Steffi, 'Panorama Bar 05' (Ostgut Ton)

8
Panorama Bar 05
Critical Mass
Release Date: May 14, 2013
Label: Ostgut Ton

by Philip Sherburne

When the Dutch DJ Steffi played Berlin's Boiler Room in 2011, her gaze rarely left the turntables. There were plenty of distractions — a video camera perched in front, a roomful of dancers crowded behind, a virtual audience of thousands watching live on the Internet — but she might as well have been alone in her own studio for all the attention she paid to the hubbub around her. She was hardly stone-faced, dancing and even smiling as she spun through a seamless and propulsive mix of steely techno and wiry electro, but these were largely private gestures, the signs of a performer fully immersed in her music.

All of this stood in stark contrast to the way many DJs behave on Boiler Room, mugging for the camera amid the jostling, invite-only crowd. (The normally staid Carl Craig went so far as to drop trou in one particularly unhinged session held in Richie Hawtin's living room; in his defense, though, it might have been the punch.) The party-cum-webcast's social-network dynamics make it something like a Myers-Briggs test for the DJ world, and Steffi's performance slotted her squarely in the Introverts' corner.

That's probably not news to anyone who knows the Berlin-based artist's productions. This is, after all, the same producer who recorded "Sadness," a mournful deep-house cut that interpolates the chords of Fleetwood Mac's "Dreams" with the unequivocally bleak lyrics, "Loneliness / Emptiness / No happiness / Just sadness." Remixing Midnight Magic's "Drop Me a Line," she reimagined the New York band's bouncy, basement-party disco anthem as the soundtrack to a bleary-eyed night drive, with wordless vocal samples glowing like dashboard lights and gleaming pedal tones hurtling toward a vanishing point swathed in darkness. Panorama Bar 05, Steffi's first official mix CD, is a best-of-both-worlds scenario. On the one hand, it's a calling card, a testament to her considerable talents as a resident DJ at Berlin's Panorama Bar, the city's most famous nightclub of the past decade (along with its downstairs counterpart, Berghain). But thanks to its introspective depth, it's equally well suited to solitary listening, the rare mix that connects dance music's public sphere — joyous, communal, kinetic, chaotic — with a more private kind of rapture.

The mix begins, like any good club night should, in understated fashion. Palisade's "18:30" kicks things off not with a bang but a whisper; its sampled rainfall and ruminative minor-key synths soon give way to Endian's "Doze" and Big Strick's "Hayday," Detroit-flavored deep-house tracks that use watery chords and shuffling drum machines to equally moody effect. They're neatly but not fussily mixed — all three tunes are in different keys, but the way she blends them suggests otherwise, so instead of clashing, their slightly unstable harmonies seem to break apart like light through a prism.

With the next four tracks, Steffi hits cruising speed. Chris Mitchell's "Lonely Nights," BLM's "The Nest," Fred P's "Project 05," and Naoki Shinohara's "Timeless" dial up the intensity ever so slightly — the drums are tougher, the bass heavier, the synths wispy but more vivid — while maintaining the floating-on-air quality of Steffi's own productions. Then, midway through, the energy shifts: Dutch duo Juju & Jordash deliver an uncustomary fusion of acid house and disco with "A Stab in the Dark," one of several new songs exclusive to the mix, while John Barera and Will Martin's "Reality" boomerangs us back to the flashing filter disco that reigned in the era of Daft Punk's "Disco Cubizm."

DJ Fett Burger, of Norway's mischievous Sex Tags Mania label, keeps up the disco vibes with the plucky, conga-heavy "Disco Tre," a 2012 record that might have been recorded at any point in the last 30 years; that sense of temporal slippage persists in Juergen Junker's "Post Reunion," a slab of funk breaks and sampled piano from 2002 that could be mistaken for early-'90s Carl Craig. Like the best DJ mixes, Steffi's set plays fast and loose with chronology, connecting the dots between disparate styles and distant eras without ever falling prey to retro preciousness. (The majority of the album's cuts were actually released in the past two years, although you'd never guess it from hearing them; the most extreme outlier is Chicago long-timer DJ Skull's "Don't Stop the Beat," a luminous, spring-loaded techno track released in 1993 on Holland's legendary Djax-Up-Beats label.)

For the final 20 minutes of the mix, Steffi digs into a tough, percussive, peak-time stretch, capturing the feel of Panorama Bar by morning, when the floor is packed and time itself seems to be creeping asymptotically closer to forever o'clock — an experience punctuated at odd intervals by the shutters that cover the tall, narrow windows of the former power plant flashing open and flooding the room with bursts of daylight. Steffi's own "DB011" shows a side that we haven't previously heard in her own productions: a seething acid beast shorn of the niceties that marked her debut album, Yours & Mine. "Jawada," by the Dutch producer Dexter (co-founder, with Steffi, of the Klakson label) keeps up the intensity with needle-nosed arpeggios and minor-key rave flashbacks.

And you'd have to be listening closely to even notice the transition, but DJ Skull's "Don't Stop the Beat" marks a final turning point: The tempo maintains, but the groove grows nimbler and crisper, while softly stabbing Rhodes chords and slow-release DX pads come on like the gentlest of endorphin rushes. Chicago's Obsolete Music Technology adds urgency to the home stretch with 2010's "Latency," offsetting ethereal chords with lurching drums and arps, and Trevino (the house alias of junglist Marcus Intalex) closes out the mix with "Juan Two Five," a Detroit-inspired track that's as lyrical as it is gritty. There's no outro, just a slight fade in volume as the drum track thumps out its last few bars and dissipates into hiss. It ends exactly as you would expect a set at Panorama Bar to end: as the stepping stone to another set (and another, and another, and another).

Legendary for its marathon sessions, Panorama Bar typically features four-hour-plus DJ sets, and committed clubbers can dance from midnight on a Saturday until well into Monday morning. One of the great pleasures of Steffi's mix is the way it condenses the ebb and flow of an entire night (or night-and-day-and-night, depending upon your stamina) into just 74 minutes. Her seamless blends and canny sense of contrast have a way of upending your sense of linear time just as much on disc as they would in situ. After a dozen back-to-back plays — augmented by hours of more surgical listening, flipping from track to track in the attempt to figure out how, exactly, Steffi makes her mixes work — I still find myself caught off guard by certain transitions, snapping to attention, as if in the midst of a daydream, and wondering exactly where I am. Her eyes glued to the decks, her fingers never far from the faders, Steffi excels at this kind of sleight-of-hand, which is also a kind of sleight-of-mind. It's telepathic: introversion writ large, a series of private epiphanies broadcast one four-to-the-floor heartbeat at a time.

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