, industrial and electronica. In 2015, actually he did a remix for my EBM track “Aktion Mekanik Theme”, and it was brilliant. This new album flirts with industrial moods and integrates some ambient soundscapes as well.
It’s great to know that Kobosil is a young artist and that this is just the beginning of what we’ll see from him. But you can’t tell his age by listening to his music, which has a lot to say, is extremely precise and shows a surprisingly mature personality. His first album confirms everything: it has his vision and shows his aptitude for not focusing exclusively on heavy 4/4. It’s really immersive with lots of attitude, and there’s a symbiotic relationship between all the tracks. The tension starts with “Telling The Truth”. He’s in control; he knows where he wants to go. The sounds he uses are raw and reflect a kind of coldness while keeping a groove that warms up everything, as on “To See Land”. He opens the album’s horizons with the more intimate “Reflection”, then slowly rebuilds a strange atmosphere on “The Exploring Mountain”.
Some tracks, like “Aim For Target”, treat the special soul of ‘90s techno in a modern way. This track in particular stays with you and instantly solidifies in your memory. Kobosil doesn’t hesitate to get introspective, either. Atmospheric offerings like “Eihwaz” could serve as soundtracks for Alien or one of David Lynch’s films. “The Living Ritual” has a more EBM orientation, which speaks very well to me through his basslines. And I love the hypnotic, linear quality of “When I Speak”, which channels the sound of previous tracks in a new direction.
With the last track, “They Looked On”, we reach a certain peace. It’s a beautiful closing track with a controlled melody—not too much melody, just enough to be right. It is the perfect way to finish the album. Overall, We Grow, You Decline is both obscure and intimate with a nice sense of movement. Kobosil’s style becomes clearer and more evident as you listen through the album: all its different soundscapes are notable for the omnipresence of reverb and a rough quality that fits with the Berghain imaginary. The future of proper techno is in good hands.
I am extremely picky about buying new dance music. My collection has been growing for nearly two decades, and the fact is that I simply don’t need the newest, hottest record that everyone is excited about—unless it does something that gives it a deserving place next to the amazing music I’ve already spent my time and money on. I look for music that reflects the idiosyncratic nature of the person who made it, which easily cuts out the vast majority of sound-alike tunes, edits and DJ tool tracks that seem to make up most of the sets I hear when I go out to dance.
Detroit native Kyle Hall has been making dance music for a relatively short time, but since the beginning he’s had a distinctive style that forced me to check all his releases. I’ve loved and played tracks from all through his discography to date, including his more recent rough and minimal jams. But my favorite strain is when he combines the funky rhythms of J Dilla or Jneiro Jarel with the lush synths of Hanna or Dego, like on his EP for Moods & Grooves or the early Wild Oats records. Not only does his latest album, From Joy, feature music in that style and from that era— it’s also probably the best example of this side of his catalog so far.
The jazzy atmosphere that pervades throughout is due to the loose, improvisational feel of the rhythms and melodies, as opposed to so many elevator music approaches to jazz pretense that seem all too common in house music. There is no doubt that this is very personal music, not pastiche. This is where the success of From Joy is most apparent. Unlike his debut album The Boat Party, which was clearly very DJ-friendly, this album cares little about easily fitting into any stylistic box or any DJ set. It will definitely do damage when played by an accomplished selector, but it works as a listening album just as well. Combined with the extravagant 3xLP pressing and hand-painted cover artwork depicting Kyle’s head floating above his body, the result is an album that feels complete and mature beyond what most dance music artists are doing. I can easily see this being a record I come back to again and again because it has already entered my driving rotation, which includes many longtime favorites.
Listening to this album reinforces my belief that there is an approach to dance music that leads to more rewarding musical experiences than most artists are taking. Knowing history and how to play instruments is never going to be a hindrance to making quality music, even though the current critical milieu doesn’t seem to agree; they are more enthralled by “outsiders” making noise while wishing this was the punk scene instead of dance music. This album is the exact opposite of that ideal. From Joy is made by a cat who has not used his youth and inexperience as a crutch at any point. He has done an excellent job of taking in the so-called “conservative” roots of dance music in funk, soul and jazz and has put his own fresh spin on them.
