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Review: Nina Kraviz, 'Fabric 91'

Note: NPR's First Listen audio comes down after the album is released.

Nina Kraviz, <em>fabric 91</em>.
/ Courtesy of the artist
Courtesy of the artist
Nina Kraviz, fabric 91.

For a DJ mix to be regarded as great, it can't just follow a single technically proficient narrative; it's got to communicate with dancers on multiple levels. Toward that end, Nina Kraviz's fabric 91 is built on layers of intrigue — a synchronicity of context and accident, human purpose and cosmic prank.

The 91st installment of this 15-year-old mix series comes at a tumultuous time for Fabric, the London club whose name it carries, and whose in-house label produces the series. The revocation of Fabric's operating license in September sent reverberations throughout the global dance-music community. The fact that an iconic establishment in one of the planet's nightlife capitals — a club that played responsibly, upholding all civic ordinances — could still be shuttered felt like an ignominious dis of dance culture far and wide. The uproar was monumental — a #SaveFabric campaign gathered more than 150,000 signatures and raised more than $400,000 to fight the closing — yet an air of defeatist inevitability (the blues of 2016?) hung over the proceedings. So imagine the surprise when, on Nov. 20, Fabric and local authorities announced an agreement that the club will reopen under new, stricter guidelines. Fortuitously, fabric 91 is a celebration of that reanimation.

The mix also comes at an interesting time for Nina Kraviz, a Siberian-born Russian DJ/producer and one of the few female superstars in the highly patriarchal world of club music. Despite Kraviz's resume — popularity as a DJ (#20 on Resident Advisor's 2015 readers' poll), creativity as a producer (her rough-edged minimal house features a unique mix of woozy late-night soul coos and hypnotic spoken voices that hit somewhere between a radio DJ's boasts and poetry loops), and success as a talent-spotter (Bjarki, one of 2016's breakout artists, is the first signing to her трип [Trip] label) — the misogynistic plaints directed at her are absurdly familiar. (The latest sexist tempest in a teapot came during a November gig in Melbourne when punters accused her of not playing the right music.) From the beginning, Kraviz's response has been to expand her sonic purview and push creatively onward with increasing success. The fabric mix, traditionally a career marker and pivot for discerning electronic musicians, is also a survey of where Kraviz finds herself at the end of 2016.

And that happens to be an extremely confident place, a zone between continuing to fulfill a destiny and accessing techno's long, rave-centric memory. To support the former are 18 tracks either by Kraviz, attributed to трип or marked as unreleased; to retrieve the latter, 20 other selections are gems released prior to 2001, almost exclusively through small labels in minor techno scenes around the world. Forget global hipster dance music! Welcome to early-digital European paganism starring Kraviz, the high priestess of the acid squelch and the 909, who wastes no opportunity to make a statement or add a wink.

The 76-minute mix is a highly stylized techno collage, usually practiced by legendary technicians such as Jeff Mills and Richie Hawtin, a set of propulsive micro-pieces fitted together, whose occasional digressions into ambient beauty or off-the-rails disorder (or, in the case of Frak's gorgeous "First Snow in Harlem," both) are products of its design.

Not one iota of fabric 91's blueprint is left to whimsy, commercial consideration or lazy trainspotting. For those who care about dance-floor lessons, each selection is a wormhole that just might help you discover the original version of your techno self. Here, the secret heroes of Soviet-era synthesizers make passionate love to one of German ambient techno's lost masters (New Composers & Pete Namlook's "Tetra"). There are techno's founding leading men from Reykjavik (Biogen), Cologne (Air Liquide), Rome (Leo Anibaldi), Finland (Panasonic) and Minneapolis (Woody McBride). And when a storied techno tradition is invoked, the tracks come from landmark artists who rarely appear in clickbait popularity contests. (The two great Detroit records included are by Neil Ollivierra's sadly under-commended Detroit Escalator Co. and the mighty Claude Young.) Amidst all this techno seriousness, Kraviz is driving BPMs, occasionally getting on the mic and generally having glorious fun.

If the proceedings needed an exclamation point, it comes in the form of the closer, one of only a small handful of tracks to play for three minutes or more: an unreleased Aphex Twin production called "fork rave." Originally unleashed upon the world during 2015, when Richard D. James was uploading his archive onto Soundcloud as "user48736353001," it is a brilliant acid jungle throwaway. A skittering mental leap into 1992, it hearkens back to a simpler time when the creators and audiences were outsiders, the clubs were warehouses or open fields, and the moments impacted a lifetime. The framework is obvious for anyone who believes dance-music culture to be as significant as breathing air — and that places like Fabric are our last temples.

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