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Halha: 20 Years Of Downwards Harry Sword , October 9th, 2013 11:12

Downwards Records as institution? In associative imagery terms it fits the label absolutely: off white, medical, echoing stairwells and empty courtyards. And after two decades of fiercely idiosyncratic work – belting obelisks of brackish techno, scratchy post punk, DIY electronics – Downwards undoubtedly is an underground institution, its stock and influence writ large over today's industrially-inclined techno scene.

The last year or two has certainly seen the influence of its back catalogue reach arguably its highest point since the 90s, with any number of abrasive and grinding techno jams reminiscent of early Regis, Female or Surgeon productions emerging from younger producers' studios. Downwards itself, however, has clicked heels and about turned, releasing some of its most vital and varied music in years. From the slow viscous sludge of Kerridge to the grand baroque maneuvers of Oake and the deranged drummer boy onslaught of Cut Hands, Karl 'Regis' O'Connor has curated a range of severe electronics united in quality and (relatively) far removed from the kind of techno that his label has been best known for.

Twenty years into its existence, in cultural terms it's tempting to view Downwards as some decrepit outer borough station, just off that central British line of visceral artistic belligerence – Peter Cook to Alan Clarke, Throbbing Gristle to Derek Jarman, old Soho to the Industrial West Midlands - sharing their decadence, antagonism and willingness to explore the strangeness of what lies underneath the institutions of social normality and control. The tropes explored by Downwards have always pointed toward a bleak landscape of England, remote viewed and filtered by way of O'Connor's idiosyncratic vision, which is frequently sinister - exploring domesticity, control, sex, subordination, boredom - but often surreal and darkly funny too. Just look at the cover art and the track titles, and draw your own conclusions. Downwards put out music in thrall to neither futurism nor technology, their fully fledged aesthetic universe far from the sci-fi dreams of Detroit or worldwide techno culture. Their records needle with a sense of magick, an undercurrent of drabness, horror, a celebration of the grey, haughtiness and mischief.

The first record that Downwards released wasn't even a techno 12", anyway. It was a cranky 7" of DIY electronics from Antonym - the musical alias of underground publisher Anthony Burnham - called 'Consumer Design'. Fittingly, it opens Halha - a compilation that celebrates the label's twentieth year with a truly multi-faceted gathering of back catalogue material, unheard rarities and compelling new material - and it does so in fine style, all stunted kicks, bizarre vocal snips and down-tuned pads.

Another Birmingham countercultural instigator, Mick Harris (in his rarely used Fret guise) also makes an appearance with an untitled - previously unreleased - track from 1995. Based around the sonic potential of circular reverb, the track unfolds around metallic drums and endless layers of hyper click - a damn near perfect groove, in the classic 'rhythm only' style of mid-90s Downwards. Sleeparchive offers a suffocatingly dank arrangement of Concrete Fence's 'The Unabridged Truth' that rolls out in slick Berlin style, pin-drop bleeps and booming subs alongside ominous soundtrack atmospheres, while Substance (aka Hardwax's DJ Pete) continues the razor edged techno with an artfully rolling eight-minute rework of Regis 'Cold Water' that plays with slickly controlled beeps and cavernous bass.

Anthony 'Surgeon' Child builds on the dramatic atmospheric territory he so ably explored on this year's The Space Between People & Things album with 'Over Napoli', a piece that hinges on strange synth modulations and crackling speech interjections, intense focus maintained throughout by the use of few notes and expert use of the space between them. Samuel Kerridge has been a recent addition to the label's roster, with his first 12" for Downwards arriving at the beginning of this year and an album imminent. Fans of his work to date will no doubt enjoy 'A Shadow Cast'. It encroaches like a twisted, acid-burnt, militaristic tattoo, its synth drones signaling some hellish kamikaze mission at the behest of a deranged jungle warlord.

Talker makes a compelling production debut with the fine, and severely morose, 'Cut The Weight' (Parts 1 & 2). A vast slow-burner, it evokes images of some hulking, dilapidated tanker moving through dense fog. Newcomers Oake also plough an impressively grandiose furrow with 'Tenoun Rah Zan', a track that layers Middle Eastern vocal exultations alongside concave bass tones and storming kicks; overblown, operatic and (just) the right side of bloated pomposity. They should be soundtracking Ken Russell movies.

All the compilation's tracks present interesting juxtapositions between the sound of the past and the present – tracks of this type of overtly cinematic flair would have been unthinkable on Downwards in the 90s. They also offer a compelling line in the sand: a claim staked for a single-minded vision, moving downwards in ever-increasing circles.