Album Review: Sandwell District – Fabric 69

[Fabric; 2013]

Like Jay-Z or Michael Jordan, the dudes comprising Sandwell District have retired several times now. Back in 2011, they informed the world that “regular audio communications” were to immediately “cease.” Then in February of this year, they let us know that “Sandwell District is dead.” Shortly thereafter, it was announced that the murky collective/label/brand/cult had produced a mix for London’s venerable techno institution known as Fabric, whose monthly series has been on a hot streak lately with impressive releases from the likes of Levon Vincent and Thomas Franzmann.

So we’ve been getting mixed messages. But it’s fitting that Sandwell District–loosely guided by London’s Karl O’Connor (aka Regis) and Pete Sutton (aka Female), Berlin-by-way-of-New-York’s Dave Sumner (aka Function), and California’s John Mendez (aka Silent Servant)–would release spooky, enigmatic press releases citing an uncertain future, since that’s a great way to describe the collective’s musical output: spooky, enigmatic techno with dashes of industrial, minimal, and ambient influences. Along with Hospital Productions (based in Manhattan’s East Village) and Manchester’s Modern Love (run by Demdike Stare and responsible for putting out Andy Stott’s much-loved string of slo-mo missives), Sandwell District has focused on making music seemingly meant for only the muddiest and muckiest of dance floors, seeking to scare the hell out of listeners while viscerally compelling them to dance.

Though their past releases, in particular 2010’s seminal Feed-Forward LP, have accomplished this mission in spades, it’s this Fabric mix that feels like the best encapsulation of their aesthetic to date. Thirty tracks and seventy-five minutes, Fabric 69 is a work of incredibly sturdy sonic architecture; it’s hardly inert or monotonous, yet at the same time it takes techno’s notion of repetition to what might be considered a logical extreme. The first third of the mix, which features cuts from Vatican Shadow and Raime in addition to the Sandwell crew, simply flies by, all atonal dark ambiance and almost malevolent rhythms. Towards the middle of the record, the transition from Carl Craig’s “Darkness” to Markus Suckut’s “Hunt” is similarly disquieting, as Craig’s grey cloud of sound gives way to a sudden and decisive four-to-the-floor kick drum beat flanked by rattling FX and ominous atonal drones. By the time we reach Samuel Kerridge’s “Waiting For Love Part 1,” the drum has dropped off but the drone has only grown louder. Another beat comes to take the kick drum’s place, but this time it’s a clanking tribal rhythm that appears to rise toward some strobe-lit crescendo only to be shoved back underground by the introduction of bass producer Untold’s “Motion The Dance,” which has the distinction of featuring perhaps the creepiest use of electric piano I’ve ever heard. The juxtaposition between that instrument’s soft, plastic tones and the shadowy, thundering beat that towers over it make for an especially anxious moment on a record chock full of ’em.

All of it, all 75 minutes’ worth of these junkyard floor-fillers, follows a singular narrative arc: the beat as catharsis, a sturdy anchor in a sea of choppy, damaged miasma that probably owes as much to the early industrial maneuvers of the likes of Throbbing Gristle as it does to the minimal electronic noise experiments of Finland’s Sähkö Recordings. Even a surefire crowd-pleaser like Laurent Garnier takes on a sinister edge here; his “At Night” comes towards the end of this mix, and it’s a hard-hitting late highlight, throwing Soviet-spy-movie chord changes behind all manner of percussion (drums and shakers, claps and blips).

And that’s what’s so great about Fabric 69–the way that it looks outside the Sandwell fold and incorporates other artists’ music into its sonic philosophy without ever forcing a juxtaposition. Which is to say: Carl Craig, Plastikman, and Marc Ernestus certainly aren’t “Sandwell artists,” yet their cuts–the Detroit rumblings of Craig, Plastikman’s enthralling acid–blend effortlessly with the Silent Servant, Raime, and Surgeon tracks. That’s a testament to the Sandwell guys’ talents as editors, producers, and DJs, but it also points to their broad knowledge of techno’s multifaceted history and incarnations. Not only does this mix make moments like the bone-rattling house of Trevino’s “Uptight” sound all the more satisfying in the broader (and darker) context of the overall track listing; more importantly, it also makes me want to dive into Sandwell District’s personal record collection.

I don’t have to imagine what kinds of blood-curdling, limb-thrashing treats are hiding in what I imagine to be stark metal cages packed with limited-edition vinyl pressings and jagged-edged USB sticks of remix material. Fabric 69 grants us a peek into their artistic M.O., and even if we can’t make out that much in the penumbrae, what we do see is tantalizing: fleeting, darting figures cloaked by darkness, leaving behind small puddles of blood and sparkling shadows and tiny clouds of dust. These beats have left a visceral impression on me; these sounds have fogged up my consciousness. Remember the first time Kyle MacLachlan sees Dennis Hopper abuse Isabella Rossellini in Blue Velvet? This Fabric mix is like that; I couldn’t look away even if I wanted to. And I don’t want to. I got 99 problems, but a pounding techno-industrial mix ain’t one.