The rise of the Sound Of Cologne

Functional strictness plus amusing kick. That’s the art of producing techno how it was celebrated by Cologne based artists like Jörg Burger and Mike Ink in the ‘90s. Today’s sound of Cologne has branched out in all different kind of styles, but some experts of freestyle have been there before for quite a long time: Mouse On Mars are well known for their complex arrangements full of shimmering, whimpering and bubbleing sounds. Just like Air Liquide they never made the bass drum run straight trough a track.

Actually Cologne is looking back to a long tradition of producing electronic music. In 1951 the “Westdeutscher Rundfunk” (WDR, West German Broadcasting, a German public-broadcasting institution based in the Federal State of North Rhine-Westphalia) founded the first studio for electronic music. And it was Karlheinz Stockhausen, a pathbreaking composer of postwar period, who directed the studio back in the ‘60s. At the end of this decade even Can, who partly recruted of Stockhausen-Eleven, used this studio. With their creative sound experiments, mechanical grooves by drummer Jaki Liebezeit and pop song structures they produced a new idea of Krautrock. Years later Mouse On Mars tied in with this tradition of sound, when they called attention with nervous electro tunes in the mid on the `90s. In Too Pure they promptly found a hip British label, that released their groundbreaking albums like “Vulvaland” (1994).

At this time Ingmar Koch aka Dr. Walker and Jammin’ Unit are producing tracks full of eruptive grooves, sex and soul. Under their Air Liquide alias the duo represents the electronic output of Cologne. But when Dr. Walkner moved to New York back in 1994, he already layed the foundation for something that years later will be called “The Sound of Cologne”. Since 1991 he’s been releasing all different kinds of Acid House on labels like Structure or Blue. At his side the Voigt brothers worked on the house front of Cologne.

Merging techno and pop

In the early ‘90s Wolfgang Voigt is probably the best known name in German house music and celebrates a minimal style based upon straight bassdrums under his Mike Ink alias. With his countless aliases he varies this style. As Love Inc he samples Hits by Roxy Music, while he’s more into noise with his project Gas. Furthermore with Studio and Profan he launches two house labels with joy for experiments and playfulness. Reinhard Voigt does not take second place to his brother when it comes to pseudonyms. As Sweet Reinhard and Wassermann he releases dodgy tracks for the clubs, as Sturm dark ambient whirls.

Furthermore there are Rob Acid and Jörg Burger. Rob was there right from the start and had a hit in the UK charts with his 1992 Acid track “Happy Answer”. Under his Burger Industries alias one can already hear Jörg Burger on “Teutonic Beats” in 1989, a compilation album, which was compiled by the Palais Schaumburg trumpeter Thomas Fehlmann. Since then, he aims to merge cool techno and pop sounds what succeeds later as The Modernist especially in unprecedented manner.

 Kompakt – record label, shop, distribution, everything

Together with the Voigt brothers and Jürgen Paape Burger – who were soon joined by Michael Mayer – opened the record store Kompakt in 1993 (under the name “Delirium”). Kompakt itself as a label was formally founded in 1998, combining several existing labels, the record store and distributor and also event organizing activities. The store as a DJ and producer hangout contributes to the spread of the reduced techno, as defined and produced by the operators themselves. Kompakt’s chief aesthetic objective has always been the perfect marriage of ambient texture and linear 4×4 structure – blending deep, granular sound design with the 4-bar rhythmic intensity and patterning that makes house and techno so club-effective.

And the music industry listens closely: EMI reactivates the Harvest label, where rock legends of the ‘70s like Pink Floyd or Neil Young have released before. For a while albums from Burger as Bionaut or Reinhard Voigt as Kron appear on this label. Even outside of the clubs the techno sound of Cologne gets well-known when the label organizes a festival for electronic music under the name “Battery Park” in 1996.

Back to the underground

Toward the end of the decade the interest of EMI due to low sales figures again relented, the Cologne core has also been organized together with renewable producers again. Paape and Voigts now publish on Kompakt. On Kompakt new names like the Whirlpool Productions member Justus Köhncke release their “Schlager” techno, Dettinger or Markus Güntner produce ambient sounds with and without house beats. As a part of the overall diversification of electronic music in Cologne there are also some long established new labels with new stars. Just like Decomposed Subsonic, who gets damn close to the pop ideal of Jörg Bürger on the Ware label, founded in 1997 by Mathias Schaffhäuser. And in 2002 Karaoke Kalk released “Liberation Von History” by Wechsel Garland, a real gem amongst albums of electronic music.

Even today Cologne is still seen as the epicentre of minimal techno in Germany – but since years on most partys chances are high that you’ll probably hear more tech electro house than Colonge minimal techno or dub techno. Most of the really interesting partys in Cologne take place at Studio 672, Schrebergarten or Gewölbe. And one of the most recent labels from Cologne one definitely has to watch is Magazine, which was founded in 2010 by longtime collaborators Barnt, Crato and Jens-Uwe Beyer. By the way, Magazines latest release was created by one of Colognes most famous artist: Wolfgang Voigt. So maybe there even is no one specific sound of Cologne, but after listening to and dancing to dozens of the releases that come from the city, it becomes apparent that there is a shared mentality: a love of pop, a fear of bombast, a belief in “less is more”.

written by Sascha Uhlig