Hence the fourth edition of C/O Pop. Less a music festival per se (in the sense of Sonar, Benicassim etc), the event links up Cologne’s numerous venues, labels, artists and players for a sprawling five day party, punctuated by daily bouts of earnest meets and greets at the central ‘business’ conference. And despite an admirably broad programme that features such hyper-current breakthrough acts as Battles, M.I.A., and Uffie, it’s clear from the bulk of the line-up that Cologne’s pulse still beats passionately to the thrum and thud of minimally-inclined techno. And that’s exactly why we’re here.
Arriving on Thursday, we’ve already missed the first day of the festival, but reports of the previous night’s ‘biggie’ vary. Apparat and Raz Ohara were apparently excellent, but Battles seemed to divide opinion, with some lauding their drone-lite chugging, and others suggesting that they’re a definite case of hype over substance. Happily, the same can’t be said of Kalabrese and his Rumpelorchestra, whose flailing trombonica vibes move with even more slinky panache across the tiny dancefloor of Gewolbe than they do on his acclaimed debut LP, ‘Rumpelzirkus’. Flanked by a four piece band, Kalabrese himself sings and plays percussion, with the strained parp of the trombonist frequently taking centre stage in the group’s extended jams. At points, the band stops to allow Lo-Fi Stereo’s Crowdpleaser to spin a few heavy disco platters, and we leave jigged-up, smiling and ready to hop down the road to Stadtgarten, where veteran experimental-poppists Gudrun Gut, Donna Regina and Mouse On Mars’s Jan St. Werner are twisting perceptions with their various shades of Cologne electronics.
The hit of the party, however, is a bruising live set from Candie Hank, who was briefly notorious as brutal gabba merchant E-De-Cologne on Alec Empire’s Digital Hardcore label in the early 90s. Time may have slowed down his tempos, but Hank’s appetite for pummelling rhythms and dense swathes of distortion clearly remains unabated. In what would turn out to be a recurring scene at C/O Pop, the front row is littered with well-established names from the Cologne techno scene whooping with delight; Wolfgang Voigt and Jorg Burger (who clearly have no intention of resting up before Friday’s immensely anticipated comeback gig) whistle and jump around like proud parents, Traum headman Riley Reinhold tells me this is “the most amazing thing I have seen in Cologne for many years,” while Ada, Ware’s Matthias Schaffhauser, and Thomas Fehlmann can all be spotted on the dancefloor. Jorg Burger explains: “Patric [Candie Hank’s real name] was one of our first customers at Delerium [seminal record store run by Burger and Voigt in the '90s], and became a well known local artist. You could certainly say that he is a very important part in the history of the Cologne sound.” Indeed, Hank’s visceral pounding clearly points towards the later development of the ‘knarz’ techno style beloved of labels like Areal, Auftrieb and of course, Kompakt Extra, while the crowd’s response is simultaneously bewildered and resoundingly emphatic. Downstairs at Studio 672, Karaoke Kalk frontman and long-serving local DJ Strobocop is skilfully blending playful elastic basslines and taut grooves of a more conventional nature, but it’s time for us to head across town to catch the Innervisions showcase from Berlin’s ‘saviours of house’ ™ Ame and Dixon.
On any other night, the stylised warehouse feel of Bogen would provide the perfect surroundings for Innervisions’ classically inspired selection of warm techno and evergreen house, but it feels like something is a little bit missing here; as we arrive at around three, the club seems to be filtering out, and Dixon’s near-clinical washiness sounds notably pale after the raucous delights of earlier. The beats are tight and the synths are polite, but ultimately, the crowd seems intent on reserving its energy for the rest of the weekend, so we call it a night and stumble listlessly back to the hotel.
