n the end, techno will be my only friend.”
So goes the end of Ellen Allien’s press release for her 2004 mix My Parade, and it’s a statement that has lingered in my psyche for months. It paints a picture of my future self where all of my friends, family, and co-workers have moved on or passed away, and I’m left in solitude to interact and live amongst the unwavering devotion of machines, computers, and speakers. The music I would make during this time would be purely for myself, yet it would also act as a response to the unique environment and set of conditions around me.
Even if that is an extreme example, this ability to crystallize not only your own being, but the distinct landscapes around you is what Ellen Allien’s new album Thrills is all about. As you would gather from such conjecture, Thrills is a record that comes loaded with theoretical baggage and speculations on how the music was conceived. While it is perfectly legitimate for listeners to enjoy Thrills purely on the basis of its massive sound and propulsive grooves, Allien’s romantic views and undiluted enthusiasm about techno and electro are major reasons why she is such a captivating and popular figure inside and outside her Bpitch Control community, and they deserve to be examined.
Basically, Thrills is a musical distillation of the last two years of Ellen’s life. She spends most of her time knee-deep in DJ culture, while also finding time to run her label Bpitch Control and her own fashion line. It’s only when she decides to make another album that she takes a step back from her relentless touring and administrative duties, and is able to reflect on her own journeys as well as the community around her. According to her somewhat elliptical poetry that accompanies the album, Allien’s favorite part of this respite from the techno thicket was being able to feel brief moments of clarity about her life, moments that translated into joyful tingles on her skin and even goose bumps. Thrills is an attempt to capture and define these small moments of clarity, a quasi-documentation of the recent past and present that now seems more lucid than when it was actually happening.
Working off this confidence, you might expect Thrills to be a bright and effervescent record, but Allien is melancholic throughout, showing us sketches of her beloved Berlin as a technological and industrial metropolis. The amount of concentration shown here borders on both egotism and discrimination, as each track is almost monochromatic in tone, but determined as hell to show what that one tone can be evocative of. Surely there are many instances of pastoral life in Berlin, but Allien paints a portrait of a mechanical city, where the gurgling sound of her Arp 2600 and Roland 808 represent metallic cylinders and well-oiled machines in engineering factories. A track like “Your Body is My Body” is just one of these incredibly evocative tracks, where the intro feels like stepping into a coal or steel mine and being surrounded by dirt and grime, while the droning keyboards are the droves of workers around you performing repetitive and somewhat menial tasks. When the brooding three-note melody and whirling hi-hats kicks in at 1:15, it’s as if someone turned the turbines on and all the workers are sighing at the monotony of their grueling job. Yet, Ellen’s spoken phrase of “Your body is my body” seems to be a showing of sympathy, as if all the workers know they are in this together, and rely on each other’s compassion to get themselves through the day.
Thrills is relentless in this type of industrial imagery, where tracks are as grand, huge, and epic as a city, but still show signs of weakness and vulnerability. There is clenched fist tension (“Come,”) the numbness of commuting (“Ghost Train,”) air ducts blowing off steam and pollution (“Cloudy City,”) and a sense of disconnection (“The Brain is Lost,” where Allien’s claim that “flesh makes her blind” makes you wonder if she’d rather be in front of a machine than a human.) Even the rather lean and accessible single “Magma,” rushes by with its heart sweating profusely. Throughout it all the recurring colors are grease, sweat, sorrow, and consolation: a romanticized vision of the urban working class united emotionally.
Yet no matter how strong Allien’s audio metaphors are, it doesn’t stop Thrills from having one major fault: it is too singular, too focused within itself to appeal to the masses. While it’s an admirable fault to have, a lot of people will miss the immediacy of Berlinette, which was more warm and human, and also contained more of an ear for pop. Even understanding the type of imagery Allien is aiming for is more grounds for respect rather than love, and more aimed at technophiles than the average listener.
It’s to Allien’s credit that she is quite adept at working within these limitations, and being able to filter, capture, and frame her ideas as a series of zeroes and ones. She gives out the aura of being at peace with herself, and seems to find great joy in describing her surrounding environment and community in her own personal, reflective way. Whatever your degree of empathy for this record is, Thrills hits upon a unique and confident path that doesn’t seem forced or contrived.