The El Rey
The word “bass” means many things to fans of electronic music. These days, it tends to connote either the outer reaches of Low End Theory's experimental scene or the wobbling, whipsawing drops of Skrillex-style dubstep. It's a blunt instrument, not a tool of seduction.
So there was something almost quaint about the way singer Earl Zinger introduced Tosca, the Viennese duo of Rupert Huber and Richard Dorfmeister, as “the original bass scientists.” Tosca play the seductive kind of bass music that was popular nearly two decades ago, at the height of the so-called “downtempo” scene that made Dorfmeister – along with his DJ partner Peter Kruder – an unlikely star of electronica (said in a Jason Bentley croon, lingering over the “l”).
Smoothing off the rough edges of dub and trip-hop, Kruder, Dorfmeister and their contemporaries created a sophisticated new style of bass-and-beats music. A victim of its own popularity, their dubby brand of downtempo has since become such a familiar wine bar soundtrack that it's hard to remember how innovative it was back in 1996.
See also: A gallery of the show
Kruder and Dorfmeister have rarely collaborated since their heyday, but Dorfmeister's main gig Tosca has survived and even thrived, thanks less to any continued innovation (their music is still firmly rooted in the chilled-out vibes of the late '90s lounge scene) than to their impeccable production chops and an increasing willingness to push the tempo. At the El Rey, Tosca split their 90-minute set pretty evenly between the loungier corners of their six-album catalog and tracks that got the crowd moving.
The set began quietly, with sparse piano and birdsongs, before that trademark luscious bass finally dropped and the duo launched into a medley of early tracks, starting with their mid-'90s classic “Chocolate Elvis” and culminating in the samba beats and swooping bass of “Oscar” from 2003's Dehli 9. Wearing matching fedoras and nodding along sagaciously behind their laptops, Dorfmeister and Huber didn't look like scientists, exactly – but they did project the aura of elder statesmen, presiding over the festivities but never quite deigning to get deep down and dirty with the rest of us.
Did you catch my Stereo MCs reference? Joining vocalist and frequent Tosca collaborator Earl Zinger on the mic was former Stereo MCs singer Cath Coffey, a sexy and soulful foil to Zinger's geeky stage presence (geeky yet nattily attired, in tailored suit and fedora, apparently the official headgear of European downtempo acts). Together the two of them prowled the stage and kept the energy level high, even when the BPM ebbed.
The moody Dehli 9 track “Me and Yoko Ono” served as a kind of interlude before a five-song finale that was downright rousing by downtempo standards. They began this final phase of the show with “Damentag” and “Gute Laune,” classic Tosca tracks that might be called “stealth house” for the way they slip danceable tempos into arrangements so smooth you almost don't notice you're dancing to them. But there was nothing stealthy about their closing tracks, which were mostly from a brand-new album to be released later this year. “Don't stop the bass, just drop the bass, unlock the bass,” Zinger sang over a throbbing bassline that was closer to a blunt instrument than anything else in the Tosca catalog. Maybe the original bass scientists still have a few new tricks in their lab, after all.
The crowd: Fortysomethings dressed like well-heeled twentysomethings.
Random notebook dump: The dude next to me who keeps yelling “Bravo!” after every song might be at the wrong kind of Tosca performance.
See also: A gallery of the show