Following a day spent accumulating promos, stickers and free drinks at the daytime Affair, our excitement levels start to creep up as Friday night’s Kompakt Total 8 party draws near. So much has been written about the significance of Wofgang Voigt, Jurgen Paape and Michael Mayer’s huge shop, distribution and label activities, it’s not worth re-iterating here, suffice to say that in spite of occasional rifts or snipes within the ranks, Kompakt’s significance in Koln is still absolutely unescapable, both stylistically and industrially. So along with 2000 others, we eagerly pile into the City’s Expo centre to witness the kind of line-up that Kompakt-philes across the world just can’t see anywhere else. What really makes tonight special, of course, is the long-awaited return of Wolfgang Voigt to live performance, some twelve years since his last gig. Appearing with long time partner Jorg Burger as Burger/Voigt, the pair step up to a predictably excited response from the crowd after a nicely balanced set of low-paced techno from Boxer Sport’s Beatschubiger, before launching into the elegant harmonies of their contribution to the Total 8 compilation, ‘Man Lebt Nur Zweimal’. Forging a subtle upwards arc, they plough on into shimmering, rolling territories, with pastoral guitar licks wrapping themselves around warm dub-stabs. It’s powerful but delicate stuff, and just as we start to wonder where the melodic pads could possibly drift to next, the duo’s first touch of genius starts creeping in. The pair’s love of Roxy Music is well known (their 1996 album together, ‘Las Vegas’, lifted track names entirely from the RM back catalogue), so when the looped verse line from Bryan Ferry’s unforgettable vocal on ‘More Than This’ begins its ascent atop a driving, life-affirming Kompakt thud, the crowd quickly moves from happy recognition, to, well, delirious adoration. Hands reach up, the air echoes with screams and wolf whistles, and we realise that, as hoped, we’re in for something special.
Following some much needed respite from the Expo’s infernal heat, we catch a snatch of The Field, who sounds exactly like his album, in truth, and settle into a comfortable position for Supermayer’s three hour DJ set. Name DJs are often criticised for indulgent, back slapping ping-pong performances with their mates – it’s now well established that Richie and Ricardo work best alone – but with a joint album to promote, it seems appropriate that Michael Mayer and Axel Schaufler should hit the decks in tandem. As well as playing about 75% of the tracks from ‘Supermayer Save The World’ (with the notable exception of the monstrous ‘Two Of Us’), the duo flit between piercing mutant disco, heavy pitched-down techno and the odd weirdo curveball, while their constant larking about with silly hats and suchlike adds the requisite touch of Kompakt wackiness to proceedings.
Enjoyable as the Supermayer buffoonery is, we eventually need to trek to the catacombs downstairs for the mandatory performance from Kompakt primary rock, Reinhard Voigt. His distinctive brand of hard-edged techno-trance doesn’t always fit in with the refined palettes of today’s minimal DJ market, but live, he’s another proposition entirely. Flinging his arms about like a man possessed, razor-sharp shards of noise slice through pumped 909 beats with merciless finesse, and his frequently terrifying facial and physical contortions turn the whole thing into a bizarrely unsettling, thoroughly incendiary performance. He even manages to style out a laptop crash with a series of dramatic hand movements and ‘I am the prince of darkness’-style victorious poses, which arguably deserves commendation in its own right.
As light starts to seep through the giant windows upstairs, Tobias Thomas takes over, kicking off with a series of tough Cologne bangers to sort the wheat from the chaff. With time, things progress and he starts to take more risks, moving from NY-inspired rattlers like Tiger Stripes’ ‘Hooked’ to the MFA’s emo-techno anthem ‘The Difference It Makes’, from Intus’s lolloping newie ‘Mescal’ on K2 to joyous, Royksopp-esque Balearica, pleasing the crowd of assembled scene luminaries as much as the wide-eyed teenagers. Encoring with Rob Hood’s hauntingly excellent remix of Turner from a couple of years back, he shows once again why his Kompakt contemporaries hold his DJ skills in such high regard, before joining us on the terrace outside for the official afterhours. SuperMayer return to the decks, this time with a techier, groovier selection, and we whittle away the day in a haze of happy Kolners, ethereal techno and more than a few shots of Jager. The industry maybe changing at a rate of knots, but on the evidence of another phenomenal Total party, one thing seems certain – Kompakt looks set to remain a techno superpower for some time yet.
