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To the extent that James ‘Sigha’ Shaw’s debut album harks back to things that were happening in the late Nineties, it’s sobering to think about how much the subcultural streams have crossed since then. Living With Ghosts, probably his most punishing set of tracks to date, is a British techno album whose ancestry lies in (to name only five) James Ruskin, Oliver Ho, Surgeon, Regis and Planetary Assault Systems. Dudes who, once upon a time, made techno music for techno labels and techno club nights, with no obvious urgency to step outside these parameters.
Nowadays, everything is an exciting mess, and attempting to preserve one’s genre purism is hugely more exhausting than before. Surgeon – an old-skool Whitehouse fan – and Regis are crushed on by the same people who buy Prurient cassettes. Oliver Ho plays in a not bad postpunk band. And Hotflush Records, which started in 2003 by releasing dubstep when its umbilical cord was still attached to UK garage, is as logical a label as any to act as facilitator as Sigha scrubs one’s senses over 68 minutes.
His earliest releases (also on Hotflush) didn’t always have much step, but they brought the dub: dry, eerie skeletal throbs akin to an industrialists’ reading of the Basic Channel catalogue. By the time Living With Ghosts really starts to kick – ‘Puritan’, track three – the atmosphere is comparable, but it’s palpably harder and faster than pretty much anything he’s graced us with before. ‘Scene Couple’ has a metronomically insistent kickdrum and a bassline with the steely, space-travelling thud of classic Underground Resistance. ‘Dressing For Pleasure (Ideal)’ may not be explicitly intended as the album’s centrepiece, but is its high water mark for brutal(ist) machine assault, and probably my favourite five minutes of techno this year.
Both these tracks compound the disquiet with the haunted, grainy synth noise which lurks a couple of layers deep; elsewhere, you have ‘Suspension’ and ‘Delicate’, ambient interludes of sorts which place the cable hum at the forefront. (‘Aoikigahara’, the album’s closing track, drags it out to nearly ten minutes, and is moving, Tim Hecker-y ambience with quasi-beats like boots in snow.) ‘Faith And Labour’, nicely skipping tech-funk with an air-moving bassline around the four-minute mark, has this wholly unsettling... noise running throughout that sounds like someone breathing in an oxygen tent. I regret that the constraints of life have prevented me from listening to this at 5am, as I suspect it would be foolproof potion for bad dreams.
The role of disused warehouses in British dance music is paramount, of course, but most people are only really concerned with what went on once they filled up with punters. Sigha sounds like he’s more interested in the preamble – where the doors were jimmied open, a few geezers tiptoed round in the darkness and the dangers were of the ‘known unknowns’ kind. Techno’s relationship with the industrial aesthetic is pretty established, but tends to be thought of in terms of rhythmic panel-beating. Living With Ghosts is a lonelier evocation of the machine age than that.
Signal operators who stop overnight trains crashing, security guards at wealthy people’s banks, operators on Nineties standup comedy perennial the Cones Hotline: this is an album for you. Or would be, if listening to music at your job wasn’t most likely a safety risk. It also deserves to find an audience among anyone who is curious about how the legacy of UK techno (anything from, say, Sweet Exorcist onwards, really) is being upheld in 2012, and anyone who feels mildly gleeful at the idea of genres barging into each other’s territory.