Richie Hawtin’s Plastikman performance at New York’s Guggenheim Museum last November marked a double anniversary of sorts. It had been almost exactly 20 years since the release of Sheet One, his groundbreaking debut album under the alias, in which he imbued the Roland TB-303 synthesizer with a liquidity no one had found in it before, like some Midas figure who turned everything he touched into rolling beads of mercury. And it had been a decade since Closer, Plastikman’s last album, and one that already felt a little like an afterthought. Whereas the first five years of the Plastikman project were marked by feverish creative activity — Sheet One, Musik, the singles anthologies Recycled Plastik and Artifakts [bc], and his legendarily unhinged (and illegal) underground warehouse parties, all culminating in 1998′s masterful Consumed — Hawtin had spent the next five years focusing mainly on his rep as a superstar tech-house DJ, forsaking Plastikman’s lysergic depths for party-starting consistency.
By Closer, it seemed like perhaps his success was taking its toll. Compared to the quicksilver grace of the early records, it moved with a leaden fatigue. Overlaid with portentous, digitally processed phrases like “Ask yourself” and “My mind in rewind,” it was clearly meant to express the altered states that accompany extreme stress, extended insomnia, drug comedowns, etc.; sounding harried and slightly half-assed, though, it came across more as the natural result of his own habit of burning the candle at both ends.
In the decade since, Hawtin has gone on to become one of the biggest names in techno — indeed, perhaps techno’s only remaining true superstar, easily the most recognizable face to emerge from what was once a resolutely faceless milieu — to the extent that his own name has long since eclipsed his early alter ego. But as his activities have multiplied (DJ, label head, promoter, entrepreneur, technologist, sake enthusiast, tabloid figure, fashion plate), one gets the sense that Plastikman may be his albatross, his Moby Dick — his Rushmore, maybe.
He has intermittently made stabs at reclaiming the Plastikmantle. There was a live performance at Montreal’s MUTEK in 2004 that, even by his own admission, was something of a dud. There was a sprawling, 11-disc box set in 2010 (for which, full disclosure, I contributed a history of the Plastikman project). In 2010 and 2011, he took a revamped version of the Plastikman audio-visual live set on the road, hitting not just artsy festivals like MUTEK and Sónar but also full-scale commercial raves like Electric Daisy Carnival. And then last November, at the behest of Dior’s Raf Simons, he performed a new live set at the Guggenheim as part of its annual International Gala fundraiser. The one thing that he couldn’t seem to do was come up with a new Plastikman album, plagued by an extended bout of writer’s block that seemed to bother Hawtin as much as it frustrated his fans.
And yet, now — finally, suddenly — here it is: a new Plastikman album, recorded live at that Guggenheim event, featuring all new material composed specifically for the occasion. It arrives more or less out of the blue, very much in the fashion of recent high-profile stealth returns (My Bloody Valentine, Boards of Canada, David Bowie, Beyoncé, et al). But it also arrives with an important caveat. Indeed, shortly before the Guggenheim performance, Hawtin said of the new material he was working up, “This isn’t going to be the next Plastikman album, it’s not going to be the next Plastikman show; it’s something in between.” So where exactly does that leave us?
In the most generous of terms, we might say that EX is a stopgap measure. Less charitably, we might note that the ambiguity around the status of the release is a kind of get-out-of-jail-free card, a scrim of plausible deniability to shield Hawtin from potential critics. And maybe that’s a smart move, because EX doesn’t come close to the glories of Sheet One, Musik or Consumed.
Let’s start with the good stuff. It’s not a bad record; it stays true to the spirit, or at least the tone, of vintage Plastikman. The rippling, wriggling sound of the TB-303 (or at least its modern equivalent) remains the centerpiece of the music. Indeed, the acid lines are the album’s best feature: the melancholic melody of the closing “EXhale”; the contrapuntal pings of “EXplore,” dripping and melting; the insistent, filtered grind of “EXtend,” which goes soaring out into the void.
EX is a reminder that there’s room for techno that hovers on the border between the dance floor and the netherzone. Its tempos vary from an agonized crawl to an uptempo skip, and some tracks are virtually percussion-free. Hawtin has always been a master of restraint, and his continued willingness to strip back should be a lesson to newer producers who feel obligated to cram every measure of their music with whooshing crescendos and wallops and other almost Pavlovian tricks. That said, EX often feels frustratingly inelegant. Within moments of the record’s inception, Hawtin is cutting out the bass for brief stretches in the attempt to add dynamics. It’s the most impatient of DJ tricks, and one he returns to throughout the set, his hand on the high-pass filter knob like a jittery sea captain’s on the tiller. The overuse of reverb, too, often feels artless, even clunky, with overtones congealing into an ill-defined mush.
Some of this can probably be chalked up to the fact that EX is a recording of a live performance, which means, in effect, the tweaking of effects on top of loops played back from a laptop; it’s not a studiously composed studio work. But early Plastikman records were also recorded live, in the sense that they were mostly laid down in real-time, with little in the way of post-production editing, and they didn’t suffer from the same sense of haphazardness. Too often, the material here just isn’t that strong, as in the case of the plodding, two-note bass line of the opening “EXposed,” shuffling in place like a soldier whose heart isn’t in the parade drill.
To someone who has never heard any of Plastikman’s first three albums, EX might sound pretty good. To someone who has heard little electronic music beyond mainstream, main-stage EDM — perhaps they discovered Hawtin at EDC this summer — EX may come as a revelation. May it lead them back to his three first real-deal records, then. Because it simply can’t hold a candle to them.