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Sandwell District - Fabric 69

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Artist: Sandwell District

Album: Fabric 69

Label: Fabric

Review date: May. 6, 2013

How it all started is the stuff of collective mythmaking. What we know now is that Sandwell District was unveiled in physical form in 2002, brandishing the same aesthetic menace and sense of humor the project would maintain for its lifetime. If you didn’t have Regis’s Penetration, it was a fresh start; if you did, this was taking the mick. The game was on.

Sandwell felt like nothing more than a Berlin fax number and a distinctive sound for years after. Female, Silent Servant, Function, Regis, Kalon, unhelpfully packaged white labels — who were these people? A band? A label? Or merely a state of mind? It took the better part of a decade for followers to sort out the details as techno’s dialogue moved through an extended minimal digression into a new phase that drew on Villalobosian lessons and applied them to its storied history and diverse roots in other genres. It was only by the time of 2010’s roundly praised Feed-Forward that it felt like their messages were finally being received.

So what did they do in response? They quit. Individual members carry on with fresh singles and separate projects, podcasts, live dates and sparing blog posts to drive home the point that the Sandwell moniker is nothing more than an instrument of promotion (a gig flyer where “…of SANDWELL DISTRICT” means everything). The aim was achieved. Sandwell District is dead. They know, you know it, their website knew it before it disappeared.

Or rather, it should be. Ever the jokers, Fabric 69 arrives as life after death, I guess, which seems at odds with their curt transmissions but totally in line with a grayscale worldview and aesthetic. It’s very bleak out here, really, but maybe this isn’t the life we’re supposed to look forward to; maybe death is not a matter of absolutes, either. I don’t think this misses the point. Fabric 69 cuts to the heart of every human interaction by staring “death” straight in the face and asking what it means — for Regis, Function and Silent Servant, life after Sandwell apparently means one last flip through the family photo album.

Death (and, tangentially, violence as a reminder thereof) have always lingered around the District and this installment in the London club’s purist line of mixes is no different. Its 30-strong tracklist and mixing is a suffocating vice grip of perfection. Regis explains this was mostly Function’s doing: “The final mixdown was done by Dave [Sumner], as he had gone over the whole mix hundreds of times fine-tuning the detail, it made sense for him to execute the mix proper.”

It shows. The execution starts with Silent Servant’s “A Path Eternal” and continues through highlights including a Regis remix of VCMG’s “Spock,” newer names like Factory Floor and Samuel Kerridge, and the throwback nods of Carl Craig, Planetary Assault Systems and Plastikman. The flow is exacting and immaculate with familiar reference points of techno, dub and darkwave merged in fluid white noise attacks and decays. It’s worth noting briefly here that not a single Regis original shows up in the tracklisting, but the more abstruse sonic detours and a handful of his edits scattered among the list suggest he felt his presence was already well known by the time the final mix was sent off.

In a perfect world, Fabric 69 would counterbalance Michael Mayer’s lighthearted Fabric 12 from 2003 as a mission statement from the outset and an alternative to the decade’s eventual narrative. Serving the point that “stasis is death” as a comic gesture in the face of an “end” aside, I don’t see the positives in releasing this now. It’s a magnificent mix, of course, and a great summation of everything we came to accept about this group and "encapsulating an era and putting it to rest.” That’s what makes it feel like such a hollow gesture, a pat on the back they deliberately rejected for years.

If stasis is death and Sandwell District is dead, Fabric 69 is itself an alternative occupying an awkward space in their timeline. I don’t think it’s necessary. If you’re at all familiar with the group, this is a redundant history lesson; if you’re not, this is barely a taste of what you have in store. For the longest time, they asked us, “Where next?” But with Fabric 69, the question we’re left with as a final mark on their legacy is, “Where last?” Questions over the finality of death remain. There are no answers herein. Is this their one final lesson for the road?

The blank eyes, misplaced arteries and severed branches of the cover art stare back blankly. You already know…

By Patrick Masterson

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