Chris Liebing strays into unfamiliar territory on new album ‘Burn Slow’

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Grade: 2.5/5.0

German DJ Chris Liebing is a titan in the techno scene. Since the early 1990’s, he has founded a label, been a resident DJ at several clubs, produced a studio LP and a collaborative LP and been a host of EPs and singles. Since 2015, however, his music has strayed further from traditional techno, becoming slower and more melodic. His latest record entertains the idea of entering different genres but fails to shake its techno foundations.

Burn Slow is his slowest work yet. Liebing dials his techno sensibilities all the way down to “sedated” and aims to provide a more contemplative experience that might even suit quiet listening over dancing. Rather than heading towards the ambient tone of Boards of Canada or dubstep leanings of Burial, Liebing holds onto the techno roots of his career and tries to mold them into calmer territory.

The album is structured around five vocal sketches, which are spaced out over the 10 tracks. On these, Liebing invites a guest vocalist to perform a spoken-word piece. The guest artists don’t add much, ranging from just forgettable to clunky.

The first is the most egregious example of this. On it, guest Cold Cave muses about the similarities of meditating, making music and dancing, in that they all allow one to be “in the moment.” An important message, yes, but one that could be conveyed through a more palatable technique instead of painfully slow words over a pulsing techno beat.

Liebing is using the tools of techno and electronic production to try to forge something both introspective and densely layered. The majority of the songs on here are not high-energy, dance floor material. They tend toward slower exercises in repetition and tone. This works in a few places, but when he reverts back to more comfortable techno territory, it’s with a subdued palette that doesn’t leave many interesting things behind.

For example, “Novembergrey” is a somber track, released as the first single from the album. It doesn’t bring much in terms of energy or variation. His melody lacks variation and is just disappointing, never venturing into melancholy territory. It sounds tonally muffled.

On the third track, singer Polly Scattergood begins by recounting mundane details of her bedroom and lover. However, she quickly shifts her attention to distant oceans and deserts. The delivery is hushed and intimate. “I have felt closer to home than I have ever known in this place of endless roads, cascading sand dunes, and mixed magic,” she whispers as a warbling bassline makes itself known. As the traditional techno elements come in one by one, the voice becomes less and less notable. The track simply overpowers the vocals.

The following track, “Out of This World,” is more enrapturing. It kicks off with an irregular drum pattern and emotive twanging synths that set the mood. This is followed by a great arpeggiated organ line that escalates the mood. The instruments of the track rise to little peaks and then are given a break, so they can come together in new combinations.

“Card House” has a crunchy, old school techno appeal. It revels in the artificiality of its drum machines and blown-out synth lines. There is so much fuzz and distortion on every component of the track that they end up complementing each other as a sort of messy collage. This track also has a featured vocalist, Miles Cooper Seaton, but his grizzled radio announcer voice and fantasy prophet tone are almost a convincing addition to the track.

This album tries to walk an odd line. It begs to be set apart from techno music, but its strong points are in its strong usage of electronic fundamentals. The music falls flat when it tries to push outside these boundaries and become more emotive. Liebing relies too much on tropes — vaguely philosophical vocal features, a 19-minute suite of tracks with little variation — and offers up little experimentation to achieve his solemn goal.

Contact Patrick Tehaney at [email protected].