Sandwell District, Feed-Forward

[Sandwell District]

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The most notable aspect to the run-up to the release of Sandwell District’s debut album was the hype surrounding it, but this writer was also struck by expectations from some corners that Feed-Forward would not bring with it a seismic advancement for techno music. By definition, such a viewpoint is fallacious. Operating within a rigid set of guidelines and structures means techno producers face the dilemma of either flirting with other related styles, or alternatively, facing the almost insurmountable task of producing something of magnitude within the ascribed parameters. Speaking about the limitations placed by techno’s adherence to 4/4 back in 1997, Jeff Mills told this writer it was “a wonderful hindrance” and he relished the challenge of making an original sounding piece of music within these constraints.

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While it would be easy but perhaps simplistic to accuse Mills of constantly referencing himself, criticism of Sandwell District and Feed-Forward revolves precisely around the questionable points — that they are merely adept recyclers of the past (often their own work) or they’re not imbued with a sonic alchemy capable of miraculously transforming a 30-year-old genre with a game-changing release. To be disappointed by their predilection for the former and inability to provide the latter betrays a deeply flawed perception of where techno is at nowadays. Rather than viewing the recycling tendency as a negative, this writer feels it is precisely this attribute that makes Feed-Forward such a defining statement about modern day techno: it assimilates existing tropes and narratives from all of the contributors’ recent and not so recent back catalogs to forge a new identity.

Of equal importance is how Feed-Forward effortlessly captures the prevalent tug and pull between techno’s past and present — audible among Sandwell District’s peers, such as Shed, Klock, Dettmann, and Dehnert. Even the album’s presentation, on limited edition vinyl and featuring Silent Servant’s situationist meets surrealism artwork (also exhibited in a fanzine from him) and an accompanying seven-inch single, evokes memories of a pre-techno era when bands went to great lengths and dedicated considerable resources to rewarding vinyl-buying fans. Yet it is also a defining aspect of modern techno. Faced with the prospect of getting lost in an ocean of digital-only, Beatport-friendly mediocrity, many producers are focusing their efforts on vinyl. Limited to 700 vinyl copies, Feed-Forward is a genuine artifact, a document to hold and treasure, guaranteeing the kind of treatment electronic music albums rarely receive (and setting off a bidding war on Discogs). This point is crucial because if you were wooed by earlier Sandwell-released efforts like “Isolation” or “Variance,” the direction Feed-Forward takes may disappoint you. Without containing too many big room techno tunes, it succeeds in giving vent to the Sandwell operatives’ various creative caprices and distills these into a coherent body of work.

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The opening “Immolare” sonic triptych defines Sandwell District’s ability to recycle and redefine: sounding like the auspicious beginning to Vapourspace’s classic “Gravitational Arch of 10,” the tone and tempo quickly shift into grungy reverberating riffs and a clinically pulsating rhythm track that is pure Function. It quickly fades to reveal an airy synth soundtrack fighting to be heard above grubby industrial static hums. “Grey Cut Out” also references Sandwell’s collective and individual identities, but the grimy broken beats also conjure up memories of Kalon’s “Born-Against” tempo-wise and the distorted industrial techno of Downwards. What’s more surprising are the chilling chords that cloak the track as it progresses. This eerie interpretation of Detroit techno is audible again on “Falling the Same Way,” where mournful pads complement a purring bassline and doubled-up claps. It’s the most conventional track on the album, but even then it avoids veering into pastiche thanks to a palpable sense of menace bubbling close to the surface. The same sensibility is evident on “Svar” and “Double Day,” where stripped back rhythm tracks are on offer; this is achieved on “Svar” by a gradually building wall of distorted noise and on “Double Day” with hissing, razor-sharp percussion and swinging drums making way for a bleak, tonal bass line.

That’s not to suggest that Feed-Forward lapses into “listening album syndrome,” where techno producers produce one lazy downtempo piece too many. “Hunting Lodge” is among the grimiest techno you’re likely to hear in 2011, characterized by filtered breakdowns, grungy textures and evil acid riffing, like a pre-Purpose Maker Mills or early Surgeon updated for modern palettes. “Speed + Sound (Endless)” is a tripped out spacey groove that throws out references to F.U.S.E.’s Dimension Intrusion album and goes back further to John Carpenter. That the album ends on an atmospheric coda similar to the opening sequences of “Immolare” provides neat symmetry to the album proper. The accompanying seven-inch is also worthy as an interesting addendum. The A-side starts with eerie textures and tonal hypnotism, before moving into Blade Runner-esque synth dreaminess and then repeating the process, while the flip starts with squalling interference, before morphing into an echoing ambience that is supernaturally beautiful yet transient and fleeting, like the northern lights. If you’re looking for something genuinely new, a body of work that starts from the ground up rather than one that builds on existing structures, Feed-Forward is probably not for you. Equally, if you want a collection of dance-floor slaying tracks, you may be disappointed. But if you’re searching for a release that sonically and conceptually defines the prevailing techno zeitgeist, you’ve come to the right place.

Patrick Steen  on February 8, 2011 at 2:39 PM

Amazing album and a beautiful review!

plastic  on February 8, 2011 at 3:47 PM

indeed, top notch album though scored mine on the d/l. think they need to repress more vinyl copies for the hardcore fans. love the ambient, melodic passages juxtaposed with the grimy, industrial, dub, and minimal feel. tip!

clom  on February 8, 2011 at 5:04 PM

“To be disappointed by their predilection for the former and inability to provide the latter betrays a deeply flawed perception of where techno is at nowadays.”

beautifully put. this review was well worth the obvious extensive thought and effort you put into writing it.

richard  on February 8, 2011 at 6:49 PM

thanks guys – glad you like the album and the review!

rook  on February 9, 2011 at 2:18 AM

dont really get all these interviews when theres more history than talking about the album itself, just dont get it

krc  on February 9, 2011 at 11:56 AM

Great review. I appreciate it when writers give some “cultural context” for a release.

Richard, I love the bit from Jeff Mills about 4/4 as “a wonderful hindrance” — is this in a published interview?

Brophy  on February 10, 2011 at 12:27 PM

Hey KRC, thanks for the query. The interview was published in an Irish music magazine, Hot Press, who have all of their content behind a pay wall. I don’t have the computer that I wrote the piece on – it was lost between house moves etc. The only reason I remember the quote was because it was used as a pull quote on the original piece. On the off chance that I track it down, I’ll post it here…


Ahoyskin  on February 11, 2011 at 11:15 AM

Everything I want from music. Enough to shell out the additional discogs fee when my initial purchase was lost in the mail. And I’m still happy I bought it.

Sibonelo Zulu  on February 14, 2011 at 6:58 AM

Too expensive for me. Will have to wait for repress. I would to re-read the review, it was a bit complicated for the 1st read & stopped somewhere…..

JL  on February 24, 2011 at 5:53 PM

Great review, really spot on. Does anyone know if is this coming out in CD(I don’t care about digital, too compressed for my taste)? Vinyl repress will be expensive anyway, the break-even factor is too demanding for these kind of releases. This deserves a bigger audience for sure.

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