There’s a quality that sets Efdemin’s music apart from most techno: a soft, pneumatic heft; an all-encompassing glow. Efdemin, aka Berlin’s Phillip Sollmann, is known as a minimalist; he was long affiliated with Hamburg minimal-house label Dial, home to Lawrence, Carsten Jost, and Pantha du Prince, and he is a resident DJ at Berlin’s Berghain, a techno nightclub with a famously austere aesthetic. New Atlantis appears on Ostgut Ton, the club’s in-house imprint. But if the elements of Efdemin’s music can be stripped down, the suppleness of the results is anything but. Ironically, the linearity of his productions contributes to their sumptuous character: His tracks glint like a ribbon of asphalt that stretches toward the horizon, shimmering in the heat.
New Atlantis is his first album as Efdemin in five years (not counting a mix CD, a showcase for his Naïf label, last year). In the meantime, Sollmann has been exploring pastures far from the dancefloor, teaming up with percussionists and electric guitarists and toying with bell tones and neo-kosmische abstraction. He has a particular interest in unconventional methods of generating sound: His Monophonie project utilizes fanciful instruments by the American composer Harry Partch, sound sculptures by the Detroit furniture designer Harry Bertoia, and a 19th-century double siren, a steampunk gizmo by the German physicist Hermann von Helmholtz. What all of those have in common: an escape hatch from the strictures of just intonation and the conventional 12-tone scale.
Those tonal experiments have rubbed off on New Atlantis, the most diverse and ambitious recording to appear under the Efdemin name, incorporating not just standard electronic kit but also dulcimer, sing-drum, hurdy-gurdy, and guitars. On its face, it is a techno album. The majority of its tracks barrel forward, fueled by four-to-the-floor kick drums and strict, time-keeping hi-hats. “Good Winds” gallops along, its kick drum as dry as an anechoic chamber, the better to emphasize the softly thrumming organ chords that slowly expand over every molecule of its atmosphere; “Black Sun” pairs a punishing thud with gurgling synths reminiscent of classic minimal techno and then wraps both in more of those gorgeous, ever-expanding chords, as nuanced as the gradients of a sunset.
But the presence of a techno beat does not always translate to what many might recognize as conventional techno. “A Land Unknown” marries the rigid pulse of trance music to buzzing drones evocative of Indian raga, and the title track is even more bare-bones, underpinning its gaseous clouds of overtones with the merest boom-tick drum pattern for more than 14 hypnotic minutes, closer in spirit to La Monte Young than to Ricardo Villalobos.
Sollmann has said that lately, he has been seeing how far he can reduce the elements of his music, and occasionally, listening to the ticking-clock minimalism of a track like “New Atlantis,” you wonder if perhaps he muted one too many channels on his mixing desk—or, conversely, if he should have just gone whole-hog ambient and done away with the drums entirely. But there’s a reason they’re there; bit like in Wolfgang Voigt’s GAS project, the static kick drum functions like a handrail leading you deeper and deeper into the shifting layers of overtones.
A few tracks leave the dancefloor behind entirely. “At the Stranger’s House” brings John Gürtler’s processed saxophone, a la Jon Hassell, to a microtonal field of water-drop pulse and shimmer; the all-too-brief “Temple” overlays Jeff Mills-style loop techno with whistles and flutes and deflating balloons—not so much minimal techno as techno in miniature, a kid’s birthday party set to the beat of an 808. The album’s title comes from a utopian novel by the philosopher Francis Bacon, published in 1626, in which he predicted, with startling prescience, the synthetic nature of music production 400 years hence. A portion of his text is read over the album’s closing track, “The Sound House”—“We have also sound-houses, where we practice and demonstrate all sounds and their generation. We have harmonies, which you have not… Divers instruments of music likewise to you unknown… We also have divers strange and artificial echoes…”—in which Efdemin cleverly does his best impression of a Renaissance ensemble anticipating the music of Aphex Twin.
But the album’s most affecting track takes a very different tack. The opening song, “Oh, Lovely Appearance of Death,” takes angelically beautiful chords and overlays a mournful a cappella recording of an 18th-century Methodist hymn. The subject of the song carries the beauty of the human corpse—not in some gruesome sense, but as the ultimate mark of purity. “Longing to lie in his stead,” the subject of the hymn envies the dead man’s final union with god—“No longer in Misery now/No longer a Sinner like me.” This is also a kind of vision of utopia, albeit not one you might expect to find associated with Berghain, a club with a decidedly un-saintly reputation. But it’s a testament to Sollmann’s vision that the music betrays no apparent contradiction. Techno has always been about the promise of disappearing into nothingness. And just as Francis Bacon foresaw (in a roundabout way) synthesizers and Spotify, Sollmann finds a pre-echo of rave’s dissolution of the ego in a melancholy funeral hymn from 1780.