|Italians do it darker
A new breed of Italian producers are following in the footsteps of Donato Dozzy's signature hypnotic sound. RA's Todd L. Burns charts the origins and the future of this unique brand of dark, trippy techno.
A spectre is haunting techno—the spectre of Italy. No powers, however, have entered into alliances (holy or otherwise) to exorcise it. They haven't had to. Italy itself does that just fine.
Perhaps I should explain.
There are a number of Italian electronic music producers that made the jump to international stardom. Luca Bacchetti, Davide Squillace, Marco Carola. But none has come with as defined—or, more accurately, refined—aesthetic as Donato Dozzy. Equal parts trance and techno, his sound is unmistakably his own, one honed over the course of years of DJing and production. In his wake, there have been a number of followers, producers putting their own spin on the dark and liquid techno that Dozzy has come to be associated with. Many of the best are, curiously enough, Italian as well.
Dozzy isn't sui generis. In talking to him and other producers of his generation, the one name that recurs over and over is Lory D. He's a legend to artists like Dozzy, Giorgio Gigli and Modern Heads' Dino Sabatini. "He was a magician to us, as a scratcher in '87 and '88," remembers Dozzy. "And then he was playing tribal, but not really tribal, trippy stuff in the early '90s." That trippiness was translated through his DJ sets, but the D also began to present that same vision via his label, Sounds Never Seen, as well.
The imprint's first release brought together a number of important players. Presciently titled We Are in the Future, it was co-produced by an "A. Nasonte of Remix," Remix being Rome's most famous record store, and the place where Dozzy and Giorgio Gigli would later begin Elettronica Romana. One of the four co-composer and mixers, meanwhile, was Andrea Benedetti, an Italian techno stalwart that—aside from DJing and producing—created Tunnel, a zine that spread the gospel of local techno in the early '90s. At the top of the vinyl—and in large letters on the back as well—We Are in the Future also carried a phrase, "The Sounds of Rome," that would become a rallying cry for a number of like-minded individuals.
One of those individuals was Leo Anibaldi. As his bio relates, in the late '80s Anibaldi couldn't find much electronic music in Rome, leading him to spend much of his time making his own. He was a producer first, DJ second, so when Anibaldi met Lory D in 1991, he already had plenty of material ready for release. Much of that music saw the light of day on ACV Records, an imprint that celebrated experimental sounds of Italians as well as Chicago artists such as Robert Armani, K. Alexi Shelby, Steve Pointdexter and Paul Johnson. Dino Sabatini excitedly shared with me one of the most interesting tracks that Anibaldi released on the label a few months ago. A slow-paced, droning piece of mentalist techno, "Fusion 1," taken from the 1994 release Aeon, sounds like it was ripped directly from the Prologue catalogue. (Except, you know, more than a decade before Prologue even existed.) The music on ACV, says Dozzy, "taught a lot of people how to make things that let you dream a little bit without being cheap."
Sabatini and Dozzy, though, both point even further back to Italy's rich musical heritage from the '70s to explain the trippy sound that characterizes their work. "Lory D, I think, is the right prosecution of Goblin's work in a way," claims Dozzy, referencing the band perhaps best known for their soundtracks to the horror films of Dario Argento. He also cites progressive rock groups such as PFM and the cosmic disco of Daniele Baldelli as prime examples of the leftfield instincts of Italian music.
Sabatini agrees, pointing to the work of Tangerine Dream as an influence as well. "They were a big deal to me. Figuring out how they made their records was one of the reasons that I started to work on electronic music." Despite their limited discography, Sabatini and Gianluca Meloni, AKA Modern Heads, are often regarded in the same reverent tones as Dozzy, due to the stunning landscapes conjured by their hardware-centric live show.
"I grew up listening to Donato Dozzy
and Giorgio Gigli." — Claudio PRC
Remix, the record store that played a huge role in getting Lory D's Sounds Never Seen off the ground as well as Andrea Benedetti and Marco Passarani's equally-as-influential Nature imprint, had a studio in which Modern Heads were allowed to explore their vision by the mid-'00s. Perhaps more importantly, it's where they offered advice to budding producers, teaching them how to use analogue gear and then sending them on their way to experiment on their own.
