We revisit the blueprint for the Berghain sound.
To relax during long sessions producing the tracks that would become Dawning / Dead Man Watches The Clock, Ben Klock and Marcel Dettmann would play FIFA. "We turned on the PlayStation and played," Dettmann recently told RA. "Then paused, listened, doctored around and then at some point a track was done." At the time they were relatively unknown local DJs, residents at a popular club called Berghain that had opened a few months earlier. Klock, in his early 30s, and Dettmann, in his late 20s, were in the early stages of era-defining careers. Klock, a trained graphic designer and pianist, had released a handful of tech house records in the years prior, but none would have the impact of Dawning / Dead Man Watches The Clock.
The first vinyl release on Ostgut Ton, Berghain's in-house label, Klock and Dettmann's first collaboration captures the sound of the era they helped define. Having moved away from an increasingly sterile, loop-focussed period dominated by tough sounds from the Netherlands and the UK, techno had returned to a place where groove and melody could coexist. Klock, an experienced DJ who had held residencies at a number of Berlin clubs, was experiencing a fresh wave of inspiration. A few years earlier, when the club OstGut, Berghain's predecessor, closed, he considered giving up DJing all together. Tempos were down but quality was up, as Dettmann, who worked at the Hard Wax record store, developed his signature blend of house, industrial and dubby, Basic Channel-inspired loops. "I had my favourite sound before Berghain," he told Will Lynch in 2009. "That combo of Basic Channel with more industrial sounds."
We hear that combination best in "Dawning," a seven-minute minimal techno track that remains Dettmann and Klock's best-known collaboration. Released in February 2006, just over a year after Berghain opened, its sound is lean and dubby, with bubbling chords and a rolling groove. At 125 BPM, three BPM less than "Dead Man Watches The Clock," it's substantially slower than most techno played at Berghain today. It's so subtle that, if it came out today, we might not even call it techno.
"I prefer when harder techno is played at a slower pace," Dettmann said over email, reflecting on the years surrounding Dawning / Dead Man Watches The Clock. "Back then it was unusual to play slower—it was kind of unintentional." Those slower tempos, often at speeds more associated with house, helped define the so-called "Berghain sound" Dettmann and Klock honed during their marathon sets at the club. The grooves were smooth and swung, a long way from angular, percussive loops that DJs like Chris Liebing and Speedy J fed heaving European dance floors.
Slower tempos also allowed tracks like "Dawning" to explore moods that faster techno neglected. There was more space between the beats, which meant bleeps, pads and chords had room to dazzle, the focus on both groove and atmosphere. (For years, the sound skewed towards the former.) As heard on Dettmann's Berghain 02, another defining document from this era, moods could now shift from track to track, as delicate tones and melodies blended across flawless transitions. "Dawning" feels made for those careful transitions, its bubbling dub chords nudging louder into the mix every few bars. More smooth than slamming, the kick drum feels gentle by today's standards, there to keep time, not bludgeon. That was the beauty of the Berghain sound.
"These days it's hip to play really, really fast," Dettmann said. In the years since Dawning / Dead Man Watches The Clock's release, tempos have spiked, the influence of high-energy styles like EBM flooding the scene. It's easy to forget a track as soft as "Dawning," considered and delicate, was once anthemic, its chords evoking cheers and whistles as they crept into the mix. Its gradual build is masterful, the energy growing with the introduction of every hi-hat and synth squiggle. "There was no big plan behind it," Klock said. "The flow was very fast and productive. We didn't get lost for hours playing the same loop, or testing and tweaking the same sound. I liked the fast decision-making process."
12 years later, Dettmann and Klock are superstars. Ostgut Ton, their home label, is among techno's most popular outlets, while Berghain, where the pair still play every month, is the most talked-about club on the planet. But as the scene, including most of the DJs who spin at Berghain, embraces tougher sounds, this landmark release reminds us that harder and faster doesn't necessarily mean better.