Hot Track Time Machine – Hard Techno from the ’90s to Today

by | Mar 8, 2024 | Essay, Stories | 0 comments

Most retrospective music lists highlight already well-known songs, overlooking the countless gems that didn’t attain anthem status but are nonetheless timeless pieces of excellent music. Hot Track Time Machine brings attention to cuts that largely flew under the radar, but deserve the same kind of love.

This edition focuses on hard techno, a faster, more intense, and sonically heavier evolution of techno that emerged in the ’90s and peaked in popularity at the turn of the millennium thanks to artists such as Miss Djax, Mike Dearborn, and Chris Liebing.

Combining the distorted and crusty sounds of hardcore and industrial with the funk and rhythm of techno, hard techno is a unique hybrid that, although on the surface is considerably more brutal than the genre from which it evolved, is also a lot funkier and groovier than hardcore and its offshoots. While the style has had diehard enthusiasts since its inception, the explosion of minimal in the mid-to-late 2000s and then tech house in the early 2010s saw hard techno’s popularity wane considerably. However, post-pandemic, it has truly returned in a big way.

That being said, much of the newer music being called “hard techno” is closer to hardstyle and hardcore than its namesake. Although it certainly has the aggressive distortion and punishing tempos of those genres, it lacks the all-important funk and groove of techno, often replacing it with the catchy vocals of Eurodance and abrasive synths of hardstyle.

With this in mind, Hot Track Time Machine is here to honor the artists and labels who have stayed true to the ethos and aesthetic of hard techno. Read on for a list of bangers you may not have heard from the earliest days of the genre’s inception to the contemporary tracks staying true to the sound.

1. Missing Channel – Whirlpool [Hardwax] (1992)

Although Detroit is typically associated with the more soulful, melodic side of techno, a number of key players in the city were also pioneers of its harder offshoot. In fact, “Whirlpool” by Missing Channel (comprised of Claude Young and Robert Hood) could lay claim to being one of the first-ever hard techno records with its swirling, sinister synth loop and chaotic, rugged drums.

2. Robert Armani – Ambulance Two (Bonzai Remix) [Music Man Records] (1994)

Artists from Chicago, a city with a rich history in house music, unsurprisingly leaned heavily on the funk when they started experimenting with hard techno. Robert Armani took the jacking, raucous attitude of early acid house and put it into overdrive, upping the tempo, distorting the drums, and using more aggressive synth sounds. This approach is especially evident on “Ambulance Two,” which gets an even more intense reworking on the “Bonzai” remix.

3. Mike Dearborn – Moments [Djax-Up-Beats] (1995)

You can’t talk about hard techno without acknowledging the vital role Djax-Up-Beats has played. The label originally released more traditional acid house sounds. As techno reached Europe and artists in countries such as Germany and the Netherlands infused it with the sounds of popular rave genres such as hardcore, Djax-Up-Beats took its place at the forefront of the movement. In turn, it influenced the American artists from which it took inspiration. While “Birds On E” was the big tune from Mike Dearborn‘s album Moments, the title track is an underappreciated gem which is a great example of the cross-pollination between U.S. and European vibes.

4. Tim Taylor and DJ Slip – Pleasure Unit [Missile Records] (1997)

Minneapolis became (and still is) a location where the harder, faster side of techno thrived, and artists such as DJ Slip played a big part in this with tracks like “Pleasure Unit.” His collaboration with Missile Records owner Tim Taylor is pure Midwest hard techno: gritty, distorted and funky, with inventive sound design and clever use of samples.

5. Magnum Force – .44 Calibre [Stay Up Forever] (1998)

Unsurprisingly, with how readily the U.K. embraced the acid sound, when hard techno started to proliferate throughout the country’s squat party community it was focused heavily around pushing that delightful silver box, the TB-303, to its absolute limits. London’s Stay Up Forever collective had plenty of hits, but “.44 Calibre” is a criminally underappreciated gem from the catalogue. D.A.V.E. The Drummer and D.D.R. layer acid on top of acid (on top of acid) in a relentless, driving melting pot of energy.

6. Pounding Grooves and Ignition Technician – Muthafucka [Fine Audio Recordings] (2000)

Pounding Grooves is one of those artists that delivers exactly what his name promises. “Muthafucka” combines his straightforward, thumping, heavily-compressed sound with Ignition Technician‘s playful, booty/ghetto-tech-inspired beats to excellent effect. The result is tastefully distorted, crunchy goodness.

7. The Anxious – Menace [Compound] (2001)

The early years of the new millennium saw a more percussive, densely layered style of hard techno emerge, with U.K. artists such as The Anxious (comprised of Mark EG and Chrissi) maintaining the freight train intensity of the genre while taking influence from the groovier, tribal techno sounds that were growing in popularity. The result was tracks like “Menace,” a hard-as-nails groove that feels like a guided tour through a psychedelic steel mill.

8. D.A.V.E. The Drummer vs. Blackout Audio – Hydraulix 16A [Hydraulix] (2002)

This one is all about the vocal. Blackout Audio (an alias of The Anxious) lay the foundation with thumping, heavily mechanized beats and a rolling bassline, with D.A.V.E. The Drummer adding gnarly percussive hits and metallic washes in between a looped vocal chock full of attitude. Professional ass whippin’!

9. Glenn Wilson – Sentinel [Heroes] (2002)

When it comes to U.K. techno icons, they don’t come much more prolific than Glenn Wilson. Released on one of his many record labels, “Sentinel” does not waste time with nonsense like gradual progression or subtlety. Instead, it begins with a distorted percussive rhythm and grungy bass line that does not let up even just once, adding additional layers of tense synths and chord stabs as it continues.

