Tamagotchis, yo-yos, dreams of becoming a healthy, functioning adult… like a grown-up child clearing out the attic of their parental home in search of abandoned but formerly beloved things, we’re delving into the dusty annals of dance music history to dig out the once-cherished genres that time and iTunes forgot.
Where: Germany – Frankfurt and Cologne (and also, obviously, Berlin).
When: late 90s – mid 00s.
Microhouse, eh? Remember that? For a while in the late 90s and early to mid noughties, microhouse, everyone’s favourite maligned neologism and genuinely legitimate musical sub-genre was, you know, a thing. Though it has largely fallen off the popular radar, the microhouse – sometimes known as ‘bufftech’ (nope, no idea either) – scene was a petri dish for the germination of many labels, DJs and producers that are essential structural features of the dance music industry today. Join us as we reminisce…
First thing’s first: in the mire of genres and sub-genres and proto-genres and crossover genres and oh for the love of god just please stop talking, it can be hard to figure out just what the hell anyone is actually on about these days.
So what do we actually mean by ‘microhouse’? Well, imagine taking a classic house track and exploding it into thousands of tiny atoms of sound. Rearrange and suspend these atoms in space, like dust caught in a ray of light, add in some glittering flecks of warped mechanical noise, a 4/4 bassline, and you get some idea of microhouse’s sonic landscape. Maybe? Idk.
Evolving out of the cerebral anti-rhythms of IDM and glitch, on the one hand, and the calculated austerity of minimal techno on the other, microhouse was music for the cognoscenti, a complex and delineated sound made up of richly layered fragments and fractals. Inviting and non-invasive, it was warmer and more organic than techno but peppered with the sharp inhuman blips, crackles and clicks of modern machines: both ambient and agitating, lush and lean. Coined by Philip Sherburne writing in The Wire in 2001, the neologism quickly became incorporated into the popular lexicon even as it came to encompass a broad and increasingly heterogeneous family of musical styles.
So who was making this stuff? While experimental German producers Oval and Frankfurt-based label Mille Plateaux had been putting out dubbed out glitch since 1993, an immediate precursor was the subaquatic ‘heroin house’ of Berlin-based labels like Basic Channel and Chain Reaction and artists like Monolake and the ‘Gas’ moniker of soon-to-be microhouse kingpin Wolfgang Voigt, who also released on Mille Plateaux.
Voigt, along with fellow producers Michael Mayer, Reinhard Voigt, Jörg Burger and Jürgen Paape, ran a record shop in Cologne, initially a branch of record store Delerium but renamed in 1998 to Kompakt – the name given to the now-iconic record label founded by Voigt at the same time. Kompakt, with Voigt and Mayer at the helm, soon became an absolutely pivotal force in bringing microhouse and minimal techno into the musical mainstream, with the label’s Total and Mayer’s Immer compilations, and releases by The Orb, Gui Boratto, Superpitcher and The Field gaining widespread popular and critical acclaim in the early and mid 00s.
Released in 2007, arguably around the time of the minimal/micro apotheosis, The Field’s seminal album From Here We Go Sublime took the microhouse sound palette – micro samples, in this case many from pop songs – and applied it with a trance-inflected aesthetic, scoring an almost unheard-of ‘9’ rating from Pitchfork.
Over in Frankfurt, the original Delerium record store was – as Kompakt would be for Cologne – the epicentre of the city’s music scene. And, as with the Kompakt crew, owners, DJs and producers Ata and Heiko M/S/O, also ran a label, Playhouse – both founded in 1993. Thanks to formative releases by legendary producers Ricardo Villolobos (Alcachofa – 2003) and Isolée (Rest – 2000), Playhouse, alongside Kompakt, became one of the genre’s main driving forces. Coming out even before the term ‘microhouse’ had been put to paper, Isolée’s Rest is widely considered to be the genre’s first full-length album, also containing its first club chart hit: the skittering and spectral Beau Mot Plage.
It would be impossible to talk about microhouse without also mentioning Perlon. Loved/maligned for its often numbingly long 10 minute+ releases, the label, also based in Frankfurt, became home to slick and sprawling productions by the likes of Villolobos, Akufen and Pantytec. Run by Zip and Markus Nikolai, the imprint was founded in 1997 and, though it hasn’t put out anything new since 2010, remains a hugely influential figure. Clocking up an impressive 12 and a half minutes, Villolobos’ ‘Bredow’, released in 2001, is an expansive and tightly-packed trip through sound, from twitchy industrial chatter to leisurely lounge piano.
So, where is microhouse today? Often operating under the term of ‘minimal house’, the same rich, spacious, warm constellation of micro sounds can still be found in the work of geographically diverse underground artists like Bolumar (Spain) and Roon (Netherlands) and imprints from small-scale vinyl only labels such as Rooted Series (Spain), Uwaga (Italy/Germany), and LDN (UK).
Forgotten maybe, but mircrohouse certainly isn’t gone.
by Sonia Williams