While this seems like a simple formula, it turns out that it must not be, which assertion is based entirely on the results of most artists out there, including many that have had much more time logged in the game. In fact, I hate to even make a point of Kyle’s age because his music has moved beyond that mattering at all. I must bring it up only because he is proof that there is no need for reduced expectations for younger artists. I hold him to the same standard that I hold artists who have been making music for longer than he has been alive, yet he has no problem making timeless, beautiful music that needs no additional qualifications. There are not many dance music artists out there who could make an album like this. Go buy the record.
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I’ve loved a lot of David Bowie songs throughout my life.
His landmark albums from the early ‘70s were often played on the radio shows that I recorded to cassettes in the mid-‘70s and beyond. To my ears, his glam anthems and outfits were way ahead of what represented “glam” in the charts. David Bowie was already somewhere else, of course, anticipating the disco phenomenon I would soon love and following it up with the Berlin trilogy that would inspire legions to create something great—and look great while doing it, too.
In the early ‘80s, when I was running around the small coastal town where I grew up in ‘60s clothes, I discovered that Bowie had already had been there in the best way imaginable. His early singles on the label Pye were exactly the attitude and sound I was looking for. He was the definite face. He made no mistakes. With “Ashes To Ashes” he came down from his demigod realm from up above and mingled with his worshippers in the New Romantics scene. He was also a terrific actor on screen and made good use of his ever-magnetic charisma and sexually confusing identities there, too. Whatever he did, you watched him very closely, lest you missed out on crucial developments.
When Nile Rodgers, another hero of mine, was announced as the producer on “Let’s Dance”, I had high hopes. But I could not help feeling let down. There were moments, but not enough of them. In the mid ‘80s, pop’s most successful stars could earn a fortune without even the slightest vision—let alone sound—and David Bowie had become one of them. As soon as he was dancing in the street with Mick I was embarrassed. Even his outfits were embarrassing. I was really surprised that this could happen.
So began Bowie’s hit-or-miss years. For every time a glimpse of his former cool self resurfaced—as on “Absolute Beginners” or “Hallo Spaceboy”— he took decisions that were unforgivably below his par; think Tin Machine. You cannot be a visionary forever, no matter how visionary you once were. Granted, David Bowie was more consistently visionary than anybody else, and for a long time. But the visions at one point were had by others. Unsurprisingly, he displayed a clever instinct for picking the right ones to utilize for his purposes, but still they were attached. I didn’t mind the missteps, as he was performing elder statesmanship with grace, and as so many artists were still working with ideas he had already explored, he had nothing left to prove unless he wanted to. So screw the stock bonds. I felt happy for him and his family. He deserved it. Then he kind of disappeared.
When he reappeared in 2013, it felt like he came out of the blue. “Where Are We Now?” was the first Bowie song in years that I listened to repeatedly. It was beautiful and it felt good to have him back. I was slightly surprised by its sadness, but I thought it was quite a statement to base its sentiment about the most lauded creative period of your career. It challenges comparisons, and I was sure he was still creatively ambitious enough to try to deal with them, no matter what he had achieved before. The Next Day was a good album, too. He did not try to reinvent himself, but looked back on what he invented. I visited the Bowie exhibition in Berlin that did the same and I enjoyed it very much. It all came back, rather predictably. His stage outfits on display proved he was a small man, but he surely did not have a small mind.
I did not expect that he would follow that retrospective phase so soon, if at all. And I absolutely did not expect that he would follow it up with an album like Blackstar. As before, David Bowie chose to remain silent about his plans to release a new album and relied on producer Tony Visconti to reveal the news. In an interview with Mojo, he spoke of references like Kendrick Lamar, Death Grips and Boards Of Canada and said that rock ‘n’ roll was to be avoided. David Bowie recruited a potent jazz quartet from a New York bar for the recordings. It was all rather promising.
