Available on: Rough Trade LP
Hendrik Weber is a special case. This Bliss, his 2007 album as Pantha du Prince is one of the last decade’s defining records: a techno album based on a unique yin and yang relationship between driving basslines and precious melodies, crafted from piano, chimes, bells and field recordings. Few records of our generation have matched its combination of beauty and accessibility.
It’s fitting then, that Black Noise, Pantha’s long-awaited follow-up via his new label, Rough Trade, starts with a track that could be an epilogue to This Bliss. ‘Lay in a Shimmer’ opens with the sort of found sound you’d expect to introduce a Silver Mt Zion record; indistinct voices arguing before those familiar Pantha du Prince chimes emerge from the muffled commotion.
Until this album’s announcement, all Pantha’s records had been on Dial, the Hamburg ‘romantic techno’ label on which label boss Lawrence and Pantha basically perfected a mournful brand of techno where bass often takes second place to achingly beautiful melodies. What differentiates Pantha from Lawrence is that, as his name might imply, he has the ability to infuse his basslines with a malevolent growl. Lawrence’s, in contrast, sound more like snow crunching underfoot.
The chimes of ‘Lay in a Shimmer’ glisten against each other until a melody is naturally, almost subconsciously formed. Before you know it, Pantha’s plunged the track deep underwater where its shine gets filtered; reeds and ripples distorting its form. It’s classic Pantha; nothing he hasn’t done before, but considering that a) now he’s signed to Rough Trade he’s recording for a brand new audience, and b) for the audience who aren’t new, he’s having to follow what they likely consider one of the decade’s best techno albums, you can forgive your protagonist for opening such a daunting proposition on a relatively safe bet.
That’s the thing with Pantha: more so than most artists, he is a protagonist. Just look at the guy. He’s a total fucking snow fox, and when he’s not making music he puts on art exhibitions, designs some of Dial Records’ sleeves, and makes furniture. If you’re not getting behind him and his quest to make the world a more beautiful place then you’re having a laugh.
There are three real peaks on Black Noise. The first is the album’s first vocal track, ‘Stick to my Side’, featuring Noah ‘Panda Bear’ Lennox of long-time Pantha admirers Animal Collective. It’s here, on the album’s fourth track, that This Bliss’s malevolent basslines re-appear – it’s the first track on the album to really thud, even if that thud is still partially hidden by those gold-leafed chimes. Panda – obviously – adds another dimension to the track, and when after four minutes of being looped and filtered he gets the chance to ride the top of the mix, he does so with the quality and confidence of someone whose band is at their own peak of critical acclaim.
The second peak is ‘Behind the Stars’, originally released as a single on Dial last year, and Black Noise’s other vocal track. By far the ballsiest part of the record, it borders on being corny: I don’t know what the spoken word vocal is saying, but part of me suspects it’s a relief I don’t speak German, and the wide-bodied synth riff that fills up the track’s climax is almost obnoxiously overwhelming. In fact, it’s pretty close to trance, but that doesn’t have to be a bad thing. In the context of this record, more so than as a standalone single, it really works.
Between these two peaks comes the steady roll of ‘A Nomad’s Retreat’. Pantha’s take on a travellin’ song, it’s more functional and less beautiful than the rest of Black Noise, but it’s pretty remarkable in its sense of movement. In fact, it’s so well done – and would mark such a good transition between ‘Stick to my Side’ and ‘Behind the Stars’ – that it renders track six, ‘Satellite Snyper’, partially irrelevant. Nice sounding, sure, but still irrelevant.
After ‘Behind the Stars’ comes the album’s third peak, the stunning ‘Bohemian Forest’. The track’s slow build-up of pads and chimes is elementary, but the subtlety with which this long intro rolls into the arpeggio chord that becomes the track’s focus is something else.
After ‘Bohemian Forest’, Black Noise begins to wind down. ‘Welt Am Draht’ appears at first like a haunted version of ‘Bohemian Forest’; Pantha’s trademark gold and brown timbres sheeted in white mist. Given time, you start to realise that it’s perhaps the most brilliantly discreet track here, and the end credit chords of its final minute would render it a fitting end to the album.
It isn’t, of course, and we’re treated to the static-treated ambience of ‘Im Bann’. Ghosts have almost completely infected Pantha’s machine at this point, and closer ‘Es Schneit’, more an exercise in chamber music than techno, is Black Noise’s funeral march.
Long-time Pantha fans will take time to gel with this record: Black Noise is so delicate in its subtlety that it takes a few listens to realise that it’s more than just This Bliss Pt. 2, and it needs to be listened to as a whole to be really appreciated. In the build up to its release, there were worries that Pantha’s trademark sound would become an albatross around his neck; instead, he’s shown that given time, he can tell new stories with this unique aesthetic, and has released almost certainly the dance – and in some ways, pop – album of the year so far.