Remix was a hub, a place where everyone bought their music, hung out and talked about music. So it was natural when Dozzy and Giorgio Gigli had been working on music together to share it with Sandro Maria Nasonte, the store's owner. Nasonte heard something in the tapes, and suggested a new label, Elettronica Romana. To younger producers like Claudio PRC, it was an imprint that sparked the same sort of inspiration that Sounds Never Seen had in the previous generation. "I have every ER record on vinyl," the Sardinian says. "I grew up listening to artists like Donato Dozzy and Giorgio Gigli."
Donato Dozzy and the Elettronica Romana label
Elettronica Romana's shadow looms large over the likes of former RA label of the month Prologue. But the sound has infiltrated plenty of other places as well. Listen to Dettmann's "Motive" or Milton Bradley's "Hypnagogic," and it's clear that the sound has made it to Berlin. "Possess," from UK techno producer Ben Gibson's latest for Perc Trax, seems like a logical progression as well. The most obvious adherents, however, are Italians like Claudio PRC and Obtane.
PRC has been a major player in Elettronica Romana's relaunch. Inspired by Plastikman, Pansonic, Pierre Schaefer and Dozzy, his hypnotic techno is characterized by flashes of musique concrete, elements of chance that imbue his tracks with a sense of unpredictability. He studies music in a conservatory, investigating the work of modern classical composers under the tutelage of Elio Martusciello, whose avant-garde impulses have clearly informed PRC's techno.
Obtane, meanwhile, brings an even darker edge to a style of techno that is renowned for its absence of light. His releases for Synewave and Sonic Groove have been brutal affairs, matching ugly drones with punishing beats. When he appears on Zooloft, the imprint he runs with Giorgio Gigli, it's menacing more than anything else. When I ask him about the pervasive darkness that clouds his work, he laughs. "I think I have a dark soul, sure, but I make music based on reality. And right now..."
On Zooloft's first release, you can find the quote, "Use your power and influence to help other people. Never try to gain power for your own pleasure or supremacy. Decepticons [sic] are everywhere, but together we can defeat them." It seems like a remarkably naive sentiment, silly almost, especially coming from a record label. But, in the context of life in Italy, it has a certain resonance: The power and influence that has been amassed by the country's current Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, is used expressly for "pleasure" and "supremacy."
Leaving aside the numerous criminal allegations, Berlusconi's stranglehold on the nation's media would seem odd in any other country. (He owns three of the country's seven national TV channels.) More than one Italian producer that I talked to mentioned how the mainstream media in the country is filled with distractions, subtly (and not so subtly) giving Italians plenty of junk food that smells and tastes great, but has less filling. "They keep people busy with stupid things," sighs Dozzy.
It's no wonder that people like PRC are so interested in hearing music that "has a strong concept or philosophy behind it." But, in a scene now governed more by bookings than by recorded music, the fact that artists like these struggle to gain gigs inside their own country is one that doesn't augur well for the future health of this coterie of producers. When asked about playing in Italy, Gigli says that "most of the time that I play in Italy, I really enjoy it, but it's really hard to get to the clubs that actually have the good mood and situation for the kind of music that I play. I would love to play in different locations. I would love to play in cultural venues which usually don't host electronic music. I'm pretty sure that these kind of venues have much more in common with my music than clubs."
Obtane, who lives in a small Northern town, claims his favorite club in the world is Berghain, even though he's never actually been there. Dozzy still maintains his special residency at Rome's Brancaleone, a place that he calls "a laboratory, a place where people come without any prejudice, just wanting to hear something to stimulate their brains, all the leftfield people that are bored of the usual things," but he also can't help but note that it no longer has the same politically-charged vibe as it once did.
There are bright spots. Dissonanze brings in a variety of artists that rarely get booked in Italy, connecting dots between genres in a way that may seem obvious to many, but remains novel in a country where minimal techno remains an enormous presence in mainstream clubs. It's where Obtane and Gigli met in the person for the first time, before subsequently forming Zooloft. Similarly, Movement Torino pairs enormous names like Ricardo Villalobos with Detroit artists such as Mike Huckaby and Stacey Pullen in an effort to entertain and educate at the same time.
It's a problem of insularity. In talking to Dozzy, who lived for a short time in Berlin a few years ago, he reminds me of how important travel can be to creating scenes back home. "I learned as much about myself as I did about other people... There are so many things to learn and see outside of here. Italy is one of the most beautiful countries in the world. But it's not enough. You need to go outside, so that you can appreciate better what your own country has to offer." When Obtane and other young Italian producers finally see Berghain, fabric and other clubs for the first time, it will be interesting to see if they ever want to go back.