In 1987, a group of kids got together in Birmingham, England, formed a band called Napalm Death, and recorded half an LP’s worth of basically the fastest, most horrible heavy metal music ever made.
This might seem an improbable place to start a story about an “avant-modernist” techno record that came out in January of 2011 and maybe it would make more sense to some if the story started in some warehouse rave in Detroit. But alas, history is not always so conciliatory towards readers’ expectations. And so the Sandwell District story begins with Scum, Napalm Death’s first and only record with the original line-up. This was extremist music by people with extreme ideas, and it is telling that basically the entire band quit Napalm Death after this record to pursue other interests; there wasn’t really anywhere else to go in the “fast and ugly as possible” direction. (The remaining members of the band did totter on in a kind of simulacrum of a “grindcore” band– one that became an increasingly comical version of itself– but that is for someone else’s guest post).
These other interests were in no way limited to so-called “metal,” and in fact started to take a heavy tilt toward the electronic, with Mick Harris and Nick Bullen (the original Napalm Death drummer and bassist) pursuing dark dub sounds as Scorn, and guitarist Justin Broadrick becoming involved in too many projects to even talk about (though my fanatical devotion has led me to purchase somewhere in the neighborhood of 100-150 Justin Broadrick and Mick Harris-related records).
So how does this relate to Sandwell District? Well, in the town of Birmingham– which I have never visited, but I imagine to be a grim, grey place– a couple of kids happened to befriend Harris, who agreed to let them use his newly acquired studio gear to bang out some electronic music. A few EPs were recorded by said British lads under the names Regis and Surgeon, the Downwards label was born, and electronic music would never be the same (Check this excellent FACT mag interview with Regis’ Karl O’Connor for more hilarious details).
The music of Downwards was, like Napalm Death, extremist music by and for extreme-thinking people; when I finally stumbled across it, it felt a bit like being touched by the hand of God. Here, FINALLY, was the techno I wanted to hear: huge slabs of unrelentingly unchanging minimalism that seemed to beam straight out of the Dark Side and onto the poorly mastered, anonymous-looking, invariably black, and very well-titled 12″s that I bought each and every one of (sample titles: “Delivered Into The Hands Of Indifference,” “Aftertaste of Guilt,” “Slave To The Inevitable”).
Of course, most people didn’t listen to this music when it came out. I, for one, was too young/distracted by extreme music/dismissive of anything that had a four-on-the-floor beat when it was gathering steam, and only started catching up about halfway through the Downwards saga. But, like with the Velvet Underground, the fact that the audience was limited to obsessive weirdos didn’t really matter; some of those who listened went on to do great things. Nowadays, we have been blessed with an entire scene in Berlin centered around the Berghain club and Ostgut Ton label; people there are putting out some of the most forward-thinking music in the world right now, and Downwards’ darkly reductionist ideas are unmistakable.
Another one of those devoted listeners, back here in NYC, was David Sumner, aka Function, who bounced around the NYC non-scene for that kind of poundingly minimalist brutality in the late ’90s and early ’00s. The scene was based in part around Adam X‘s Sonic Groove record store in Manhattan and DJ Spinoza’s Bunker parties, which are still going strong. Eventually, everyone saw what was going on in Berlin and moved there, leaving me and a few other sad souls nowhere to buy techno records or discuss the finer points of early ’90s industrial music classics. In the process, Function developed a following of the size that makes it unlikely that David will be sharing the decks with my partner the surveyor at an impromptu party at nihiti HQ ever again.
In 1996, Sumner befriended O’Connor at the Limelight, a deconsecrated Church on 23rd and 6th that was at the center of electronic dance music in NYC. In 2006, he started his own label with Juan Mendez of Silent Servant, and they called it Sandwell District. The music they released was clearly inspired by the Downwards catalogue– though Basic Channel and Detroit techno influences weigh heavily at Sandwell District in a way they didn’t at Downwards– and included remixes and edits by members of the Downwards roster. While over time, Downwards morphed into more of a post-punk and avant-electronics imprint (check their site to hear some fascinating music in this vein), Sandwell remained truer to the modern dance floor, though the sheer brutalist metallic repetition of its predecessor’s sound was replaced with something more abstract, something a bit less obviously “black,” perhaps even more “musical.”
For me, the Sandwell District catalogue was always very good, but it never hit me the way the Downwards records did. Until, that is, Sandwell District stopped being a label, and became an artist– or “band,” or “collective,” or whatever word you wish to use for a group of likeminded people making music together. Feed Forward, the record this post purports to be about, features Sumner, O’Connor, Female‘s Peter Sutton, and Mendez, pairing the originators with the inspired, and yielding something that was, to my ears, Exactly What I Wanted To Hear All Along.
Now I’m not going to risk making a fool of myself and claim in print that person X made track Y on this record, but it seems fairly clear to me, given my familiarity/obsession with the work of the involved parties, that various tracks were made by various people, who perhaps then helped edit/improve each other’s work. Side A of the first disc, which sandwiches an unrelenting, long-form rhythmic assault between two short ambient howls, immediately brings to mind the sequencing on many of the Regis 12″s. Indeed, the first two sides of this double LP strikes me as being more of the “brutally minimal assault” school. And they are great sides, to say the least, presenting a slower, slightly less aggro takes on some trademark Downwards themes.
From there, we get a tour through the places that “out” electronic dance music has visited in the past view decades, from the hardened Basic Channel touchstones on “Hunting Lodge” to the spectacular, Detroit-but-way-darker “Falling the Same Way.” The record hits some unmistakeable Autechre moments on “Double Day,” and culminates in the album’s pièce de résistance, “Speed + Sound (Endless),” which I’m pretty sure I will be listening to regularly for the rest of my life. Analog synth arpeggiations drift under a shimmer of glassy sound and over a staticy, 4-to-the-floor beat. Toward the end, they are joined by gorgeously uplifting, vocal-based glistenings that promise an eternity in sheer sonic bliss… but alas, the track is only six-and-a-half minutes long. It’s too bad, really.
Rounding out this absolutely beautiful-looking release is a bonus 7″ of two untitled tracks that drift through musique concrète, soaring synths, and power electronics in a way that lets you know where a lot of the less obvious ideas in this music really come from– which is not the dancefloor, but from the darker edges of sonic artistic expression.
And that, folks, is how you make a Great Record.
Post scriptum: For anyone looking to get a taste of the original Downwards sound, I recommend this all-Downwards mix that a certain Michael Weldon in the UK was kind and skilled enough to put together. Feed Forward was limited to 500 copies, and sold out pretty much before it was even released, with no digital release on the calendar– sorry. Please note that the MP3s above come from a decent but slightly flawed vinyl rip that has been making the blog rounds. Those who require 320kbps perfection will have to look elsewhere.
nihiti‘s Other People’s Memories LP is out now on lo bit landscapes, and can be purchased via Other Music, Aquarius, and other finer establishments. nihiti’s next two EPs, due this summer, will be completely different. Visit SoundCloud for miscellaneous interstitial fragments