Ten years on, we revisit the masterstroke that helped define the sound of Berlin.
For anyone paying attention in the '00s, Berlin's electronic music scene will be forever associated with minimal, tech house and laptops. Artists and labels, many of them recent migrants to the city, embraced dance music in its most reduced form, twisting house and techno into ultra-loopy grooves embellished with clicks and clacks, bleeps and blops. But that's not the full story. Where some artists expanded the possibilities of reduction, others made their case with melody. Paul Kalkbrenner, along with artists like Sascha Funke and Acid Pauli, was a leader among this group. Across classy early releases for BPitch Control, beginning with dB+ in 2000, his skill for touching tones was clear, whether working with lean dub techno ("Eins"), deep house ("D.E.E.P") or less subtle party tracks ("Mundgucci.") But nothing would showcase Kalkbrenner's songwriting touch like "Sky And Sand," a track that propelled him to stardom.
"Sky And Sand" was originally produced as the title song for Berlin Calling, a tragicomedy depicting the hospitalisation of a fictional DJ, played by Kalkbrenner, for drug abuse. The director, Hannes Stöhr, enlisted Kalkbrenner for the film's music after hearing his 2004 album, Self. "Sky And Sand" was released on the official soundtrack in October 2008, before being given a standalone single release by BPitch Control the following February, where it was presented as an extended, eight-minute version on a low-key, single-sided vinyl. This longer version, previously unavailable, highlights the subtleties of Kalkbrenner's approach: the slow build, the tension, the energy's calm rise and fall. "Sky And Sand" has entranced millions of listeners—it remained in the German singles charts for over two years—but it's still a conventional dance music track, each element introduced with the patience of classic minimal. But few minimal tracks touch people like this, the vocals of Fritz Kalkbrenner forming magic partnership with his brother's rising tones.
Paul produced "Sky And Sand," along with the rest of Berlin Calling's soundtrack, with Sascha Funke. The pair, both natives of East Berlin, had been friends since childhood, discovering the city's techno scene together as teenagers. By the time they relocated southern France to craft the Berlin Calling soundtrack in late 2006, they each had a string of well-received records in their catalogues. But nothing would match the success of its standout tune. Produced during a cold French winter, Berlin Calling's melancholy tones were a perfect match for the film's bleak plot and setting, where a troubled young man navigates a harsh environment. Yet there was a sense of hope and happiness in much of the soundtrack, especially "Sky And Sand."
This is partly thanks to Fritz. A music journalist at the time, he was a former hip-hop fan who switched to techno when he discovered clubbing. For "Sky And Sand," he penned a reflection on love, clubbing and companionship.
In the daytime
You'll find me by your side
Tryin' to do my best
And tryin' to make things right
When it all turns wrong
But it won't hit hard
'cause you let me shine
As with much great electronic music, "Sky And Sand" and its lyrics are ambiguous in mood. The feeling a listener pulls from the track may change depending on their emotional state—sad one day, happy the next. It’s a masterstroke by a producer whose life changed upon its release. Already a respected name in Germany, Kalkbrenner's international profile shot skywards, making him one of dance music's true superstars. "Nobody came," he said about a 2006 gig in New York. "It was very depressing." In the months following the release of "Sky And Sand," more than 125,000 people bought tickets to his live dates.
Perhaps more than anything, the success of "Sky And Sand" shows the power of well-crafted melody. It wriggles into your brain, there's never a push. Building up and down over eight introspective minutes, it's the high point of a Berlin scene that gave us dozens of great dance tracks, all pushing a similarly hard-to-place mood. Other tunes from Sascha Funke (who also contributed the excellent solo track "Mango" to Berlin Calling), Acid Pauli and Daso Franke, who we revisited last year, remain exceptionally powerful, the sounds of scene where, sometimes, music was fuelled by feeling, not only the dance floor.