My first thought on hearing Biokinetics was quite simply “How the hell did I manage to miss this one?” Yes, it’s that good and, when you consider it was originally recorded in 1996, it should have been a landmark album of its day, and a cornerstone of nineties electronica. And indeed, the EPs and subsequent CD garner a bit of underground interest back then but, being a massive neophyte in terms of techno back then, I contrived to miss it altogether.
Luckily, the wonderful Type label has reissued Biokinetics on both CD and vinyl, meaning I was able to quickly right the wrong and absorb this groundbreaking album before singing its praises here. It’s defined in most columns as ‘dub techno’, perhaps mainly due to its release on Chain Reaction, and the bass is suitably massive on tracks like ‘Nautical Dub’ and ‘Port of Call’, pounding with room-shuddering intensity while rampaging beats drive each piece with frenetic energy. But, in truth, there is little to equate the material on Biokinetics, with its icy synths and futuristic undertones, with actual dub, and it has none of that genre’s earthy calm. Instead, Porter Ricks (a duo made up of Germans Andy Mellwig and Thomas Köener) were essentially blazing a trail into a style that would become more popular in the ensuing years: minimal techno. This is especially apparent on two of the album’s shortest tracks, ‘Biokinetics 1′ and ‘Port of Nuba’, where the components are stripped down to sparse, metronomic beats and stuttering oscillations on sequencers. Although undoubtedly busier and more soulful than, say, Alva Noto or Gas, the emphasis across the album is on repetition and delicateness, as patterns are paired down to their most insistent minimum, and then sustained over durations that, for dance music, are pretty long.
The two twelve-minute opuses that bookend the album are cases in point. On ‘Port Gentil’, a slinky beat is countered by repeated sequencer patterns with only the faintest of adornments from synthesizers and found sounds. The result owes almost as much to ambient music as it does to dancefloor techno or dub, hardly surprising given that Köener is one of the foremost (yet most enigmatic) figures in ambient. The atmosphere on ‘Port Gentil’ is ghostly and ephemeral, and while it certainly has a groove you can dance to, it somehow feels too esoteric for something so primal, while also prefiguring the more overtly psychedelic disco/techno crossovers of Lindstrøm and The Field, especially with its focus on looped motifs and repetition. Closer ‘Nautical Zone’, meanwhile, emerges gradually out of an ozone of synth drone, with shaky rhythms that always feel – perhaps appropriately, given the track’s title – submerged, as if heard underwater. Its a graceful and mystical approach that ties Biokinetics in less with minimal and dub techno than with the oddball electro of Detroit legends Drexciya, something heightened by the frequent references to water.
With so much happening in such an understated way (temporal and atmospheric shifts are undertaken gradually, almost to the point of being imperceptible), Biokinetics can be a strange beast to appreciate. You can easily hear how some of these tracks would rock a club audience, especially the raucous ‘Port of Call’, which feels tailor-made for Berlin’s Berghain super-club. On other tracks, the duo’s often bare bones take on techno feels positively oblique. But in between the lines, the atmosphere on each track primes, and you find yourself honing in on gentle waves of hypnotic drone and ambience. The end result is something not unlike the deeper moments of dubstep (such as Burial or King Midas Sound), a genre that Biokinetics surely anticipates. The haunting melodies under the beats flit around the edges of straight-ahead techno, drawing the album deep into more contemplative, reflective spaces akin to the dark explorations on Köener’s solo album Permafrost (also reissued recently by Type). This exquisite sense of poise and restraint means Biokinetics is not really a dancefloor album. Instead, like the most emotionally-resonant dubstep, it feels more like a soundtrack to the last few dances in the club followed by the bus ride home. It drifts and teases and pulls at the heart-strings, a graceful culmination of the disparate strands of post-modern, slightly alienated, urban music. That it was released back in 1996 makes it all the more remarkable and reinforces the fact that I was surely an idiot to have missed it at the time. Thanks to Type, all those like me can make up for lost time.