Why Techno Is Harder, Faster and Angrier Than Ever
Harder and faster techno is more popular than ever. Annabel Ross explores why that is with some of the scene’s foremost players.
British techno veteran Perc has noticed a funny thing over the past few years. Tracks of his own that he once played toward the end of his set are no longer suitable peak-time cuts. Instead, they’ve moved to the start of his set, as crowds who’ve been energized by the high BPMs of whoever’s played before him expect Perc to play harder and faster still.
“If I’m playing my own tracks that are around 134, 135 BPM, then these days that’s pretty much the start of the set,” he says. “I don’t want to follow trends and be forced to make stuff that’s out of my comfort zone, but it’s interesting how my own tracks have been moved to earlier in the set.”
This experience is not unique to Perc. The prevalence of hard, fast techno has picked up dramatically in the past few years, with BPMs often creeping into the 140s and beyond at niche and not-so-niche parties and clubs around the world. Subgenres that were once considered fringe, or even garish, like gabber and hardcore, are suddenly everywhere. And purveyors of these styles, and of harder techno, are often enjoying a sudden and unexpected boost in status.
In some ways, it’s not entirely surprising. After a decade or so of Ostgut Ton’s dominance, and BPMs that rarely exceeded the mid 130s (which felt frenetic compared to the minimal Poker Flat era that preceded it), there was probably only one way for techno to go. Like the improbable resurgence of tiny sunglasses, the styles and sounds left behind by a generation of ‘90s ravers have been rediscovered by younger crowds hungry for something different. But while the natural ebb and flow of fashion explains some of its popularity, there’s a fervour and immediacy to the movement that suggests something more is going on.
Minimal Violence are a Vancouver duo who find themselves at the vanguard of the hard techno scene, somewhat to their surprise. Ashlee and Lida have not always been hard and fast; their 2017 EP on Jungle Gym, Rapids: The 2015 Sessions EP, is a dreamy downtempo house release. In the years since, their releases have gotten faster and tougher. And their debut LP, InDreams, released in April 2019, regularly clocks in at 155 BPM. For Minimal Violence, their tendency towards making harder music grew out of their live sets, where they were encouraged by the crowds’ reaction.
“Just based on response, we started feeling more excited about playing faster and playing heavier,” Ashlee says. “It was something we could more viscerally get into. The energy of fast-moving bodies versus the energy of a room moving to like 120 BPM, grooving to the music — it’s just a totally different feeling.”
Akua Grant can relate. The Berlin-based DJ and producer has two aliases — Lady Blacktronika, through which she has released deep house for the past 12 years, and Femanyst, her hard techno alias, which was born just three years ago. (In fact, it was a set from Stranger and Perc at Berghain that sent Grant her on her current path). Femanyst has been a revelation, both for her fans and for Grant personally, to the point where she admits she’d do away with Lady Blacktronika altogether if she could afford to.
“Doing a house set, I feel like it could be completely inconsequential. People are dancing and whatever, but when you leave the DJ booth, nobody gives a shit,” she says. A good hard techno audience, conversely, tends to be much more appreciative. “I leave the DJ booth feeling really accomplished,” Grant says. “I really feel like I’ve done something with people — not just by myself — but with the crowd.”
When she first started producing in the mid-’00s, Grant had plans to release speedcore/hardcore music as The Transexual Terrorist, but making house music felt more cathartic at the time. In the past few years, however, house has grown stale for Grant, and she says she feels much happier bashing out angry techno than she ever did playing deeper records. The music might be intense and uncompromising, but the scene itself is “really progressive as far as like queer, trans and women’s politics goes,” she says. She even compares taking on her new alias to a gender transition. “It feels like people are deadnaming me when they want me to play Lady Blacktronika. But then again, I’m like, I’m not rich yet and I’m not making enough money to say no.”
Played to a receptive crowd, hard techno will inevitably raise the energy in the room. But there’s probably another reason tougher, speedier styles are connecting with audiences. The world is currently changing in some frightening ways. Between Brexit, Trump, Syria, climate change, and the rise of the far right, there’s a lot to feel angry about.