10. Andreas Kauffelt – Bassquake [PV] (2002)

“Bassquake” is one of those tracks that rewards a patient listener. Its first half is a simple (albeit effective) slamming loop comprised of tight percussion and an off-beat, bleepy synth sequence. But then comes the breakdown, and one the most obscene bass lines in electronic music history, which Andreas Kauffelt modulates and tweaks in increasingly wild ways when the drums kick back in.

10. Wyndell Long – Chicago MF [Pro-Jex] (2002)

Pro-Jex was at the forefront of the variant of hard techno which took influence from ghetto tech and booty, releasing anthemic bangers from the likes of DJ Funk, DJ Rush, and Frankie Bones. Although it may not have received the same kind of widespread success as tracks by those artists, “Chicago MF” is in a lot of ways a more pure representation of the Pro-Jex aesthetic. Wyndell Long loops an aggressive vocal refrain over thunderous, distorted drums and funky synth sequences, only briefly taking his foot off the gas for a short breakdown before it’s back to business.

11. Stigmata – Samael [Stigmata] (2003)

Taken from their final release before Stigmata (André Walter and Chris Liebing) went their separate ways, “Samael” is the pinnacle of the duo’s discography. The gritty, industrial aesthetic typical of German hard techno is evident, but it is blended with the rolling, percussive edge more commonly found in U.K. artist’s work. It’s an excellent bridge between two unique approaches to hard techno.

12. Guy McAffer – Hammond Chips [RAW] (2005)

Who said hard techno can’t be creative and take risks? Guy McAffer delivers a cheeky slammer that puts a heavily distorted, bouncy Hammond organ solo at the forefront, backing it up with a tough, rolling groove. It’s absolute silliness in the best way possible.

13. Miss Djax – Sick Of U (DJ Rush Remix) [Djax-Up-Beats] (2005)

When it comes to fast, jackin’ hard techno with a tongue-in-cheek attitude, they don’t come much better than DJ Rush. His remix of “Sick Of U” by Miss Djax pitches the original version’s vocal down several octaves, cutting it up and layering snippets of it over a bulldozer of a bass line and pounding drums with just the right amount of swing.

14. Robert Natus – To The Beat [Inflicted Records] (2008)

Schranz, a type of hard techno characterized by its even higher tempos, even greater amounts of distortion, and a minimalist, loop-based approach to arrangement, is one of those hyper-specific scenes that exploded in popularity, but also stagnated stylistically just as quickly. That being said, every now and then a track like “To The Beat” would come along, injecting something fresh and unique into its repetitive structure. Robert Natus throws a curveball with this track, waiting until nearly half way through an otherwise fairly standard schranz loop to add a funky, playful bass line and lots of clever drum edits.

15. Tik Tok and Brentus Maximus – Delusional [Corrosive Records] (2015)

The driving, euphoric acid sound pioneered by the Stay Up Forever crew lives on thanks to labels such as Corrosive Records. “Delusional” by Tik Tok and Brentus Maximus is a loving tribute to London squat party vibes with its multiple layers of overdriven TB-303 sequences and tight, steady drums.

16. Gunjack – Random Axis Jack (The Preacher Remix) [U.K. Executes] (2017)

Gunjack is the definition of an unsung hero. A hardware enthusiast who has been releasing high-quality music across various genres for over two decades, his steadfast adherence to the ethos of “I just make music that I like” is the main reason for his longevity. The Preacher‘s remix of “Random Axis Jack” combines the sort of sound design and synth work more often found in industrial techno with a quintessential hard techno drum groove.

17. ISN – Art Cannot Be Killed [SCHUBfaktor Music] (2018)

Italy’s ISN delivers some modern schranz that stands out from the pack. “Art Cannot Be Killed” incorporates a simple, but effective, synth loop and lots of breaks and edits to keep the rhythm from getting stale, which is the most common pitfall of the style.

18. 14anger and Dep Affect – Portable Persecutors [Call Of The Void] (2020)

One of the darkest, grimiest tracks of the last few years, “Portable Persecutors” proves there are still artists out there like 14anger and Dep Affect who are willing to push the creative boundaries of hard techno. While each of the individual sounds in the track aren’t necessarily new, combining them into a single track definitely is. This is a brilliant mix of rollicking drums more commonly associated with jacking house, a huge, growling bass line one would typically find in EBM or electro, and eerie chords reminiscent of the best darkwave tracks.

19. Unconformist – The Brain [Mätäsism] (2023)

It’s almost impossible to avoid the influence of old rave sounds in modern hard techno at the moment, and a lot of the time the references are quite stale and uninteresting (I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve heard that synth stab in completely unaltered form in the last year). That is absolutely not the case with “The Brain,” though. Unconformist takes elements of early hardcore and dark industrial, re-contextualizing them in a modern way to create a heavy, peak-time stomper that also has appeal beyond the hard techno realm.

20. Patrick DSP – Cutting In [Interruption Records] (2023)

Pounding, mechanical, percussive vibes live on! While a lot of contemporary hard techno artists are trying to outdo each other with who can make the most distorted pseudo-hardstyle, the likes of Patrick DSP are staying true to the genre’s ethos. “Cutting In” is a relentless, sinister roller that never lets up, adding layers upon layers of rugged percussion as it progresses to create a thick, tightly packed rhythm joined by creepy atmospherics and metallic synth stabs.

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