Saturday’s main attraction is the ‘Deutschlanreise’, a neat concept whereby local labels hook up with likeminded imprints and artists from other German cities to present mini showcases across the city’s numerous small venues. At just 20e for a ticket allowing you entrance to everything, it’s a bargain too, helped into fruition by the hilarious ‘Disco Bus’ which tours the city’s fifteen or so parties all night long. Naturally, anyone with even a passing interest in minimal techno is spoilt for choice – we tried to do as much as we could, but inevitably missed parties from Areal, Platzhirsch, Traum, Ware and Mobilee. Nonetheless, choices have to be made, and our first one was to head to the sylish O club at Rudolfplatz for Dial Vs., erm, Justus Kohnecke. I’d spoken to Italic’s label manager earlier about how this strange combination of deep, lush techno and flagrantly gay disco-pop could work, to which he looked a bit baffled and replied, “I think it’s a fine combination – they are all great friends.” It’s this kind of bumbling camaraderie that seems to underpin Cologne’s tight-knit scene – they may not have the sprawling urban space of the capital, but nor are they too snobby or musically blinkered to kick up a fuss over sub-genre cross-pollination. Despite this perceived wisdom, it still seems weird to follow up Carsten Jost’s super-current selection of slick, deep, house-y grooves with Kohncke’s faintly ridiculous ambient crooning. Part Prince, part Phil Collins, part Steven Hawking, we snigger along for a bit, but decide to leave when he disappears under the covers of a bed on stage, from where he proceeds to deliver the rest of his set. Maybe it’s a German humour thing.
The former are solid, if maybe a touch too sterile, mixing up tracks from their early Sender days with new and unreleased goodies. Their style may not have moved much in the last three years, but its undeniably functional pomp goes down a storm with the packed dancefloor. A brief DJ interlude from Frank Martiniq concludes with Carl Craig’s ever-reliable remix of Faze Action’s ‘In The Trees’, before Pan/Tone rocks up to provide another undoubted weekend highlight. Throwing down his patented relentless mono-bass with turbo-fuelled, endlessly screaming drops, it’s not long before the entire venue is thrusting its arms skywards and roaring each new pummelling kickdrum with abandon. It’s big, it’s not particularly clever, and it’s one of the best live sets we’ve heard since, well, last night. Happily battered, we return to Stadgarten to catch the end of Andre Kraml, who’s sorted it out and is stirring the hardcore with some straight-up, highly danceable club techno. But with thoughts of currywurst and closing parties looming large, we soon decide it’s time again to stumble hotel-wards.
Sunday is traditionally spent on the banks of the Rhine at Pollerwiesen, Cologne’s outdoor mega-rave location. This year, Sven Vath is replacing Richie Hawtin at the controls, and rumours circulate about fall outs between C/O Pop and Minus. Politics aside, though, and it has to be said it’s a shame Hawtin can’t appear. Sven has his adoring followers, for sure, and he certainly presses the masses’ dancing buttons with tracks like ‘Windowlicker’, ‘Knights Of The Jaguar’ and, inevitably, ‘Heater’, but fond memories of Hawtin playing Mathew Jonson’s ‘Marionette’ as the sun set beyond the river in 2005 are firmly lodged in our minds, and nothing Vath can do manages to shift them. The occasional downpour and muffled sound don’t help much, either, and we make our escape as those damnable accordians of ‘Heater’ threaten to incite a horrifying outbreak of line-dancing among the 4000-strong crowd.
With a 9am flight looming, we have the choice to catch up on sleep or ‘quickly’ check out the official closing party back at Gewoble, which of course we do, and end up staying the whole night. Traum and MBF key producer Cosmic Sandwich keeps the fires burning with his pacey, spacey richness, and before long, the audience are cheering again – no afterhours grimness here, just bundles of honest-to-goodness techno fun. In the other room Marcel Janovsky and Falko Brocksieper take turns to delve a little deeper, with Falko in particular playing all sorts of unrecognisable gems from the vaults. Organised by the hugely hospitable Heiko, it’s supposedly a ‘tribute to the sound of Cologne’, despite the fact the CS’s Steve Barnes is from Brighton, and Falko moved his and Mia’s Sub-Static label to Berlin nearly three years ago.
But who cares – because for all of C/O Pop’s eagerness to promote the city of Cologne to its rightful position on the global music scene, its true strength lies in the overwhelming friendliness of its inhabitants, the humble but proud sense of civic involvement and community, and most importantly of all, a shit-load of excellent music. This year’s C/O Pop was certainly the most successful yet; for the first time in our three years of attending, we met party-goers from across Europe who had caught wind of the event, and everywhere we visited shook with the cheers of healthy, hearty crowds. Cologne may not have the beauty of Barcelona, the beaches of Benicassim, or the boundlessness of Berlin, but it has something all of its own – a sense of tight solidarity, or perhaps compactness, that only a relatively small city could ever achieve. And that’s exactly what makes the weekend so good, in so many ways. As Tobias Thomas says when we catch up with him briefly before embarking on our journey home: “Now, I am feeling a little weak. But that’s okay - the weak become heroes.