For a certain segment of the population, those of us who really got serious about techno anywhere between 2003 and 2006, there will quite possibly never be a figure who sits on a higher pedestal than Ricardo Villalobos. Nevermind the legends of Ricardo the party figure playing marathon sets at ungodly hours — Ricardo the producer won over legions of acolytes with his twin albums Alcachofa and Thé au Harem d’Archimède, his various Perlon, Cadenza, and Playhouse singles in the interim, and truly legendary remixes of Beck, Depeche Mode, and Shackleton. After the “Blood On My Hands” remix the story veers off on numerous tangents: Fabric 36, “Enfants,” the botched Vasco release; all keeping Ricardo in the techno headlines, but for the most part marking a watered down version of the strange, lanky figure we had come to know (as much as Ricardo can be “known”) and love. And as classic house, UK bass music, and Berghain techno stormed in, it’s hard to say if Ricardo disappeared or if we averted our gaze, content in the fact that minimal was dead, and forgetting that Ricardo’s brightest moments were never mnml.
Of course, it’s not like Villalobos made very much of interest in the intervening years. His releases (save for his projects with muse to the techno giants Max Loderbauer) were largely uninspired, from whatever was going on on Sei Es Drum through the “is it a joke or not?” Café Del Mar remix. Even the precursor to this album left myself and others cold, wondering if Ricardo had lost himself in those famous monitors of his, digging deeper and deeper into levels of sonic detail that most of us either just can’t hear or don’t really care to. Yet only a couple months after that disappointing Perlon effort arrives his new quintuple vinyl pack album Dependent And Happy, his best work since Thé au Harem d’Archimède, and the kind of album that Ricardo lovers like myself have long been waiting for. That album, a labyrinthine effort coming in at about an hour and a half, was a kind of statement of intent supporting long, minimalist, tripping grooves that subsequent releases (the 35-minute “Fizheuer Zieheuer”) matched on the surface, but that musically were not quite as compelling.
Dependent And Happy clocks in at just over the two-hour mark but covers a lot more territory than Thé au Harem d’Archimède did. Split into three parts, you could broadly categorize each part as a release in and of itself, but taken together it’s a much more potent bunch. “Tu Actitud” starts things off with bleary-eyed mumble singing, and phases a colorful bass line in and out of focus, unhurried and far from playing anything too straight. “Timemorf” is not the most compelling 10 minutes Ricardo has ever made but it does its job well, offering a bit of a breather and reminding that this is a record doing things on its own time. Max Loderbauer lends some production to the gritty “Grumax,” and then things really get cracking with the killer tablas and absurd counting of “I’m Counting,” one of the album’s indisputable highlights. It’s precisely here where it dawns on you that Ricardo hasn’t sounded this on-point in quite some time — indeed, when was the last Ricardo record that you heard that you couldn’t wait to hear on the dance floor? “Das Leben Ist So Anders Ohne Dich” rides out pretty, bubbling synth tones and odd, squashed semi-percussive elements, while “Mochnochich” ties up the first vinyl set with a wonderful, subtle, tension-laden groove.
“Zuipox” is the longest thing here, and its weirdo bird sounds and descending tones make it a nice Villalobos cut, but it, like follow-up track “Kehaus,” are the rare moments in the album where it seems like he could have done a bit more editing. Long, drawn-out tracks are where Villalobos excels, and Dependent And Happy has plenty of really great ones, but the couple tracks that do feel one or two minutes overlong bring the album down just a tad. With “Die Schwarze Massai,” however, we launch into an incredible run of Ricardo at his very finest, and sides E through J (effectively) contain some of the best music he’s ever done. “Die Schwarze Massai” again sees Loderbauer contribute for a short, at times abrasive, cut of shifting rhythms and impeccable modular tones. “Put Your Lips” features Andrew Gillings, who some will remember (either fondly or otherwise) from Fabric 36‘s “Andruic.” This has none of the odd rambling of “Andruic” and is instead another album highlight: a taut exercise in Villalobos’ famously bone-dry rhythms with hypnotizing vocal mantras. Loderbauer also features on “Samma,” whose stuttering piano jabs and drawn out swells of melodic tones make for one of the most sublime cuts Villalobos has ever created.
“Ferenc” is another shorter track that sees off part two on a darker note, and then it’s on to part three, with two tracks “Defixia” and “Koito” making up Dependent And Happy‘s final movement. “Defixia” sounds like Ricardo’s take on “New For U” — swelling, emotive strings that get caught up in his spider-web rhythms and non-linear timing. It changes almost imperceptibly over its 13 minutes and doesn’t need to, as it’s a sunny, bright turn from an artist who very rarely wears his emotions on his sleeve; in fact, it’s perhaps his most emotion-filled cut since “Dexter.” Uwe Schmidt hops on board as Atom Heart for “Koito,” which dives back into darker territory and sees the album out in slow motion.
The release of Dependent And Happy in multiple, staggered parts might seem a concession to those who would rather not drop $60 and instead just grab the record with their favorite track on it, but I think there’s much more there. Like another behemoth multi-album this year (Demdike Stare’s Elemental), this is such a sprawling and dense piece of work that getting familiar with editions as they arrive keeps it from being overwhelming, and ensures subsequent parts are even more eagerly anticipated. But I think Villalobos is also inviting us to play with his music — for DJs to grab these records and mix them up with each other themselves. A forthcoming mixed CD version is on its way, but given his insistence in interviews on the playful aspects of music, I can only assume he wants us to play with his music how we see fit. These are grooves you can really get lost in, and when they rub shoulders with each other (especially if it’s the individual choosing how they rub shoulders) there’s a sense of focus and playfulness that is, I think, truly at the crux of Villalobos’ music. However, even just listening through front to back, it’s an absorbing experience and is the kind of long-winded, multifaceted piece of work he’s long been capable of but never quite accomplished so conclusively. Dependent And Happy is a big release, in terms of hype and scale, but it’s an even bigger release for Ricardo Villalobos the artist: a statement and a confirmation that he’s one of dance music’s most peculiar and vital voices. And after a couple of years seemingly lost in both after-after parties and his own studio, it’s a joy to see that Ricardo is finally playing with us again.