Albert Einstein presaged that WWIII might be fought with hydrogen bombs, but should World War IV ever occur, it would most certainly come to sticks and stones. Nuclear arms are so fierce, Einstein’s contested adage implied, that deploying them would serve to annihilate their own technological innovation — along, presumably, with life on Earth. A similar analogy could be applied to the state of techno for the past decade or so — admittedly a lower stakes game.
In 1983, the convergence of affordable home computing, CD digital audio, and MIDI (the Musical Instrument Digital Interface) preceded a technological arms race for avant-garde electronic musicians — the newer and more high-tech the instrument or equipment, the better. Throughout the 1990s, these three digital innovations and their peripheral devices dominated the music-related marketplace. Regardless of genre, these music machines forged the look, feel, sound, and circulation of techno at the century’s end.
Some time during the early 2000s, things changed. The MP3 and iPods became the dominant conveyors and players of digital music. The advent of mobile devices facilitated the production and reception of electronic music beyond home and studio. And in a curiously nostalgic residual-techno turn, analogue modules and synthesizers once again took centre stage. Quickly, digital samplers, keyboard instruments, and other outboard gear were being replaced more and more with laptops, plug-ins, and apps.
At the millennium’s turn, the look, feel, and sound of techno changed, too. MP3 formats and their digital file compression meant less emphasis on fidelity than portability. Over the early 2000s, computer hardware and digital audio processing software eclipsed MIDI. Subsequently untethered to MIDI’s coarse clock, off-kilter rhythms and pitch-imperfect harmonies began to emerge from analogue and digital machines in new assemblages. Small-run vinyl sales increased. Techno, in some sense, was going back to being made and played with sticks and stones.
Between 2006 and 2012, Regis (Karl O’Connor), Function (David Sumner), Silent Servant (Juan Mendez), and Female (Peter Sutton) knocked out records that conjured what was at once ancient and modern about this new kind of sticks & stones techno, with their creative output for the mysterious Sandwell District collective. The music on this mix represents a curated collection of that sound, with a selection of tracks from the now defunct Berlin-based moniker, and related international record labels. Rounding out the Sandwell material are pieces from Dominick Fernow and his Hospital Productions imprint, and a collaborative track by Lucy and Silent Servant released in 2013 on London label Mote-Evolver.
Of the new musical forms that have arisen in the past odd half-century, techno is arguably the most modern, and the most indicative of its location — both in physical space, and on the technological timeline. Nonetheless, the cuts contained herein are dislocated from geography, and diverted from the prescribed teleological path of electronic music history. The retro-futurist music of this mixtape is stripped to its bare essentials of pulse-like reiterative tempo and melancholy urban melody, features that enduringly define techno most broadly. This is the techno of World War IV.
Ryan Diduck is a doctoral candidate and course lecturer on sound culture in the department of Art History and Communication Studies at McGill University. He has written on mobile screen devices, mediated temporality, and digital networks. His current research centres on MIDI, the Musical Instrument Digital Interface. Diduck also frequently contributes to The Quietus, Fact, and Wire Magazine.
Regis & Female – Original Demo
Silent Servant – Invocation of Lust [Hospital Records]
Function – Inter
Regis & Female – Sandwell Mix
Silent Servant – Immolare (Version)
Female – Live Extract
Function – AA
Regis (edit) – Variance IV
Lucy & Silent Servant – Victor’s History [Mote-Evlover]
Prurient – I Understand You [Hydra Head]
(Vinyl records mixed by Ryan A. Diduck, originally aired on CKUT 90.3 FM in Montreal, May 8th, 2013.)