Review: Stewart Walker - Ivory Tower Broadcast


I've been waiting for the new Stewart Walker release patiently. To me, his ante penultimate album, 'Concentricity' (Persona, 2007) is one of the high-points of techno composition; it is the album I send to people when I want to give them something special. It is mixed perfectly, a trip in itself. More than once it was a salvation to me through the hard Scottish rains as I used to walk the shores of Loch Linnhe, drenched and dreaming of what was below those grey waters, desperately needing something reassuring to keep me from cracking in the cold wind that whipped me across my face. If someone you know thinks that they don't like techno, play this album to them. It will change them, and tie them to the space where they first heard it. It is complex and stunningly beautiful. As an album it is coherent, a techno symphony. It sounds as if it were meant to only be played in one go, and perhaps some of the reason that many people I know don't know this album as well as I believe they should is that the tracks (e.g. the incredible lynchpin, "Fernbank 1991", or the ecstatic "Madness Like Schools of Fish", which comes on early in the piece) are inextricably mixed into the very fabric of this masterpiece, and so they never reappear in other DJs mixes.

Unlike 'Concentricity', the tracks on 'Ivory Tower Broadcasts' (ITB) are not mixed together. We have a sense how they could sound in Walker's Boiler Room set from just before the release of ITB, but listening to the album gives me over to thinking of what other ways it could sound like mixed as a longer set. Where could it go?

Little hints of this much-awaited album are scattered around the web in live sets, such as one played live in Düsseldorf (Level Records Night, Foyer, 4 June 2011), which sits as a midway point between Concentricity and ITB. But imagining it mixed in Walker's subtle style is not so simple, as the album under review does not have the same kind of coherency as Concentricity, which sounds as if it were composed in one deep dive to the depths of techno. ITB, by contrast, feels like the tracks were written in spurts, in moments of snatched time, in different head-spaces. This, I wonder, might be why it is not mixed? But so to the reason might be that unmixed tracks better showcase the DJ as a producer (his minimal albums have discreet tracks; but his star began to rise seriously with his 2003 Live Extracts, which has perhaps made the listeners of his 2003-07 period think of him as a producer of beautiful long sets, practised in Trèsor since his arrival at the inner circle of European techno).

What ITB shares with Walker's earlier works is the continuation along the path of polyrhythmic musical exploration, although here further incorporating instruments outside of the traditional techno range of drum machines and synths. Zithers and Kotos, not code names for girls' names, are some of the instruments that Walker has played on ITB. These acoustic instruments give the album a warmth that one could scarcely have imagined as possibly coming from the same man if we were to cast back to his minimal techno of, say, 1998. Before Marcel Dettmann had long hair and Blu had painted Kreuzberg, Walker had already made electro-acoustic experiments.

He was a guitarist before turning his attention to deep explorations in the new, post-Detroit minimal techno – that sexual soundtrack that Berliners would writhe to for blissed-out days-into-nights-into-days-on-end in low-lit caverns that had once powered the edge of Eastern Europe, now covered in yellow fists as the new Berlin punched its way into the air waves of the clubbing world. Some of my favourite Berlin minimal tracks of the late-1990s and early-2000s were produced by Walker when Berlin was exploding into a full techno efflorescence. These are collected on "Reclamation 1997-99" (Persona 2001), "Pleasure Island" (Persona, 2001), and "Degenerate" (Persona, 2003). The attention to exquisite composition when everything else was stripped away in these minimal works remains utterly captivating. And when the tracks on ITB get it right – and in some moments they do – it makes sense that these new pieces are by the same minimal genius. This is not consistently the case on ITB.

Some of the tracks are delightful, and could be easily found in stylish lounge mixes. If I heard “Candycoated” in the foyer of the Michelberger Hotel, I would not be at all shocked. But some of the music would also work far away from the club world, perhaps as a movie sound track? Maybe that is where Walker has been these past few years? Imagine Walker's opening, “Desolation Peak”. It could set the scene in a film about an Australian in Berlin (we all know at least one): a meditative walk through Görlitzer park, heading East, past the dealers, past the graffiti, over the water, and follow each track as you meander through this imagined late-summer's day, a different track, a different shot of a Berlin detail, as the camera drifts languidly past the lovers and the drunks and the drunk lovers. It is late afternoon, the sky is drenched with blue smoke rising from the park, and the world appears happy if you don't stop to look too long at the beer caps in the dried mud of the path, if you forget that in February the ground outside will be too foul and cold to get down on your knees.  Look up.  There is no green like that Berlin green, filtered through the whip-like leaves of the willows that take you to the Spree. What do you hear as you approach, when the sky starting to burn pink as the blinding light softens?

“Some Exits Have Been Chained (For Security)” are the soft sounds flowing over the water at the end of the Indian Summer at Käter Blau, if it is still open, again. And so on... Meditation over.

ITB is not an album for dancing to. It is easy to dream and get lost thinking about Berlin and how good it would be to see Walker make sense of his new album in a live set in a Spree-side outdoor bar of easy dancing under the trees. But: not all of it. The title of the track, “Something I Can't Remember”, I expect to be reflexively prophetic. It is the low point not just of this album, but of the career of Stewart Walker, to my mind, which is already predisposed to want to love this music. Sometimes, I cannot.

“Rose Machine” is not far behind in its forgettable string arrangement, with a repeated sample that sounds a bit like a sneeze. Other tracks, like “Shakemaps” and “Gone at First Light” (which was a stand out moment in one of Walker's earlier mixes, but I can't remember which. Was it in Kentucky?); these tracks are much more interesting – to me it makes no sense that they are on the same album as my less-favoured tracks. Maybe an EP would have been a wiser release strategy, for on ITB the brilliance is spread too thinly? It should be clear that this is not my favourite album by one of the DJs I hold dearest, whose earlier releases I know by heart. I hope he can mix it in a way that makes it make sense, and I hope I am there to hear it happen.

01. Desolation Peak
02. Gone at First Light
03. Passing Through
04. Candycoated
05. Something I Can't Remember
06. Chakra (Interlude)
07. Rose Machine
08. Exits Have Been Chained (For Security)
09. Caught in the Switches
10. Shakemaps
11. Feeling of Reeling