At the very beginning of 2012, record label Sandwell District announced its “glorious death.” Over the course of 10 years, head honchos Regis, Function, Silent Servant, and Female had garnered a strong identity and cult following for the outpost with a series of dark, noise-tinged techno releases accompanied by bleak, grayscale artwork. Still, they felt the project had run its course, at least for the time being.
This week, over a year later, the prodigal sons have returned to techno with a mix for the prolific Fabric series, “Fabric 69.” The hour-plus set showcases the most iconic elements of Sandwell District’s sonic aesthetic: deep, dark, hypnotizing beats that kick up an introspective and brooding energy with minimal clutter. It’s precisely mixed, shifting between post-punk, noise, and techno at barely perceptible intervals. Although the mix displays the label’s recognizable vibe and sound, there are no Sandwell District tunes on the tracklist; instead, it explores the landscape of austere techno that took inspiration from the label’s catalog.
Sandwell District’s influence on underground techno can hardly be overstated. We reached out to a few of the artists who have carried the torch since it closed up shop, and asked them to mine the label’s history in order to identify some of the its most esteemed releases: Check out picks from Jerome Sydenham, Sigha, Cosmin TRG, and more, below.
The Black Dog (Warp, Soma, Dust Science)
“The thing about Sandwell District is they’ve always been about ideas. This is often shown best by those who slavishly ape everything they do, but their lack of the spark is so evident. Karl is a key instigator in techno and what he doesn’t know about electronic music isn’t probably worth knowing. Our favorite track from Sandwell District has to be ‘Immolare,’ dark ritual music with a driving force seeping through it like bad blood searching for its next organ to destroy. Wonderful stuff.”
Jerome Sydenham (Ibadam)
“From my initial discovery of Sandwell District at local record shops in Berlin, their consistency has had a visceral effect on my appreciation of techno. Hearing this fresh sound at the Berghain club really took me back to early moments at the Paradise Garage in NYC, and hearing a Marshall Jefferson or Fingers Inc. production for the first time against the other sounds of the day. Really fresh! ‘Burn,’ my favorite, stands superior with the combination of classic drum machines fused into a hypnotic, sophisticated acid-laced deep techno semblance. Dark, driving and yet very accessible even to the most contemporary ear.”
Peter Van Hoesen (Time to Express)
“My all-time SD favorite is ‘Haiku’ by Kalon (which I assume is one of Regis’ alter egos). This is an earlier release from 2008. It’s a perfect, stripped-down percussive track with a solid bottom-end. I love all the little variations in the groove, it really makes the track come to life with only a minimal set of sounds. Perfect reductionism. I have played this track out countless times since its release, and I still have it as part of my set. That should say enough.”
“Kalon’s ‘Man is the Superior Animal’ completely stunned me when it came out. It had this urgency and pressure that techno once had, and too often lacks. While I’m a true believer in the cult of classic Roland machines, this track utterly side-stepped all of that, and just drove itself in, blunt-end first. It had all the brutalism of Birmingham techno, with a loping, lurching beat that borders on hip-hop. Even though I’d been friends with Function for many years, it took a while before I realized his involvement in Sandwell. There was this aggressive moodiness about the label’s output, an attitude that was closer to punk than what else was out in electronic music at the time. When it started to build into an ideological outpost, nearly like a flag waved against a lot of the things around, I think a lot of people loved it even more, myself included.”
Cosmin TRG (Hessle Audio, 50Weapons, Hotflush, Hemlock)
“One of the main things that is incredibly seductive about Sandwell District is how stylistically tight and coherent their transmissions were. Ruthless and uncompromising in sound, they also displayed elegance and finesse like no other operation of its kind. One of my favorite SD tracks is ‘Murder Murder’ by Silent Servant, which despite its title is one of the more light-hearted to come out on the label: a flurry of saturated chords bouncing back and forth on a rugged surface of raw concrete drums.”
“Sandwell District has always been about more than just about the music; they’ve understood identity like few other contemporary electronic acts. Everything from the art direction (presided over Silent Servant), to the track titles tying in with the aesthetic of the project. In an age where information is more accessible than ever, their stream of aliases, cryptic statements and gray scale imagery only served to heighten the mystique that grew around them. None of that would have mattered at all if the music wasn’t actually good, and picking a favorite Sandwell track is so hard because simply put, there are no misfires. Every time I thought I’d settled on one, I’d find my self digging out another record and I’ve have to rethink. The best I can do is say the track I’ve chosen is one of my favorites.
‘Variance 4 (Regis Edit)’ by Function combines the Sakho-esque melancholia present in Function’s best work with a U.K. swing that Regis was increasingly playing with. The way the claps and metallic perc snap over the throbbing low end and sea of reverb never fails to make me move.”