For a collective whose productions defined the tone of post-minimal techno, a mix CD seems like an inauspicious end. Then again, Sandwell District was never given to following convention. In part, they rose to prominence because they didn’t play the live tweeting, photo-sharing game that techno has succumbed to, something that they observed when they called time on the label via a blog post on the fascinating Where Next? tumblr site. Of course, Sandwell District would have meant nothing were it not for their music and the sum of the production talent that Regis, Function and Silent Servant brought to the collective.
It’s been a long time coming, but Function is finally about to release his debut artist album. One of the founding members of Sandwell District, Brooklyn-raised and Berlin-based Dave Sumner has maintained a low-profile since the seminal label/collective closed at the start of 2012. Over the past year, Sandwell’s other key artists Silent Servant and Regis have been busy; the former releasing his debut artist album, the latter curating and starring in a post-punk compilation and expanding the Downwards label into the US.
It’s been twenty years since the Black Dog released its first record, and in that space of time their fans have been through more line-up and style changes than a US R&B act. From breakbeat rave through poly-rhythmic ‘intelligent techno’ - this writer’s favourite incarnation, it must be said - through their film soundtrack, ambient and industrial stylings, tBD have covered a wide range of ground, enchanting, sometimes baffling, but always demanding our attention.
What is most striking is that apart from Luke Slater, they are the only act from the UK’s golden age of techno that still sound relevant, something they have achieved by not standing still for too long. The Liber series revealed their love of 80s industrial, but it also showcased Italo, moody electro and techno without breaking a sweat. Now tracks from the series get the remix treatment from some of contemporary electronic music’s most vital names. Sandwell District’s take on “Dissident Bleep” is everything one would expect from the revered techno act, a tunneling, hypnotic groove, while newcomer Sigha’s take on “High Rise Choir Reprise” opts for a diametrically opposed sound, the textures stripped away, replaced by a stuttering, plate-metal rhythm.
Shifted and Perc also impress; the former’s take on “Heavy Industry” sees a gushing filter wash over the Dog’s bleepy techno and the latter turns “Bass Mantra” into a pounding, sheet metal rhythmic assault. It’s not all functional, streamlined techno however, and, like the Black Dog themselves, a large part of this remix package’s charms comes from unexpected moments like Richard H Kirk’s shimmying, sax-infused take on “Greedy Gutter Guru” and the muttered vocals and murderous sub-bass of Blawan’s version of “Black Chamber Order”. Here’s to 20 more years.
Sandwell District and Aril Brikha are among the most respected producers in their respective fields of techno, but it’s not hard to believe that they felt some sense of trepidation when they were asked to remix Octave One, or that they approached the task at hand with caution. The adage ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’, probably flickered through their minds on occasion and if it did, it was with good reason. Octave One aka brothers Lenny and Lawrence Burden – their other male siblings, Lance, Lorne and Lynell, also make occasional appearances - were among the first Detroit techno acts to make their name outside their hometown, and it is the act’s breakout track, “I Believe”, from 1990, which Sandwell District are tasked with reworking.
The original is a gloriously atmospheric house track imbued with an innocence that prevailed during that short period that marked the transition from otherworldly techno to the dark excesses of hardcore. Sandwell’s version is respectful; anchored in tight, shuffling beats, they add layer upon layer of atmospheric soundscapes making the vocal sound muffled, almost ghostly, but without detracting from the original’s sense of wonder. “Daystar Rising” is taken from perhaps the pinnacle of Octave One’s career and was originally released as a split EP with Rolando and Mad Mike. Once again, the treatment is respectful and understated. Departing from his trademark deep techno sound, Brikha simply adds a tougher, acidic bass to the brothers’ rolling rhythms and makes the chords sound slightly more eerie. It’s a skilful edit with enough subtle changes to make a difference.
Those of you who missed out on the Sandwell District album, now sold out pretty much everywhere, have two options: cry into your pillow and pray for a repress, or enter this competition and put yourself in the running to see them in the flesh at Fabric on January 15.
Ticking all the boxes that will make fans of mystery-laden techno pant heavily – limited edition pressing, clear vinyl, no download release in sight, lovingly crafted artwork – the debut Sandwell District long player immediately enters the realm of collector’s item. The US-UK collective, comprised of Regis (Karl O’Connor), Function (Dave Sumner), Silent Servant (Juan Mendez) and Female (Peter Sutton), have hit a raw nerve with their dark, cerebral sound that has been cultivated by the meeting of some of the genre’s most singular minds.
The album’s nine tracks are split across four sides of 12 vinyl, with a further 7″ included alongside a booklet showcasing Sandwell District’s cultish, obscure collection of artwork and photographs, which anyone who has bought their vinyl, seen them live or read their Tumblr knows is as important to the label’s aesthetic as the music. The contents of the 7″ deserve special mention too – with one side opening with warped noises that point to the Industrial influences they wear on their sleeve, before collapsing into a strangely beautiful wave of ethereal synths. The other side maintains a spooky, almost orchestral air, with the final cinematic flourish utterly gorgeous.
