Marco Carola's Miraculous Years
On the rise and fall of the late 90s' most consistent techno producer
For a brief period in the late 90s, Marco Carola was the most consistent techno producer on the planet. In a 1998 Interview, Jeff Mills mentions almost always having a Marco Carola record in his DJ bag. Richie Hawtin was also a fan, as was Robert Hood and just about every other big DJ at the time. Back then, consistency was key. When on the road for extended periods of time with the same bag of records, you didn't want to pack a record with one amazing track and three duds. You wanted something with three or four consistently playable tracks. And that was why all the DJs out there were thankful there was a guy from Italy called Marco Carola, who was so consistent that you could always buy and pack his latest 12" blind.
If you are versed in the history of dance music, you already know there's a punchline here. Probably more than any other DJ or producer, Carola's name has long been synonymous with that guy who fell off hard, to the point of almost being a kind of record store proto-meme. That said, Carola is obviously far from the only producer of his generation that fell off. That he is the one that has become known for falling off is testament to just how impeccable his late 90s run was — the higher they rise, the harder they fall.
I suppose it's a good idea to start with a brief overview of the man's career. He's from Naples, Italy and starts DJing in the early 90s and soon also gets into production. His first two records come out in 1995, when he is just twenty years old. What's most notable about them is really how bad they are — just total landfill hard trance. Many people will never recover from that kind of mediocrity. Not Carola. Just a mere year later, he starts putting out some pretty respectable techno with his One Thousand project and Design Music label.
The latter was instrumental to the formation of what became known as the "Neapolis Sound". Together with fellow local producers Gaeto Parisiano, Markantonio, Danilo Vigorito, Davide Squillace and Rino Cerrone, Carola put Italy, historically mostly known for disco and house, on the map of European techno. Over the course of the next two years he really finds his groove and moves to Frankfurt (at the time the home of Sven Väth's infamous Omen club and the Neuton/ELP distribution) and starts the Question series that really forms the core of his late 90s run.
Carola's fall is just as quick as his ascent. 2000 is really the last year he's on top of his game. By 2002, he's clearly run out of mojo and inspiration, almost as if he had already said everything he had to say. In 2004, he makes a stark stylistic shift from his trademark techno sound towards slower mid-2000s mnml techno. To be clear, the problem here isn't the change in style, it's that everything he's made after that shift is just bad. I can't seem to find a single good Carola track made after 2003. Then, after a handful more mnml records, he stops releasing music entirely in 2011, suggesting his heart just wasn't in producing anymore.
Today, Carola is still active as a DJ and hosts big parties in Ibiza and so on. But even there it feels like you're listening to someone that's just given up. Out of sheer curiosity, I pulled up a set from 2023. It's about what I expected, by-the-numbers mid-tempo tech house. It's not bad to the point of being offensive, but so lifeless and anemic that it feels like the dance music version of a minimum-viable-product — it will keep a floor decently full for a night, but that's about it.
This whole career arc raises the obvious question: How do you go from making landfill hard trance to becoming the most consistent techno producer on the planet a mere three years later, only to then completely fall off just as quickly? I still don't really know, but that is also why Carola keeps being an intriguing figure to me.
If there's one thing that Carola and his fellow Neapolitans really brought to techno, it's sex — not in the raw and energetic way in which classic Chicago house is sex, but in a more polished and suave, half-buttoned-down-shirt fashion. Something that strikes me about Carola's tracks to this day is just how effortlessly stylish and seductive they sound. Compared to most techno of the time, they are quite light in their construction. There are no thundering kicks or walls of distortion or bursts of noise. Instead, there's a strong sense of elegance, a kind of acrobatics centered around elastic basslines, swirling percussion loops, weaving sequences, agile chord stabs and a masterful use of call and response patterns.
The sound of Carola's prime is a product of its time: the late 90s, a transitional period for techno and dance music as a whole. While computers were still mostly relegated to being mere MIDI-sequencers, the basic genre blueprints of electronic dance music had already been mostly laid out. As a result, production techniques become considerably more refined compared to the often simplistic production of the early 90s.
Listening to Carola with knowledge of the period, it is pretty obvious what records he is responding to. Above all, there is of course the looming influence of Jeff Mills’ Purpose Maker project. 1996's PM-001 might be the most influential techno 12" in history, a seismic stylistic shift that would come to define the sound of techno for the better part of a decade.
