Whilst celebrated anniversaries generally include the first, tenth, twenty-fifth and so on, we’ll afford a dodecadecimal exception to Raster-Noton. The German label has never been much for conformity, so why should they start now? Occupying a space between experimental electronic music and the dancefloor, the label’s artists succeed at being simultaneously both but neither. We’ve never had the good fortune of hearing any club DJ drop one of their tracks into a set and yet whenever we have been lucky enough to catch them live, their groovy beats seem to slightly alienate the sound art crowd that is drawn to them.
Last Friday’s event at the ICA would be no different, as the audience took advantage of the open auditorium to have a sit down rather than a dance. Olaf Bender began the night with a wicked set of menacing electro as Byetone, as we struggled hard to avoid being the only people dancing amongst the sea of seated punters. With knees stiffly bent, he slowly rocked back and forth to the rhythms he laid out, as simple bands of coloured lines illuminated the screens behind him. This was undeniably dance music, but stripped of all non-essential elements, leaving only stark drum machine repetition and a subtle ambient pad. Tantrically teasing at the climax without ever reaching it, Byetone displayed a firm understanding of the power of suggestion over full delivery.
With barely a thirty-second break between sets, Carsten Nicolai launched into his performance as Alva Noto. Nicolai pummelled us with bass-heavy breakbeats wrapped in bursts of high-end noise as he featured several tracks from his new album, Unitxt. As the vocals on one piece counted rapidly in French, we were pleasantly reminded of Kraftwerk’s “Numbers”, whilst the beat continued as an updated take on “Boing Boom Tschak”. Always assuming an attack position over his electronics, he would leap in to turn a knob or slide a fader and then prompty spring back, as if cautious not to be burnt by his own fire.
Another long-time Raster-Noton favourite of ours, Frank Bretschneider, was up next, again with almost no pause after Alva Noto. Keeping with the label’s aesthetic, Bretschneider flirted with piercing highs and rumbling lows with utter disregard for the mid-range. These high contrast sounds are what we came for and we were not disappointed. Much like Byetone, he followed a path of dark electro that, despite its harsher aspects, remained incredibly danceable.
Kangding Ray, David Letellier’s alter ego, followed in the penultimate slot of the night. A more recent addition to the Raster-Noton roster, Letellier offered a lovely set of moody ambient pulsations. Whilst not as suitable for booty shaking as the preceding performances, these lush repetitions brought comfort in the centre of a storm.
Those who think that the term “super group” is reserved just for classic rockers were proven completely wrong by the final act of the night. Olaf Bender, Carsten Nicolai and Frank Bretschneider returned to the stage to play together as Signal. Wearing extremely smart matching white track jackets (see above), the trio started with a deep swirling drone and proceeded with a collision of thudding beats. The stutter and rhythmic roll at times evoked memories of Plastikman’s finest work, “Spastik”, though in balancing these percussive elements with feedback and noise they crafted a sound all their own.
By this point, everyone was awake and dancing, including the peformers themselves. It’s always wonderful to see musicians truly enjoying themselves, but it is especially so in a genre that is too often unfairly regarded as sombre and reserved. Signal raised spirits so high that we begged them for an encore, which they hilariously gave in the form of a brief piece of atonal noise flutter. As long-standing fans of Raster-Noton, we knew we’d leave this gig satisfied, but what we hadn’t bargained for was walking home with such massive grins on our faces. We wish the label continued success and a fast return to London, as we look forward to celebrating their 13th, 17th and 23rd and 1/2 anniversaries with them as well.
Photograph of Signal performing at the ICA courtesy of Gabriel Green.