The album proper opens with the three parts of “Immolare”, with a robust techno throb sandwiched by an intro/outro of atmospheric synth rhythms and barely-there vocals. The main body is dominated by a particularly abrasive sonic hook, which takes you through the darkest of tunnels before re-emerging into the light once the beat drops out and the gentle synths return to the fore. Things toughen up on the flip, with “Grey Cut Out” dropping straight into a demented broken beat, before we arrive at “Hunting Lodge”, which is hallmarked by an almighty kickdrum and a slithering pit of analogue swirls which give the track a decidedly rough, grubby edge. It’s dark, yes, but inherently danceable.
“Falling The Same Way” offers the LP’s most emotive moment, with abrasion swapped for warmth – gentle snare hits, occasional bleeps and another delicious analogue melody provide the rhythmic foundation. The space between the instrumentation is filled by a wonderfully affecting field sample, not dissimilar to the sound of rain falling on a tin roof. “Svar” sees the appearance of the subaqueous sonar bleeps that have characterised the Sandwell District sound, with yet more interesting percussion. “Double Day” and “Speed + Sound (Endless)” round off the final side of the second 12″, with the former sounding like a drugged out, pitched down Chicago house track drowned in a bath of techno atmospherics, while the latter brings the LP to a suitably melancholic close.
Reality Or Nothing is the surreptitious (and now defunct) side project of UK techno dons Regis (Karl O’Connor) and Female (Peter Sutton). The duo slyly released their material through Chicago’s mysterious Housewerk Records in the late 90s, and here a piece of previously unreleased material sees the light of day, both in its original form and remixed by the current Sandwell District stable. Sprawled across the A Side here is a fantastic stepping reshape of “Reality Or Nothing” by Female, whilst the opening B-Side cut is a remix of “Kalon 08” by the Sandwell District collective, which boasts wonderfully raw drum pads that shift in and out of focus as the track progresses. The 1998 original version of the title track is included for good measure, and arguably still stands as the best of the lot – it’s moody and tough as hell, with a soft analogue crunch chugging along beneath the distinctive bleeps so loved by the Sandwell stable.
The second 12” comes replete with three new remixes of the title track, plus a demo version of the original which is steeped in melodic atmospherics. Function, CH-Signal and Silent Servant all chip in with remixes in what serves as a must-have for Sandwell District completists – the Function version in particular brings the big room vibe to the table. The Silent Servant remix is probably the most hypnotic, with frantic ping-pong percussion sitting alongside a mildly thunderous looped kick drum. These 12”s have been released at an opportune time, and serve as a mouth whetting appetiser for the debut Sandwell album, due to hit the shelves this month.
Here lies the second and final sampler from the Sandwell District collective ahead of an album slated for some time soon (sorry the very nature of mysterious techno labels means we can’t be any clearer than that). This 12” – which looks splendid in clear blue vinyl – kicks off with an untitled effort from Silent Servant aka Juan Mendez, who apart from being one of the label’s production stalwarts also takes care of the artwork. It’s fascinating, moody stuff, with a ghostly hiss hiding behind a relatively unobtrusive bassline, which allows the abrasive synth melody to come to the fore. The a-side then closes with a short, but richly textured ambient piece from Female (aka Peter Sutton).
Flip over and you’ll find another effort from Silent Servant, this time with a truly subterranean kick drum, frantic shuffling high-hats, radar bleeps and the odd spooky sweep. To close, Regis (known to the HMRC as Karl O’Connor) lends his hand to some Female steppy business. O’Connor’s recent output has shown a tendency to lean towards to more dubstep/techno crossover, a slight but noticeable departure from a history of purist techno output. And then it’s all over. Thankfully there’s more than enough meat on the bones of these two samplers to keep you occupied until the SD album finally drops. Still, here’s hoping we don’t have to wait too long.
The mysterious Sandwell District imprint has built a certain aura around their artists, thanks in no small part to their austere cover art, usually accompanied by a fax number as the only point of contact. Vitally important though, is the music itself, and a slew of releases from a small but tight knit crew (Function, Kalon, Silent Servant, Female, Regis) have been – without exception – utterly impeccable examples of deep, brooding techno.
Since then they’ve come out of their shell somewhat (or to be more accurate, the media have forced more attention on them), and the label run by Function (Dave Sumner), Female (Peter Sutton) and Regis (Karl O’Connor) is now one of the most revered in contemporary techno. Indeed, their appearance at this year’s Sonar festival will almost certainly be one of the highlights of the event, with those still standing come 5.30am on the final morning set to be well rewarded.
Here we are treated to the first of a two part sampler showcasing new material from Function, Regis and Silent Servant, ahead of full length albums slated for later in the year. Printed on clear vinyl, things kick off with a suitably menacing intro, followed by a Function track titled, in typically no-frills fashion, “Function”. Arpeggiated bleeps wash over long synth sweeps and a deep bassline, taking you on a 10 minute ride that’s tough and raw yet deliciously danceable. On the flip we are treated to a Regis edit of fellow label stalwart Silent Servant, which displays Regis’ new found dubstep sensibilities and a love affair with radar bleeps. The b-side ends with an uncredited, beatless growl that leaves you wondering what the second part of the sampler will bring, let alone the albums.
Review: Aaron Coultate
All the latest news, reviews and features from Juno Plus straight into your inbox