, March 4th, 2013 10:50
For nine years, the shadowy record label and international collective Sandwell District was a primary force in shaping underground techno. Ostensibly run by the unholy quadrumvirate of Regis, Silent Servant, Female and David Sumner, aka Function – though they claimed that it was a self-governing body, which made it sound a bit like Jack Merridew's clan in Lord of the Flies – Sandwell's release schedule was sparse but impeccable, consisting mostly of a series of 12"s and a couple of samplers from its main actors and a few others. Perhaps the collective's influence grew too great for its members' liking (certainly, a cursory glance at today's UK techno scene throws up any number of lazy copyists) or maybe they just wanted to get out while the going was good. Either way, though the collective continues to play live, the label's operations were terminated at the end of 2011, its fans informed via a typically laconic valedictory missive. "Regular audio communications from Sandwell District will cease," it read. "Stasis is death."
Those three words, incidentally, are as good a synopsis of Incubation as you're likely to find. He's been in the techno game nigh on twenty years, but this is Function's debut LP and as such really is too big a deal for any label other than Berlin's venerable Ostgut Ton. Anticipation may be the fastest route to disappointment but Incubation, mercifully, more than delivers. Far more than a collection of club tracks, it's an elegant, fully realised narrative. The sound also boasts a newfound clarity. Function's characteristic heavyweight intensity is still at the fore, but rather than the sometimes raw and rough-hewn production of the Sandwell releases (which, it should be noted, was never a failing), here tracks are rendered with crystalline lucidity, no doubt thanks at least in part to sound engineer Tobias Freund. Take the stunning opener 'Voiceprint', where a sweetly coruscating synth passage ripples over a sparse backdrop of frosty snares, disembodied vocal snatches and a bassline capable of effecting tectonic shifts. That melody shows up again later as a dusting of glitter over the blistering groove and propulsive drum patterns of 'Voiceprint (Reprise)', a club-centric repurposing of the original.
These two versions of 'Voiceprint' sum up Incubation's division between IDM-leaning pieces like 'Counterpoint' and big-room tracks unashamedly engineered for the Sunday afternoon crew. 'Incubation (Ritual)' is solidly within the latter camp, a percussive workout with thunderous kicks pushed right to the front of the mix. There are emotive strings, but they highlight rather than soften the dramatic impact of those walloping drums. Make no mistake; this is balls-to-the-wall, no-fuck-around techno that in its ambition and depth most closely resembles "A1", Function's dense, towering and yet incredibly refined contribution to 2010's SDSMP1 label sampler (the label's disregard for anything so trite as branding frequently extended even to track titles).
The relatively sunny, melodic 'Counterpoint' acts as exactly that, making 'Modifier' - with its tightly woven drum patterns, gasping pads and very little else - sound even more utilitarian, recalling nothing so much as 2008's Anticipation EP. 'Inter' switches gears again, this time to a glorious deep house track whose vocal snatches and greyscale noise patters lend nuanced intricacy without dwarfing the overall euphoric atmosphere. That vibe also prevails in 'Psychic Warfare', which, for all the cheerlessness of its title, is great fun, all tribal kicks, lysergic synths and lashing hi-hats marshalled into a captivating groove. It's also the final track on the vinyl LP. The CD version's final track 'Grandient I' makes for a very different kind of closer – eight minutes of roiling 808s padded by nebulae of atomised noise, from which strings gently unfurl like tendrils, fading into a quietude that instead of offering resolution is oddly discombobulating.
Function could have put out an hour's worth of solid bangers and the result would still have been better than 90% of the derivative slop out there. Just like his thin but rewarding discography, Incubation speaks volumes of Sumner's commitment to quality and artistic progress. Sandwell District as a label may be over, but with Incubation, Function fulfils its closing statement to perfection. It bears repeating. Stasis is death. See you on the other side.