While earlier techno had almost exclusively relied on the rather small sound palette of the classic Roland XoX machines, Purpose Maker kicked off a collective obsession with sampled acoustic percussion loops. This development was aided by the fact that samplers became significantly more affordable over the first half the 90s, going from expensive cutting edge technology to a relatively affordable mass market product. Like many "second generation" producers, Carola's first piece of studio gear was a sampler, something that was almost unthinkable even a few years earlier.
While the Roland TR-series kept being in heavy use, thanks to the prevalence of samplers, it was now accompanied by a myriad of new percussion and drum sounds, ripped and sampled from anything producers could get their hands on. The presence of these sounds in turn shifted the whole aesthetic of techno to something sleeker and funkier. This set the stage for Carola's hour, because above all, he is really good at programming those percussion loops and making them effortlessly funky.
As for other influences, even just a quick look at the tracklist of this early Carola set from 1996 lays bare quite a few of them: from the labyrinthine sequencer programming of Robert Hood's Moveable Parts series, to the loopy hypnosis of London's Steve Bicknell and Steve O'Sullivan, to the dubby swing of Vienna's Memory Foundation, to the brute funk of Sweden's early Drumcode — Carola took in all of these influences and created something so quintessentially techno that no one could afford not to play it.
The more I think about Marco Carola, the more it seems to me that one of the most interesting things about him is really how uninteresting he is, as a person. After a three-decade career, Google only spits out a small handful of short and rather uninsightful interviews. Marco Carola is not a man of words. Even his music is pretty light on any kind of explicit conceptualization — it's techno dedicated to techno, for techno's sake.
Perhaps it makes more sense to think of "Marco Carola" not as a person — or even an "artist" — but as the common handwriting of a few dozen twelve inches. There's a strong unifying language, a style to all of these records. And yet, every track has these little details and touches that make it singular. Carola's tracks move, shake, jump and slide all over the place, serving the functionalist techno framework that they exist in, but also going beyond it, an excess of functionalism.
While Carola's records have influenced generations of DJs and producers, their reach has almost entirely remained within the confines of the scene's oral lore. It certainly doesn't help that these records have never been properly released digitally — they're not on Spotify or Bandcamp or Beatport, or anywhere else for that matter. Aside from listening to sketchy YouTube rips, the only option is to buy and rip them yourself. Even the possibility of future reissues seems unlikely, since there's no money and little scene cred in reissuing this kind of 90s techno and even Carola himself doesn’t seem particularly interested in that period of his career.
This is music that exists outside of the algorithmic vortex that dominates so much of contemporary musical life. A deep love — you could also call it obsession — for techno is the only reason why anyone would be listening to twenty-five year old Marco Carola records in 2024. So let's do just that! I have selected eleven of my favorite Carola tracks from 1997 to 1999 below, along with some commentary for each track. I've been listening to a lot of these for well over a decade without ever having written down any thoughts on them, so I think this will be fun!
“Over Powered” (1997)
Just the kick on this is better than some people's entire records: a smoldering husk of burnt plastic that still hits with a certain elegance. Under it, a burrowing bassline moving forward in little, distinct pushes. On top, a metallic offbeat hi-hat and puffy 16th hats. So far so good. Then comes the sequence, asserting itself across the track, as it weaves and revolves, filtered and EQ'd and reflected onto the outer edges of the stereo field by spacious stereo delay taps. Around the four to five minute mark, things reach a fever pitch. The sequence is brought to its morphological breaking point; large and girthy one second, then thin and resonant the next, continuously shifting between new shapes and textures.
You've got to love these techno one word titles, especially when they fit the music so perfectly. Isn't this just a very bubbly sounding track? The sequence here is very techno, but also a bit cutesy with its rubbery timbre, slyly encompassing multiple layers of rhythm just within itself, a whole landscape of foam and bubbles. The hi-hats have a cool, slightly syncopated groove, while the earthy 16th bassline's constant blubbering makes the whole track feel like it’s sitting on a tectonic plate that is constantly moving and shaking.
This track is all about the sequence; this sequence that is this worming, shifting, phasing, glowing and luminescent thing that is sputtering all over the track, always changing and never the same, bursting at the seams due to its own excess, getting pulled and torn and stretched to the point of almost ripping, burning bright up and down the spectrum, with no goal in sight except to keeping moving, always moving, forwards.
