By Matt Jones
March 11, 2013
When 6 Music’s Lauren Laverne spoke through my speakers of a band of classically-trained German musicians making house and hip-hop using only ‘traditional’ instruments, my ears perked up. Brandt Brauer Frick is the German trio in question, and the unprecedented hype about their third album is widespread. Arguably their most high-profile yet, Miami includes collaborations with soul singer Jamie Lidell, hip-hop artist and producer Om’Mas Keith and German electronic musician Gudrun Gut. Even for those new to BBF, it all sounds very exciting.
But something odd immediately happens when the eager listener actually sits down and begins to listen to Miami. Opening with a song as dry as it is titled, ‘Miami Theme’ serves only to dissipate the excitement generated about Miami. The theme of the album is a tune consisting almost solely of a single note played on the piano again … and again … and again. Despite being occasionally joined by the siren-like voice of Erika Janunger, it doesn’t exactly pull you in.
One is immediately relieved, then, upon hearing tracks such as ‘Ocean Drive’, ‘Verwahrlosung’ and ‘Fantasie Madchen’, which more closely approximate the image created of Brandt Brauer Frick as a sort-of Handel-goes-house. ‘Verwahrlosung’ featuring Nina Kraviz, is perhaps my favourite of these, beginning with the simplicity of the opening theme, but quickly building up, layer by layer, glockenspiel by rainstick, into a complex and haunting dance piece which could almost be played to the audience it was intended for. But I say ‘almost’ because despite the prevalent taste of what Brandt Brauer Frick profess to be, one finds it hard to imagine that they could actually find a place in the record bag of a tech-house DJ. The experimentation is certainly interesting, but in many ways, in so rigidly sticking to classical instruments only, it seems that Miami is less ‘techno by tradition’ and more ‘jazz by accident’.
Others have made similar remarks about Brandt Brauer Frick’s earlier works. Indeed, there seems to be something missing from the trio’s tracks which leave them as hollow as the instruments they have chosen to use so exclusively. There might be a simple explanation in some cases. For example, the lack of the thumping bass which can only be achieved electronically, leaves tracks such as ‘Broken Pieces’ wanting. More generally, the trio tend to exaggerate the more annoying traits of dance music – such as overly-long sections dominated by raw repetition. This latter trait is particularly clear in the band’s most recent release ‘Plastic Like Your Mother’, which, despite repeat-sampling Om’Mas Keith’s vocals, does so in a way so disunited from the song itself that it would be an insult to call it hip-hop. Although the trio are probably sick and tired of comparisons with Krautrock, given that they strategically brand themselves as such (their name, the name of their second album ‘Mr. Machine’ and the 2009 video for ‘Bop’, for example), such comparisons seem justified. But what Brandt Brauer Frick mimic in the likes of Kraftwerk and Can, they fail to fully appreciate.
There is a video from 1973 of the then-new band Kraftwerk performing a song from their debut album, Ralf and Florian, on German television. On the album, ‘Tanzmusik’ (literally ‘Dance music’) was a typical but particularly beautiful Kraftwerk number; a symphony from the future. For the broadcast, one synthesiser was replaced with Florian’s flute, whilst Ralf’s synthesiser was made to sound like a classical piano. Rather than attempting the gimmickery of mimicing the popular dance music of the time using only ‘traditional’ instruments, Kraftwerk were more cleverly using classical instrumentation to play their own futuristic music. In a tongue-in-cheek gesture typical of Kraftwerk, the then-trio were poking fun at those who rigidly resisted the constant transformation of ‘dance music’, and in doing so were heralding in a new era. Whilst one doubts that Brandt Brauer Frick are seriously attempting to become the next Ralf and Florian, one also doubts if they will continue to attract such widespread attention if they remain so stubborn in their ways.