The last few years have seen a new trend of ‘lost’ tracks rediscovered and getting released. The whole idea gives me mixed feelings. As a music obsessive, it’s always a thrill to dig up an old gem, especially one that might never have seen the light of day. But the frequency of such releases also seems symptomatic of an electronic music scene intent on looking backwards and recreating ‘retro’ sounds, a scene that’s lost faith in its current artists. It doesn’t help that many of these releases, particularly the techno ones, are mulchy, navel-gazing experiments that probably should have stayed buried.
Trust Workshop to do things differently. The German label, run by Even Tuell and Lowtec, has one of the highest hit-rates in the game, frequently introducing seriously talented producers to the wider world. They don’t often release albums, nor have they gone into reissues much before (barring a gorgeous cut on their last V/A EP). But whatever the Workshop crew do, they always seem to get it right.
Ibrahim Alfa was a techno producer back in the 90’s, and the story which led him back onto the scene is more dramatic and heartbreaking than even the most imaginative press release could make out. To cut a long story short, the tracks on this fine comeback record were originally billed for release on Move D’s Source Records decades ago, but never got pressed due to money problems. The tape got lost, gathered dust, and after a recent rediscovery made its way to Move D’s friends at Workshop. Unlike most releases that come out with a triumphant narrative of resurrection, there’s nothing retro about the sounds on ‘Hidden by the Leaves’. It feels fresh, exalting in the creative possibilities of techno.
The eight tracks bear some resemblance to Alfa’s warped techno records from the 90’s, but they certainly aren’t made with DJs in mind. Only three of the songs top four minutes, and the unexpected structures, matched by a blunt resistance to friendly intros and outros, would make these a challenge for anyone to mix. The reason seems to be Alfa’s dogged pursuit of new sounds. Here even the shattering drums on a relatively straight track like We Can Never Go Home… frequently dissolve amongst caustic bass sweeps and fidgety synth bleeps.
The general sound is somewhere between classic techno and jittery electro, with a few nods to ambient and house thrown in for good measure. The highlights announce themselves confidently, such as the sultry groove of Black Mask, prey to anaesthetized vocals and a confrontational bassline. Clip My Wings sounds utterly modern, its slamming kicks illuminated by the sweep of a lighthouse synth, while Dreamland swings way out, its angular electro rhythms enveloped by a burbling melody like an ever-cresting wave.
Even on the less propulsive tracks the contrast between brittle rhythms and soft, greyscale synth notes makes for a compelling listen. Past Is Past would be too viscous and oblique if it weren’t for its deep, billowing pads, while the gorgeous Drifting heaps its insectoid rhythm with warm, generous tones. The fact that Alfa’s long-forgotten album sounds so modern wouldn’t be enough to make it a great record. No, what makes this essential listening is how energetically inventive, how beautifully wrought these songs are. It doesn’t matter who produced them, or when.