When I was asked to write these lines, I initially wished I could have listened to the entire album while he was still alive, as I was already overwhelmed to the point of numbness by the reactions to his sudden demise. But when I then listened to Blackstar, it became obvious very quickly that he was aware that he would have passed away once the public was fully exposed to it. It’s pivotal to picture the dying artist for the whole experience. The songs are brilliant: complex and dense and at times simply stunning. Indeed, they avoid rock ‘n’ roll stereotypes, even if the jazz influence only adds to the picture instead of dominating it. The mood is intense but not entirely dark. Considering the motivation behind this album, David Bowie sounds astonishingly swinging, and his beloved voice delivers clever lyrics ranging between the horror of his own decay and the feeling of arriving there content, at ease with himself, with truths simultaneously personal and universal.
The video for “Lazarus” is frightening to watch, but comically absurd as well. The last photographs of Bowie show him in a sharp suit, laughing. The way he orchestrated his own requiem is incredible, exactly as he wanted to, and as only he could. David Bowie, setting lasting examples yet again. Superior, even in death.
Finn Johannsen regularly contributes to Electronic Beats with recommendations and his column Rewind.
See: An empty stage, its backdrop painted with the idiot faces of gods. Their heads incline upward, either in disdain for those below or in baffled wonder at what hands might work above them. And there—descending on silver wires, a puppet with arms thrown wide like a grotesque Christ. His wooden feet touch the stage with a soft tchk. No spotlight illuminates him; only the footlights cast awareness, flickering softly below a dance of dust particles.
He slowly advances, though obviously under the command of a less than able puppeteer. The effect is of one burdened by some crippling illness or distress. His robes—perhaps “rags” is a better term for those flapping swatches of loose red fabric—twitch as his head wobbles madly, as if the puppeteer was seized by a fit of the giggles. His painted lips part with a clumsy clunk:
“In the light of your persuasion, I saw a rare creation, and I cross this consummation for another way of being.”
Following this proclamation he steps back, away from the footlights. The rumble of sheet metal from behind the curtains rises slowly. It’s a simulated storm that brings a cold wind to blow and tease at the ends of our host’s sad tatters. Above stage center, two pale, beautiful feet emerge, glowing as they kick the air. The puppet echoes these kicks in exaggerated pantomime, legs thrusting higher into a gleeful dance. He tears his robes further to reveal an almost comic striped prison uniform. This puppet is no invalid, but inmate! What a silly impression he makes amongst the stars of gods and swirling eddies of ancient dust…until he suddenly stops dancing.
Through some trick of light his face appears streaked with wetness: sweat? Tears? He stumbles forward, mouth agape.
“In this light I thought I heard a voice that said six perfect words.”
From above, on the edge of comprehension: “A child’s echo, hear him singing.” Then a church bell begins ringing, and the voice speaks once more from curtained ceilings: “This is not the only dream.”
Two hands now appear from above. Neither hold wires or give direction to the slumped-over figure below. From between thin fingers, snowflakes begin to fall, covering the puppet in white, and as the hands pull upward the puppet rises up from the freezing pile. He is clad once more in ragged red, his hands outstretched toward those now vanished. His voice lashes out from hollow insides:
“Take my hand beneath the sky! Lend your voice, that I might fly! When you’ve looked beyond my eyes into a different way of being!”
Wooden lips not meant to spread crack as they’re forced to perform the acrobatics of intense laughter, delivered into a false sky of spinning gods who don’t get the joke. The puppet’s knees hit the stage. For a moment he looks like a penitent child discovered at some perverse game. Shaking like a flame, his small body shapes a whirling dance that steadily becomes more luminous and violent until zzzzppp! he’s yanked upward, to rest among the lights with that unseen beautiful figure.
Caught in a dance against this empty stage, two silhouettes—a shadow and a shadow’s memory—sewn together by delirium. Two conjugal shapes straining as much against as toward each other, each starving on the other’s empty essence. Neither voice nor limb nor light remain.
This is sex.
This article originally appeared in the Fall 2015 issue of Electronic Beats Magazine. Click here to read more from past issues.