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Helena Hauff - Kern Vol. 5 Music Album Reviews

In a mix for Berlin nightclub Tresor’s mix series, the Hamburg DJ doles out more than two hours of industrial-tinged techno and electro, all delivered with her typically punishing panache.

Kern Vol. 5 is not a subtle record. That’s not Helena Hauff’s style. The German DJ didn’t earn her accolades by playing it safe. True to her roots—Hauff got her start as a resident at Hamburg’s grungy (and much loved) Golden Pudel Club—she prefers to smash things up, usually with a blistering mix of hard-edged electro, industrial, techno, acid, and post-punk that’s light on nuance, heavy on distortion, and devastatingly effective on the dancefloor.

As a producer, Hauff has distilled her bleak vision into numerous cassettes, EPs, and a couple of albums, the most recent being 2018’s Qualm, on Ninja Tune. Yet it’s in the DJ booth that she truly thrives, cutting an imposing, often leather-clad figure while holding court with a box of scuzzy vinyl, a take-no-bullshit attitude, and a cigarette permanently jutting out the side of her mouth. Over the past decade, she’s dropped plenty of mixes online, but Kern Vol. 5 is the first time she’s linked up with vaunted Berlin techno institution Tresor, whose Kern series has previously featured iconoclasts like DJ Hell, Objekt, and DJ Stingray.

Though Kern Vol. 5 clocks in at 132 minutes, the mix comes barreling out of the gate and screams along at 150 bpm for the next two hours. It’s an intense (and occasionally punishing) listen, although Hauff explained in a recent interview with The Face that the long runtime was due in part to the logistical challenges of life as an all-vinyl DJ: “I had to get the [unreleased] tracks pressed onto dubplates—but then I realised that I’d picked a lot of mad tracks that are really difficult to mix, so it ended up being really, really long.”

Hauff is known as a digger, with an ear for corroded machine rhythms that rivals that of celebrated reissue outposts like Dark Entries, Minimal Wave, and Mannequin, and Kern Vol. 5 is populated with obscure gems like “City of Boom,” a dynamic 2004 cut from Detroit duo DJ Godfather & DJ Starski, and “Intellectual Killer,” a snarling bit of nosebleed-inducing gabber from Australian outfit Nasenbluten—their name, in fact, is German for “nosebleed”—that samples ’90s horrorcore rap trio Gravediggaz and contains the colorful lyric, “Roping up the devils/Have ’em hanging from my testicles.” The mix’s dominant sound, however, is electro, and though Hauff pulls more or less equally from new and old tunes, she tends to favor an industrial-tinged variant of the genre that relies heavily on gnarled synths, viciously snapping syncopations, and a sci-fi sound palette.

Like most mix compilations, Kern Vol. 5 features a handful of exclusive tracks—all of which appear as part of a triple-vinyl package that also includes select cuts from the mix—including the nightmarish “Segment 3,” which Hauff cooked up herself alongside Greek artist Morah. Arriving in the set’s relentless middle section, it has all the warmth of a threshing machine, but it’s only a few songs later that Hauff begins to lighten things up. The tempo stays high, but she gradually swaps out industrial crunch for cosmic swirl—think Creme Organization instead of Bunker Records—and hits a high note with the pairing of “Starless Night,” a soaring exclusive from veteran French producer Umwelt, and “Pinwheel,” an acid-licked epic from Shinra.

Despite the mix’s (slightly) more melodic turn in the closing 40 minutes, Kern Vol. 5 isn’t for the faint of heart; it’s definitely not a soothing quarantine companion. Hauff has always been the sort of DJ who’s more likely to deliver a kick to the ribs than a pat on the head, and she’s stuck to her rowdy impulses here. Running her gauntlet isn’t easy, but it is invigorating, and with clubs and festivals on indefinite pause around the globe, Kern Vol. 5 is a welcome reminder of just how thrilling a good battering on the dancefloor can be.
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