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Album Of The Week

Open Heart Surgery: Hidden In This Is The Light That You Miss By Regis
Bernie Brooks , June 11th, 2020 07:59

Karl O'Connor's first proper Regis LP in 19 years is an emotionally holistic tour de force, says Bernie Brooks

There is a cohort of up-and-coming music writers who were toddling around in preschool the last time Karl O'Connor put out a proper Regis LP. Anyone thirty or under was in year five or six, tops. Me, I was just about to turn 22, living in London on a study abroad. Now, you might be thinking this story goes like so: a chance encounter with Regis's Penetration in October 2001 radically alters my sonic sensibilities, transforming a fresh-faced young Bernie into the hard techno and fried noise enthusiast before you today.

But that didn't happen.

I had no idea who Regis was. I wasn't even aware of his existence, nor would I be for quite some time. I was still ensconced in indie rock for the most part. Riding the wave of hype that carried The Strokes to superstardom, anticipating the release of Pulp's We Love Life – its early 19th century arboreal typeface, selected and reinterpreted by Peter Saville, was wheatpasted all over town.

Which is all to say, the cultural fabric into which Penetration was woven nearly nineteen years ago was radically different than the one into which the latest Regis record, Hidden In This Is The Light That You Miss, will be incorporated. An entire epoch might as well have come to pass in the interim. It's possible one did. 

Regardless, the subcultural landscape of 2020 seems like an especially Regis-friendly environment, but then, O'Connor himself helped make it so. It's not as if he's been sitting on his duff eating cake and crisps for the better part of two decades – or even fully sidelined his Regis alter-ego. In addition to releasing work under his own name and various non-Regis aliases, in the 21st century he has been a key member of a seemingly endless assortment of groups, most notably the hugely influential Sandwell District collective and the legendary British Murder Boys with Anthony Child (aka Surgeon). Then there's Downwards and its sister labels, which O'Connor founded with his frequent collaborator Peter Sutton (aka Female). He and his associates are, as one might say, drivers of culture, and (along with other characters like Perc) partially responsible for the ubiquitous, unrelentingly hard techno aesthetic that grew out of the Birmingham sound but developed a degree of nuance and an affinity for sound design throughout the aughts and 2010s.

That said, I wonder what people expect from a Regis album in 2020? Those who haven't been following along on a granular level, who may have missed an evolutionary process scattered over two decades worth of Regis twelve-inches – including the atmospheric, steel-works boom and metallic hiss of his Blackest Ever Black releases – might be hoping to revisit the glory days of club nights past. Those who have been paying close attention might be looking for an LP statement that hews closer to radical reinvention, a new volume in the unabridged book of Regis. Both of these hypothetical groups would do well to check their expectations. The former especially so, the latter to a degree.

If not a new volume, then what? Let's say a new chapter heading. The first thing listeners will notice is the sound of this record. Though, compositionally speaking, one could draw a direct line from 2017's 'The Master Side' to Hidden In This Is The Light That You Miss, the two are wildly different sonically. Percussive elements are often permitted to retain an organic sensibility. The sense and idea of industry has changed dramatically. When industrial elements are present, they feel rooted in musique concrète or field recordings as opposed to synthesis or even samples in the way that we usually experience them. The feeling is experiential, of happenings having been captured in real time and in a real space.

This is almost certainly a result of O'Connor choosing to record Hidden In This Is The Light That You Miss with frequent Einstürzende Neubauten collaborator Boris Wilsdorf at his Berlin studio. Wilsdorf's involvement is fairly unsurprising in retrospect. After all, he helped Melbourne's MY DISCO evince a similarly successful portrait of sound in space on their 2019 Downwards LP, Environment. Consequently, I can't help but hear echoes of MY DISCO's masterpiece on some of the sparer tracks and passages here. While I'm sure Hidden had been percolating for quite some time, it seems as if O'Connor allowed himself to be influenced by the artists whose work he's lately released. Beyond Ann Margaret Hogan's direct contributions of piano and vocals to the album, attentive listeners might also pick out bits and pieces of Hidden that remind them of the almost preternaturally delicate commingling of instrumentation and field recordings that define her recent Downwards LP and 2020 highlight, Honeysuckle Burials. Ultimately, it might be kind of a chicken-and-egg thing. Does O'Connor's new work as Regis reflect the artists about whom he's enthusiastic or do his enthusiasms reflect where he is as an artist? Probably a bit of both.

In any case, Hidden contains a more holistic range of human emotion and experience than any Regis release thus far. Far from a sequence of nine driving slabs of darkness, these compositions make room for shafts of light, beauty, joy, and eerie ambient drift. 'The Sun Rose Pure', the album's longest and best track, kicks a clacking, clanking beat around for over eight minutes before segueing into a coda of gorgeous, bittersweet organ and piano intertwined with typewriter clacks, vocal samples, and chimes. It is airy and revitalising and humane. The deep-seated misanthropy that one might've inferred from earlier Regis recordings – especially those sessions for Blackest Ever Black – is drastically diminished on Hidden, maybe even gone altogether, as O'Connor leavens even the hardest hitting bangers with slinky grooves, moments of subtlety, and little grace notes. This is perhaps the album's most noteworthy development: Regis grows a heart!

There is a certainty at play throughout Hidden In This Is The Light That You Miss, an absolute clarity of purpose. Each element seems in its right place, each moment feels considered without feeling overworked. It is, like the rest of O'Connor's body of work, utterly contemporary and effortlessly relevant. Hidden doesn't fall victim to the navel-gazing or rumination or over-reliance on past formulae that often plagues artists who've been in the game as long as O'Connor, but then, as far as new work is concerned, that's never been his way. And while I know the world has never been without a new Regis track or three for very long, it's heartening to see an album length statement delivered with such élan after so much time has passed – especially one that repositions O'Connor among the very best, most exciting musicians currently working in somewhat similar milieus: Hiro Kone, Isabella, JASSS, etc. I hope he puts out another before I'm sixty.