Brit techno always seemed a surly beast. It has always felt that when the first DNA strands of Detroit techno floated across the Atlantic and latched on to the native breeds, the resulting hyrbid grew up with a streak of meanness running down it like a spine of razor blades. Every scene makes the music their own, and our take seemed refracted through the last days of the long Thatcher years. Raves in the crumbling remains of industry, after parties tucked into forgotten corners of crap, grey housing estates and a disconnect between those that remembered something more and those who knew nothing else fed into the narrative of the music, producing something bruising but exhilarating.
Karl O’Connor, alongside his friend Anthony Child, has probably a greater claim to the title of Godfather of British techno than almost anyone else. Along side Child and Peter Sutton (Female), he was the progenitor of the Birmingham sound – a form of techno that stripped out the much of the Detroit feel and altered the form into a furious, angry and industrialized machine, until it became a lithe cyborg form.
More focussed than anything from Detroit, although not necessarily straighter, it’s hounds you with a brutalism and energy that has gone on to inform perhaps as much contemporary techno as anything that came out of the States. For me, the adjective ‘Industrial’ seems far more accurate with the Birmingham sound than most of the music that carries that moniker. It’s like a knife fight in a steal foundry; sequences of subtle violence amongst symphonies of machines.
I’ll be honest, I was never quite as enthused by the Birmingham sound. It is, in many ways, the anti-funk, and I was always hungrier for grooves than pounding mayhem. I tended then – as now – to go more for producers like Luke Slater (particularly as Clementine) who combined the rawness with swing and something more recognizably soulful. But while I don’t think I would ever have been able to handle an entire night of thrashing techno there were times, even when I was DJing, when nothing else quite did the job. You always need the nuclear option.
Blood Witness remains my favourite Regis track. I’ve a number of his 12″s kicking around, and each have that sweet snarl that no one else seems to do quite so well. But I love Blood Witness because it is so utterly different. There were precursors over the years of the Blood Witness sound. Ugandan Speed Trials/Ugandan Methods carry traces of the sound – more than traces in fact, as does some of O’Connor’s work under his CUB guise.
But in spite of everything that came before, Blood Witness still feels like a radical departure, not only from his previous work but from a large part of techno. Its rhythmic structures are almost alive; lithe, coiled and thrumming with alien structure, they work with the sharp snaps and the drone of the pads to create imagery light years distant that which we have come to accept from techno.
It also seems almost lazy to describe what the track does as ‘building’, although that is exactly what it does. There are, however differences. The textures, the way the beats fall and the percussion works around them evolve as the track plays out, leading it from one place to another, rather than relying on the addition of new elements every 8 bars. It translates from one point to another sometimes slowly and at others so quickly that it’s almost impossible to catch it happening and yet, when you notice it the whole tune has shifted around itself, using only its barely restrained rage as its centre of gravity.
I think had there been more tracks like this back then, I might not have been quite as ready to hold the harder end of the British techno spectrum at arm’s length. Blood Witness, in its fluid, outrageously powerful way, is a good lesson in a simple truth. Sometimes the way forward is to be found in the things you almost pass by.