Spanish-born, Berlin-based Héctor Oaks, a new star of the hard techno scene, was previously a resident at two of the parties that have helped the sound reach a global audience: Herrensauna in Berlin and Bassiani in Tbilisi, Georgia.
Following the infamous raids at Georgian club in May 2018, Oaks was asked to deliver the club’s first LP, As We Were Saying. It’s impossible to separate the record, and most of Oaks’ output, from politics.
“I’m very close to many queer collectives, and in some places these people have to go out on the weekend to be themselves, because during the week they have to hide,” he says. “I think that raving is a social necessity for some people because of the system. These people have to go to the club at least to temporarily forget about their job or their problems, and the music that is harder and faster leads more easily to ecstasy, let’s say.”
He’s right: playing hard music forces punters to keep up, and the more vigorously people move, the more endorphins will be released (along with whatever else might be swimming around in the bloodstream). Ashlee from Minimal Violence likens the feeling to the sensation you might get from punching out your aggressions in a boxing session — or from any kind of workout that might hurt for a day or two afterwards.
“I mean, the heavy, fast parties are always the most fun, and I like feeling a little beat up at the end of the night,” she says. “If I go out dancing and it’s that visceral kind of release — I think that’s what people need right now. It’s a very physical form of escape, I guess.”
There’s a certain unification that playing hard engenders as well — one that’s not always reached on less-intense dancefloors. Phones are discouraged at most of these parties, where they’re at odds with the often permissive environments. Furthermore, you can’t post to Instagram stories and thrash about at the same time. It’s literally go hard or go home, and for a DJ or live act, there’s nothing more rewarding than watching every last dancer go all-in.
When it comes to his approach, Oaks likes to sort the wheat from the chaff early on. “I like to play some music that’s challenging for some people who would be outside this scene,” he says. “I like to play this music that makes them decide, ‘Do I like it or not? Can I stay here, or do I have to go to the bar or leave?”
As with the ‘90s fast-techno boom and subsequent bust, there can be too much of a good thing. And some of hard techno’s leading lights are worried about what they describe as the “tempo wars.”
“I already feel like people, including me, are getting tired of this,” Polish DJ and producer VTSS says. “I love hardcore music, I personally find early hardcore super classy and emotional. However I don’t like how many — especially young — DJs are chasing one another with who would fuck you up the most. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve been playing [lots of] gabber parties, but I’m not really happy with how techno and gabber somehow is blending into one.”
She also points to instances where DJs are playing upwards of 150 to 160 BPM in their opening sets, leaving the DJs that follow with virtually nowhere to go. “Following that, you either play even faster, or you start over from scratch. And to be frank, it’s really hard to get the crowd even as half as excited after that.” For VTSS, everything is about balance. “I like to embrace my hardcore background, but not overwhelm my techno crowd with this.”
Perc, too, is against the “arms race” approach to tempos. When parties kick off at 150-plus BPM, it establishes a precedent that’s hard to retreat from. When phones are allowed, party footage of peak-time scenes at speedy parties, which are about as raucous as you imagine, will inevitably hit the web, increasing expectations of that instant gratification for other, future gigs.
“People are seeing what other people are playing, and so they speed up what they’re playing. So there’s a feedback loop that means everyone’s just playing faster and faster,” Perc says. “People might have seen a video on Instagram of me, which could have been taken in the last 10 minutes of my set, and then I might be playing at the start of a four hour set and it’s a lot slower than what they were expecting.”
Despite having to modify his own DJ style as BPMs increase around him, Perc remains appreciative of the invigorating effect that harder, faster music has had on the scene. “Certain sounds that haven’t been heard in techno clubs in a while are coming back, and there’s a bit of nineties revivalism sort of packaged along with it,” he says. If it’s rubbing the old guard the wrong way, that’s a bonus.
“Every now and then things need to be shaken up,” Perc says. “And I think that’s fine. I don’t think it will harm the scene in the long term. I think it will reach a logical conclusion.”