Reverse engineering Khan’s ‘Enlightenment Machine’

The German version of this article appears in the April 2014 issue of Siegessäule.

Can “Khan” Oral is an impressively multifaceted character with an accomplished resume: Born in Germany to Turkish and Finnish parents, he spent most of the 90s in New York City, releasing innumerable 12″s of often bizarre electronic music under various aliases and in collaborative projects. After getting signed to Matador Records for two albums of sexified, off-kilter pop, he relocated to Berlin early in the new millennium, remaining productive as ever—perhaps most famously as half the disco-house duo Captain Comatose.

That his new album, The Enlightenment Machine, manages to sound fresh two decades into his career is a surprise in itself. Then again, Khan seems to be driven by growth and expansion. In the seven years since his last full-length solo album, Khan kept busy co-producing a theater piece at Hebbel am Ufer, hosting the Smegma party at Berghain, working with the beatbox-blues ensemble Khan of Finland, collaborating with Brigitte Fontaine and exhibiting his visual art in international arenas. As for his latest musical output, Khan explains: “I didn’t want to fall into any of my own clichés, so if I was not 100% surprised by what I came up, with I deleted it all and started again.”

The end result isn’t easily classified, but it’s definitely more mature and less beat-driven than much of his past work. It’s subtle, but rough around the edges with chaos and noise. Take “No Soul” for example, in which a robotic voice sings atop the meandering cello of Julia Kent (of Antony and the Johnsons), and behind Khan’s whispers somebody shouts “shake your booty” repeatedly, all amidst the swirling synths and clattering wooden percussion. But your ears never once question these strange juxtapositions, just like your dreaming mind never questions that your mom looks like your sixth-grade math teacher as you fly together through the green sky. Fittingly, the inspiration of the album title is beatnik Brion Gysin’s “dreamachine”, a spinning, flickering light fixture meant to induce a hypnogogic trance in the viewer.

The cover artwork for The Enlightenment Machine depicts a 400,000€ Van Cleef & Arpels collar. “It is covered in diamonds, which might have come from outer space by some meteor that crashed into earth millions of years ago,” says Khan of his cosmic inspirations. “I imagine the audio waves of my music expanding into outer space and maybe turning some dust into diamonds on some other faraway planet! That might take millions of years, but I find it a very relaxing idea.” Indeed, despite the unpredictable aural universes Khan has created, the album maintains a certain peacefulness in which listeners can immerse themselves. “I think here we are back to the dreamachine idea. It takes time to relax, observe, hear and understand. We need to take that time to let ourselves grow.” Enlightening.

Khan - The Enlightenment Machine

The Enlightenment Machine is out April 4 via Albumlabel.

Khan performs June 8 at Volksbühne with Raz Ohara Ensemble and The Nest.