“Fokus 09” (1998)
A rare breakbeat track from Carola on the great Zenit label run by Carola and Corrado Izzo of Gadgets. I've always loved the breaksy, swung syncopated rhythm on this. There's a slightly angular and chaotic tom bassline, skittish 909 hats and a clap-snare-thingy with some great reverb on it. The slowly opening, string-ish filter envelope on the resonant chord figure plays call and response with a shorter, noisy stab motif. Kick, clap, kick clap, one two, one two, you've got the basic rhythm down. Now dance the hats, and the rides, start swirling all over, land on the tom and do it again.
“1st Question A1” (1998)
There’s a whole party going on here: a wobbly bassline that makes you feel like you're playing one of those dodge-objects-while-moving mobile games. Chords dancing tango with 909 rides and noisy percussion loops. Suddenly, a second chord sneaks in as it is being manually pulled up on the mixer. Gradually, its filter opens up, in turn lightning up the whole background with thick mono reverb and glistening upper harmonics. Shortly before the finish line, it is pulled down, and that’s that, the track's done.
“Dual B1” (1998)
This opens so effortlessly, everything is just fully rolling, no need for any intro or buildup. From the get go, the offbeat 909 hat's chipping away at the front of the mix, slicing and dicing, opening up a path for the polyrhythmic sequence that is carrying all these interwoven parts within itself. The top notes form a nervous slapback motion, while the middle accentuates the gaps in between, and the low notes create a forward-pulling bassline. Already, there's nothing else you really need. The following 16th rides are pure excess, but what beautiful excess: noisy and saturated and big, almost taking over and crashing down the whole thing. Just bring them in and out, always tethering at the edge of annihilation, and you have a drama.
“2nd Question A1” (1998)
To this day, one of the funkiest tracks ever made. If your legs aren't already whipping, I'm afraid I can't help. The Purpose Maker influence looms large here, because this sounds like something straight of a South American carnival. From the get go, there's a whole parade here, everyone moving and shaking like there's no tomorrow. I can't even tell if the lead is sampled or synthesized, but who cares — what's more important is that absolutely lethal call and response pattern, the irresistible play of the 1-1-2, in and out, in and out; a grand big orgy, supported by an entire orchestra of flurry, swirling percussion. And then the rides come in, and the claps come in, and there's no more holding back, the party is on and the groove is here and there is no stopping.
“2nd Question B2” (1998)
This track is so Carola — those cheeky, formant-ish chord pairs having a little dialogue over the sleazy, forward-lurching groove of the grinding bassline. The skittish hi-hat and clap are slightly shifted off the grid, creating a nice push-pull momentum. About a minute and a half in, there's a cool syncopated hi-hat pattern that almost trips up the whole groove. And then there's that phase-y thing, that lovely little phasing thing that is there from the beginning, but you almost don't notice it at first. But it is there, phasing up and down, and down and up again. An evergreen transitional track, always serving as a great way to trip up the vibe and go into a slightly weirder direction, perhaps.
“5th Question A2” (1999)
For some reason, this one always sounds so uplifting to me. There's that cute reverb-laden percussion thing in the background, the little tom bassline doing forward-rolls, some loose 909 programming and two pairs of chords. The first pair is moderately spaced and has almost no attack to it, sounding all soft and fluffy. But it leads into the second, which is much more staccato and has a quick, snappy filter envelope. Together, they are constantly forming new patterns of motion; widening up and narrowing down, again and again.
Carola and Drumcode founder Adam Beyer team up for a tribute to Frankfurt. A watercolor painting of a track, just building and building with those lush, noisy watery chords, swirling and revolving like they're in a washing machine, foaming and splashing all over; supported by a dry, wooden kick, a ghostly pulsating bassline and a syncopated hi-hat. Soon, all hands are on deck, on the mixer, layers are being pulled up and down, EQ's are tweaked dubwise and everything is ready for the climax, a climax that never comes but also never ends.
“5th Question B1” (1999)
I saved this one for last, because what a track. A beautiful, grandiose slammer of a Maurizio homage with gigantic reverb-rumble lowend that is sounding like a mountain range extending from the highest peaks to the deepest depths below, its far peaks accentuated by a ghostly reverberant clap and slicing open hats. Echoing across the range are chord stabs so icy that you can almost hear them melt on the record; slowly heating up and thawing towards the end of the filter envelope, liquefying and flowing down into the depths of the background, towards silence. Floating around the chords are gaseous clouds of mono reverse reverb that sound like thick swathes of clouds drifting across the range. Just listen to those reverb swells from about 4:20 onwards — it's all there, everything that techno is and can be, that infinite yearning for the next step towards the open sky above the peaks.