Review: Function / Vatican Shadow – Games Have Rules

For good or ill, techno will be techno. There’s huge space for variation under that umbrella, but for every serious-looking white male photographed in ominous shadows, there seems to be a dozen new different aliases to keep track of. Games Have Rules is the child born of two such men who also share the virtue of experience within the field: Function and Vatican Shadow have both been crafting blistering electronics for many years now, though the latter has collected more monikers and as such is our pick when it comes to techno Scrabble. Vatican Shadow is a relatively recent project of Dominick Fernow’s, hovering around Western intervention in the Middle East, though Fernow’s also been known as Prurient, Window Cleaning By Ian and Dom Guwop. He’s previously ran a record store that had a hand in shaping one of our current favourite noise-makers, Pharmakon, and he’s also responsible for Hospital Productions, the label that Games Have Rules calls home. Then there’s Function, a name of David Sumner’s that released a full-length on Ostgut Ton only last year. Sumner is most notably an alumni of retired collective Sandwell District, a seminal presence in British techno. What with resumés like Sumner’s and Fernow’s, you’d be forgiven for expecting Games Have Rules to proceed with the subtlety and subduedness of a Michael Bay film, though both have proved their deftness and versatility in ambient realms before. This would be one of the first times they’ve had to perform in that vein on such a large scale however, and the pair successfully restrain themselves with great finesse on what turns out to be a soothing stroll through city twilight.

Stream: Function / Vatican Shadow – Things Unknown (Hospital Productions)

Everything about Games Have Rules feels like the city, from its development in New York and Berlin and the Empire State Building on the sleeve to the content of tracks themselves. “Things Known” and “Things Unknown” could pass for field recordings of a sprawling megacity night from the future. Electronic cricket croons and croaks wind in and out of synthetic pulses as rain peppers concrete and traffic passes in the distance. The pair share some motifs and tones but the former is pulse-heavy whilst the latter is fixated on exploring atmospherics. Though the bridge between those two openers is modestly straightforward, transitions seem to be one of the more salient themes explored by Sumner and Fernow on the record: changes inside the pieces, between them and surrounding them as context.

Sumner and Fernow find themselves isolating moments and stretching them out over several minutes on their collaborative album. If tracks don’t seem to go anywhere, it’s because they’ve never attempted to. The pair paint still lifes with their sweepers, and even when the kicks do come in later on in the form of “Red Opium”, the music is a straightforward 4/4 affair that doesn’t serve as the entertainment but rather as an aide for the mind to find its own. Atmospheric pieces that make up most of the album are largely intangible, gently swelling with new textures that seamlessly surface before fading into the overarching soundscape just as effortlessly. It brings to mind the way the chests of the sleeping rise and fall with tranquil delicacy, and Games Have Rules comes across as intentionally attempting to distil that elusive warmth of nighttime solitude. There’s a single instance where Sumner and Fernow push for a more heightened rush of adrenaline, appearing as the final movement “Bejeweled Body”, and their closing gambit proves victorious as the record finishes with a breathless flourish.

Stream: Function / Vatican Shadow – A Year Has Gone By (Hospital Productions)

Some of the tracks appear as partners in sound – the aforementioned introductory pair, “Things Known” and “Things Unknown”, and also “A Year Has Passed” and “A Year Has Gone By”. The direct segues between them initially conjure an illusion of a prequel-sequel relationship (and that model works, too), however it’s more likely that they are simply different ways of understanding the same constants – different paths between points. That brings us to a solitary gripe with the record: sequencing. In Games Have Rules, the water lies still for the most part, but for a few ripples and waves here and there, until the end rumbles the pool and boils it to the point of its acidic outburst. As pleasant as that is the first time round, the record makes for an unbalanced listen. “The Nemesis Flower” sits in the middle of the proceedings and as rivetingly unsettling its eerie submarine radio samples are, they could appear anywhere with little consequence. That said, the artists are clearly focused on mood ahead of narrative with this record and the variety is there, even if it is lopsided.

Whoever wrote the press release for Games Have Rules reckons it has been imbued with “a sense of night turning into day” – that proves accurate considering the contexts we’ve listened to the record in. We’d abstract the sensation further, bringing it into that theme of transition. It’s an album for walks beneath the grey sky, for getting enveloped into the surrounding world or a soundtrack for counting sheep. There’s no static listening experience as the release coaxes the mind to wander, beckoning the imagination out of its cage to make like helium and float the head off somewhere far away. Even the tenth time round and as fans of both Sumner and Fernow’s other works, any sense of unfulfillment seems impossible – experiencing both artists pace themselves and expose facets of their creativity that are usually seen as peripheral is an unexpectedly reassuring adventure. Games Have Rules arrives with impeccable timing, shaking up the discographies of two prolific artists just as nights grow longer and those twilight moments begin to really integrate with all our daily lives. Take it from us – those moments in-between are especially worth looking forward to when Sumner and Fernow are along for the ride.

Stream: Function / Vatican Shadow – Bejeweled Body (Hospital Productions)

Games Have Rules is out now on Hospital Productions in vinyl, CD and digital formats.