Ellen Allien: Thrills

Ellen Allien's Thrills supports the truism, not always easy to hear from the outside, that not all beat-driven techno works primarily as dance music. The German DJ/producer's tracks traffic in the kind of 4/4 rhythms that stretch from techno back to disco, but Allien sounds more interested in the flagging sonic fabric that surrounds them. "Come" opens Thrills with a slow build of sounds—overdriven synth, strobe-strewn electronics, effected guitar—that swirl together over a beat articulated by little more than a bass kick. It moves steadily and hits hard, but there's a curious lack of propulsion at work, a foregrounding of sonic designs most often cast as background accessories.

Part of that is due to leaden production technique, but Thrills revisits the same phenomenon so often and so effectively that Allien's sleight of hand sounds deliberate. "The Brain Is Lost" cycles through moody vocals and stomps like a monster anthem, but it intriguingly amounts to a lot of thunderous nothing. Fitful in isolation but slow to unfold, "Your Body Is My Body" reels in a line of Detroit-techno drum cymbals that evoke batting eyelashes more than beady stares. And the highlight, "Ghost Train," features a fleet-fingered bassline whose funky connotations blur over a metronomic beat set to chug at a deceptive gait, like a thoroughbred on a treadmill.

Another favorite of techno aesthetes who always keep at least one ear on Germany, Isolée makes beat-driven techno that's too antic and twitchy to court the call of just one monolithic dance groove. We Are Monster starts with a bang by way of "Pictureloved," a crazy collage of dry metallic clang and wet sonic spray. Like most of the album, it dodges and dips through a digressive conversation with itself—perhaps wondering what Gene Kelly would sound like dancing in puddles of mercury? Tracks like "Schrapnell" and "Enrico" show Isolée retooling guitar to uniquely expressive effect, mimicking the pan-sonic swell of disco with a mind most enthralled by computer details. Track-by-track stylistic swerves make the album singular and exciting, but like-minded swerves within the same tracks ultimately give We Are Monster its living, breathing charge.

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