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Function - Incubation

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Artist: Function

Album: Incubation

Label: Ostgut Tonträger

Review date: Feb. 25, 2013

It has been interesting to see how things have evolved in the wake of the Sandwell District diaspora. Karl O’Connor repackaged his early, ruthless Regis work for a bit of historical revisionism, then called up Anthony Child and declared they were having another go at the British Murder Boys. Juan Mendez explored his post-punk roots last year on the Silent Servant full-length Negative Fascination. Peter Sutton’s doing whatever he always did, quietly, as Female.

Then there’s Dave Sumner. Along with O’Connor, the New York techno veteran had the biggest discographic footprint going into Sandwell in part because he has been deeply involved in the club scene and DJing for so long. What started as a love affair with Limelight, Underground Resistance and Jeff Mills in early 1990s Manhattan turned into stories of The Shampoo Room and various lurid celebrity encounters on the way to establishing his own sonic identity. Sumner’s earliest rave-influenced embarrassments as Overlord evolved into respectable techno releases as Function on Damon Wild’s Synewave and his own imprint Infrastructure late in the decade. The still-going partnership with Regis was formally anointed under the Portion Reform moniker and culminated with 1998’s The Supreme Negative full-length. Most of his post-millennial efforts were geared toward techno evangelism under the Sandwell umbrella, especially after moving to Berlin in 2007.

Through all of that time and all of those releases, Sumner never felt especially compelled to release a full-length under his own alias, until now. Incubation is an ideal title for a record that draws on decades of experience in the trenches to paint a portrait of the artist as a middle-aged man who knows what he’s doing.

The artwork is an accurate portend of what to expect. It retains that identifiable sans serif Ostgut Ton font, but the eye-through-keyhole close-up is instantly recognizable as standard Sandwell imagery (outsourced in this case to visual strategist Silent Servant). Incubation draws from his past every bit as much as his Berlin present.

In both, Sumner has fine-tuned the art of energy levels. It shows in the nine songs present here — this sounds like a full-length that had a lot of thought put into motifs and track sequencing. It’s not just the titles they’re given; you can hear it right from the off with “Voiceprint,” a deep, echoing intro rich with sounds that also carries a barely noticeable 4/4 thump – if you don’t have the proper speakers or headphones for this, it’s entirely possible you’ll miss it. The long attacks and decays, highlighted by a light melody for balance, lure you in… which of course leads to the short attack and extended sustain of club workout “Against the Wall,” possibly a reference to how Sumner works best.

In just two tracks, Function has already established what makes him so interesting in the context of the Ostgut roster. Unlike, say, a Dettmann or a Norman Nodge (and even Shed is guilty of this, if we’re being honest), Sumner’s range feels more naturally variable — songs don’t sound like they were extracted from the vice grip of techno, even when they remain so. Raised on New York house and carrying with him a load of acid-soaked baggage, Function plays more loosely with sounds and space than his German counterparts. An apropos case in point is the deranged synth arpeggios of “Counterpoint,” what sound like bongo drums on “Modifier,” and the strong odor of house on “Voiceprint (Reprise).”

While the whole album is rich with detail, for my money, Function has saved his best tracks as bookends. The lush “Voiceprint” at the top of the order is stirring, but the one-two punch of “Psychic Warfare” and “Gradient I” at the other end is just as formidable. To me, “Psychic Warfare” is the most unsettling six minutes of the album, classically queasy without needing a punishing BPM to get there. “Gradient I” reminds me a lot of Silent Servant’s “Utopian Disaster (End)” in its tense, drawn-out anxiety. Like Silent Servant on Negative Fascination, Function cleverly dupes the listener here. It doesn’t feel like an ending; the only resolution is Repeat All.

Criticizing this record is tough to do because Function has merely offered up who he is, the most accurate portrayal of his headspace right now. He’s not really “going” for anything; he’s already there. It’s a sound you’ll pin immediately… but taking the time to explore its nuances and quirks is where the real satisfaction lies. For illumination on this particular sect of techno’s journey over the past few years, it’s hard to think of an album more deserving of the limelight than Incubation.

By Patrick Masterson

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