Perhaps unbelievably, Incubation is Function’s debut album. Dave Sumner has been making techno for over 16 years, and over the course of that extended career his star has steadily shone brighter and brighter. As many are no doubt aware, it’s the past five years and his role as one third of the Sandwell District collective that have propelled Sumner into the list of techno greats — a position that modern classics like “Disaffected” and “Variance” support unfailingly. Feed-Forward, Sandwell District’s much-loved collective album, saw the triumvirate dissolve into themselves, and while each was listed with credits much like a rock band might be (all of them being on “Percussion” did not come as a surprise), attempts to pick apart whose rhythm was whose were mostly in vain.
Fascinatingly, Incubation owes much to Feed-Forward philosophically, though the sound is all Sumner’s own. In keeping with the “rock album” mentality he has recruited Tobias Freund to mix the record, something almost always done in techno (and, really, only techno) by the producer himself. Function records have never been mixed poorly, but Freund’s studio nous certainly lends a sense of clarity and space to the album’s more floor-filling numbers that make them sound ripe for cavernous Berghain. But this is very much a home-listening techno record: Function’s use of themes and reprisals (a tick Sandwell District became famous for) lend the record a narrative and sense of cohesion previously unmatched by Sumner.
“Voiceprint” is Incubation‘s overarching main theme — its baritone grumbles and delayed claps have been a signature of Function’s sound since time immemorial, and here they set the stage for a dramatic 60 minutes. It’s followed by the record’s best track, the burning, techno juggernaut of “Against The Wall.” Freund’s mixing shines here, lending the reverb-laden 303 hits and phasing hi-hats extra heft, but the whole thing menaces and pummels in an unmistakably Function way. Starting the record off so strong, it’s natural that things start to cool off a bit afterwards. “Counterpoint” mines the riff from a Sandwell District classic and fashions it into an ever-building interlude, while “Modifier” heads back to the floor with aggressive claps and reversed rimshots in tow.
“Incubation (Ritual),” the beating heart at the center of the album, tunnels further into the techno depths, and comes up for breath with an album version of “Inter” (from Sandwell’s last ever release). Previously, “Inter” displayed a softness and attention to sound design that marked new territory for Sumner, and it sounds perfect here on Incubation. The simple, Detroit-indebted melody and gentle low-end create a wondrous atmosphere, just as the buried French narration, found throughout much of the album, ties in neatly into its surroundings. What follows is Incubation‘s denouement: the reprise of “Voiceprint,” here with a full kit of percussion in tow.
Unfortunately, Incubation does not end there. “Psychic Warfare” follows, which is a strong cut of ticking 606 rhythms and Plastikman-esque acid lines, but it either seems somewhat out of step with what came before, or “Voiceprint (Reprise)” is so obvious a closer that it’s hard to keep the momentum up. I can see the case for “Psychic Warfare” as a coda, an epilogue hinting at a potential sequel, and taken in that way it works a bit better. For me, the album ends at “Voiceprint (Reprise),” a short but sweet 42 minutes. The CD version misguidedly adds yet another track at the very end, “Gradient I,” which, again, is quite good on its own but belongs nowhere near the album. Its eight and a half minutes make it the CD’s longest and cause Incubation to collapse under its own weight. The fact that it’s taken from the Gradient EP underlines that it doesn’t belong.
Chucking out the CD-extra track, Incubation is an exceptional album — one that, along with Negative Fascinations, proves that Regis is not the only one in the Sandwell crew with a knack for creating strong albums. Incubation, together with the countless great albums of techno’s past and future, faces down all those who lazily talk of techno albums rarely being “proper” albums with an immersive, propulsive set of tracks that play off each other in ways that steadily reveal themselves after many bleary-eyed listens. Taking a more “traditional” approach to the recording and mixing of the album has payed dividends, as Incubation has a sleek, distinctive sound to it that just sounds better than most other techno records around. Function’s records have always hinted at something larger brewing in his mind, something on a bigger scale than the 12″s with which he has always worked. As the culmination of that something larger, Incubation hits all the right notes.