token girl: like a girl, but better

Tuesday, 1 April 2008


Formidable record label head, casual fashion designer and full-on disc mistress Ellen Allien might be my hero for ever, but even the loyalty (and patience) of her biggest fans will be tested by this relentlessly sparse trip with her into the Berlin state of mind. During opening track 'Einsteigen' (enter), we glide into the incidental buzz of the city. As bustle crackles over a single note tapped out over and over again, a voice over a loudspeaker announces that the train's arrived at Alexanderplatz station, which is where we begin our journey.

This Berlinette, this Stadtkind has made a record (her fourth solo stretch) that's borne of mornings becoming afternoons behind the tinted windows at Ostbahnhof minimal institution Berghain. SOOL was dragged out of a stupor, its dot-to-dot skeleton etched like clouds onto the dawn and viewed from the banks of the Spree at parties where the phrase 'don't forget to go home' was invented. It is now and always has been the city (and what else?) that pulses through her veins, while on the outside her skin's baked in a glaze of last night's (or was it the night before?) sweat.

If Ms Allien's last solo LP Thrills was a celebratory but patchy, loved-up and danced out session, and that faultless Apparat collaboration Orchestra of Bubbles set the emo-techno standard, SOOL is a severing and a step beyond. With the help of east German sound re-structuralist (and guest producer) AGF, she racks out the electronic test tubes for some intense sonic experimentalism, to once again redefine the boundaries of her shifting soundscape. So 'Elphine' climbs to a spooky crescendo with whistles (human and tin) and the brassy thrum of trumpets and oboes; the brooding minimal of 'Its' is pinned down with a Jaws bassline and 'Bim' throbs with a blood-in-your-ears heartbeat.

Where there are vocals, they're chopped up to reverberate around the beats, as if the bones of the album have been left half bare, those clipped voices trapped in an echo chamber. 'Sprung' makes tentative, paranoid steps towards the dance floor, with an acid-deep beat and haunting fragments of a memory of a party that might have happened some time before strung out across five deliriously lost minutes.

'Frieda', then, interrupts the blissed out blips nine tracks in – it’s a swoony, semi-pastoral ballad which Ellen tenderly addresses (in English) to her 'sun', making me wonder whether she expected anyone to actually make it to the end of the album. For whoever braves it that far, closing track 'Out' is slashed through with the metallic-sounding swishes of a sword to the drip-drip rhythm of a broken tap. It's hard to recognise Ellen here at all: you have to roll back your head, switch to that rattled, addled, empty six o'clock in the morning brain and allow yourself to slip in between the sounds, contract and expand when she tells you to.

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