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Silent Servant - Negative Fascination

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Artist: Silent Servant

Album: Negative Fascination

Label: Hospital Productions

Review date: Sep. 10, 2012

They may be done with now, but what made (and continues to make) Sandwell District such an alluring proposition is the unified aesthetic. Using early 1990s Birmingham techno and industrial as a starting point, the collective evolved into the next step for a number of ideas beyond the Downwards blueprint of co-founder Karl O’Connor: techno and genre constriction; the Situationist International; vinyl fetishism versus laptop DJing; DIY ethos; “the last burning ember of the Industrial Revolution.” It was compelling because they mainlined inspirations beyond your typical Detroit or Berlin namedropping and forced you to listen (and watch) in an atypical way.

Of the four members, it was O’Connor who was the most vocal when it came to the grand architecture of the collective. But Juan Mendez, most recently known as Silent Servant, was the artist that gave an aggressive visual narrative to Sandwell’s increasingly cerebral explorations of techno by designing their sleeves and working on the zine that accompanied Feed-Forward. His songs and remixes tended to be more contemplative and subtly melodic than his cohorts’ contributions, but there was no mistaking that he was essential to the provocative Sandwell mindset and, ultimately, its mythology as a techno institution.

With O’Connor’s Regis moniker listed as executive producer, Negative Fascination (not to be confused with 2009’s Negative Fascinations 12”) takes baby steps to free itself from that mindset and the accompanying confines of techno rather than impose limitations and try to work within them — in other words, it’s a more diverse listen than you might expect. Long-time enthusiasts won’t be blindsided by the sounds they hear (or imagine), but Mendez has loosened up to incorporate more direct industrial and post-punk elements.

Take “A Path Eternal,” the song Hospital Productions has offered up as a preview of the album. An indistinct monotone vocal talks over arpeggiating stabs and drifting synthesizer melody with nary a drum machine to be found in the vein of Philip Glass or Popol Vuh. Another example is “Moral Divide (Endless),” which starts off sounding like a demo with its cheap drum machine beat and constant battle against feedback. The haunting melody and hypnotic foghorn gradually lend an air of evil that elevates it beyond an unfinished post-punk instrumental from the Strange Passion compilation. “Temptation & Desire” is (along with “A Path Eternal”) the most distinctive song here: It draws heavily from The Jesus and Mary Chain but, because of the heavy processing, winds up sounding bizarrely close to A Place to Bury Strangers.

For those worried that Mendez has abandoned the throbbing 4/4 of his recent past in favor of his work in Tropic of Cancer or that song “Traumatic Age” which recently appeared on the So Click Heels Downwards compilation, relax: He saved the best for last. As much as I enjoy the rest of the album and admire Mendez’s willingness to wiggle around sonically, it’s the bread ‘n’ butter of concluding track “Utopian Disaster (End)” that I find most engrossing. Instantly recognizable for its close resemblance to his version of “Immolare,” this song is eight-plus minutes of dub-techno done right, an unguarded homage to Basic Channel’s finest moments, and a thrillingly tense conclusion to a punctual album that clocks in at just over half an hour.

I’m a fan, obviously. The balance between the expected and unexpected coupled with an overall consistency and the reputations of three key names in this recent sort of dystopian revivalism (Mendez and O’Connor aside, Hospital Productions is run by Prurient/Vatican Shadow man Dominick Fernow) ensures that despite its limited 1,000-copy vinyl run, cassettes and CDs to follow won’t make this irritatingly hard to find. It’s just as well: The end result is as fascinating as Silent Servant has ever been.

By Patrick Masterson

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