The music of Regis is nothing fancy. In the early 1990s, Karl O’Connor—the project’s namesake—helped pioneer the Birmingham Sound, a techno subgenre known for its stripped-down, aggressive minimalism. Together with his partner Female (aka Peter Sutton), O’Connor founded Downwards Records, the label that exposed this music to the world. Essentially, the subgenre sought to unite the darker side of European synth music with classic Detroit techno. But unlike classic Detroit techno, there’s hardly a hint of warmth to it. It’s fast, pounding, and relentless. It’s more convulsive than danceable. In the 1990s, it sounded like nothing else in techno.
It’s been about 30 years since those early Downwards records, however. And it’s been 20 since the last Regis LP, Penetration. Since then, techno has gotten louder, darker, and harder. Naturally, then, the first question you might ask about a new Regis album is: can an old hand like O’Connor keep pace with all the young guns?
And the answer, on Hidden in This Is the Light That You Miss, is a resounding yes. O’Connor’s still got it. Hidden is as abrasive and uncompromising as any of his past LPs. Fittingly, O’Connor has Boris Wilsdorf on production duties here. Wilsdorf also produced for Einstürzende Neubauten, a German industrial group, formed in the 1980s. Among other things, Einstürzende were known for building instruments out of found objects from scrap yards, often using sheet metal—yes, literal sheet metal—as percussion. Unsurprisingly, the production here is as grating as you’d expect from a noise veteran like Wilsdorf.
The very first track, “Calling Down a Curse”, has clear elements of Einstürzende in it. The drums have a metallic ring to them, and the mixing has a loose, jagged feel like everything could snap apart at any moment. And snap apart it does—at the seven-minute mark, the drums go quiet, leaving only the bass. The bass is immediately replaced by a human voice that is vocoded beyond recognition—or is it a human voice? The sound is so warped, so thoroughly digitized, it’s just plain inscrutable. One is reminded of Juan Atkins’ famous dictum: techno is “music that sounds like technology, and not technology that sounds like music” (Dance Music Report, 22 May 1992). Indeed, Regis’ music often feels so distorted, so twisted out of shape, even the most human moments feel modular. Voices become indistinguishable from machines.
The most remarkable part about Hidden, however, is the song structures. Many of the songs here are staked almost entirely on percussion. In many artists’ hands, this would be a recipe for boredom. In O’Connor’s, the recipe does wonders. Yes, there are a couple of misfires, such as “The Blind Departing” and “Cracked Earth”, which lack the dynamism and forcefulness of typical Regis tracks. But for the most part, the album’s minimalism is its strength. Take “I See Fire”. This song features little more than sharp, pummeling drums, a fat, ridiculously funky bass, and traces of glitchy static-crackle that have a dub-techno-like flavor. The track is pounding, sure, but it’s also subtle. If you pay close attention to the bassline, you’ll notice it gets heavier and clunkier as the song goes along, minutely changing its tone and pacing. These moments confirm O’Connor is not just a master of the groove, but also as a master of sound manipulation.
If there’s any real difference between Hidden and its predecessor, Penetrate, it’s Hidden’s abundance of beat-less, soundscape tracks. Whereas Penetrate had just one, “Slave to the Inevitable”, this LP has three. There’s “Alone of All Her Sex”, with its creeping two-note bassline and faint, saw-like noises in the background. At just under two minutes, this track adds an air of nervous anticipation to the LP, like the calm before the storm.
Then there’s “Eros in Tangiers”, perhaps the eeriest, nerviest track on the whole album. Here, we have nothing but the far-off squeals of small children under a plodding one-note bassline and distant cymbals. Are the children crying, or just playing? They seem to be fighting over something, but their voices are too distant to make out. Then again, we’re probably not supposed to be able to make them out. The uncertainty is probably the point. These interludes are not thrown in as moments of respite; they’re here to keep us on edge, to keep our palms sweaty in anticipation of whatever soul-crushing banger is going to crush us next.
The best soundscape passage, however, is the last one, “Another Kind of Love”. The song opens with a distorted train whistle repeating itself over and over, followed by the sound of a howling windstorm. A muted piano, a faint organ, and flurry of hissing industrial noises add a sepia-toned ghostliness to the mix. In some ways, “Another Kind of Love” calls to mind the late 1990s Philip Jeck recordings, with its reliance on found sounds and industrial oddities. But like any good Jeck recording, it’s not the sounds themselves that make the difference. It’s the crispness, the richness, the graininess, and distortion of each sound. Tracks like this one add an entirely new dimension to an otherwise slamming LP.
All in all, Hidden is not a radical departure in sound for Regis. It is, however, a slightly more varied statement than most of his late 1990s and early 2000s work. Lovers of ambient and soundscape music may find themselves drawn in where they weren’t before. At the same time, fans of the usual Birmingham Sound will have their old love reaffirmed. That’s not to say Regis’ new LP has something for everyone, however. It certainly has nothing for the faint of heart, and it’s uncompromisingly brutal. But from an artist who’s always specialized in grinding industrial terror, what more could you want?