Darren Cunningham, whose last album as Actress was distributed alongside a surreal press release/manifesto with the closing line 'R.I.P Music 2014', has always projected something of an ‘artistic’ image of himself. He’s been uncompromising and difficult in interviews, released conceptual albums and subsequently earned praised as one of techno’s foremost experimentalists. But whilst this might be true on some level – in that he’ll often approach music from an unconventional angle, intellectualise it, or draw on disparate, unexpected sources of inspiration – it’s never felt like the whole story. You always got the impression that somewhere underneath the PR bluster and the grandiose ideas was simply a producer with an immaculate grasp of the fundamentals of his craft.
Anyone who’s witnessed his ability to empty dancefloors with only a few tracks, however, will know that Cunningham’s skills behind the decks aren’t nearly so infallible. If his own productions have long turned the unconventional into great dance music, his DJ sets have historically done the reverse – tying confused audiences in knots on more than one occasion. So it’s a pleasant surprise that his debut for the 49th edition of DJ-Kicks – despite containing plenty of sharp changes in direction, and hopping from genre to genre like a sugar-happy kid – is so easy to enjoy (though that’s not to say it’s conventional).
Whilst the usual mode for DJs mixing sets over 60 minutes is to shift gears and build mood through long passages, placing songs with sonic or thematic similarities alongside each other (see Mumdance’s recent Fabriclive for a great example of this), there’s no obvious groupings or trends on DJ-Kicks. At first glance it can feel a little haphazard – as though Cunningham’s just picked his 20 favourite songs and hit shuffle – however, after a few listens you begin to see some method appearing: rather than selecting songs based on continuity, and how they slot into the progression of the mix, he’s selected based on their relation to the whole.
Because of this, DJ-Kicks is oddly atemporal. It’s more like a structure – a sort of musical house of cards – which you’re supposed to admire from the outside, than something you’d participate in, or experience as a journey. This is accentuated by Actress’s blasé approach to mixing (or at times, as the case may be, not mixing), where long, layered transitions are a rarity, and he’s far more likely to just fade out a track to silence before fading in its successor, or suddenly cut – a la the gripping nose dive from Lorenzo Senni into Reel by Real’s rasping ‘Look at Me’.
Such a bumpy ride might put off some, but the flipside to this approach is that most of the tunes here feel organic and un-tampered with, getting to play out their lifespans, you would presume, how their producers intended, rather than being diluted at either end with their neighbouring tracks (a cynical way of looking at mixing, I know, but true on some level). Creepy shuffler ‘Psychelicious’, say, and subsequent track ‘Toil’, with it’s lurching synths, and a percussive line which seems purposefully designed to run rings around you, feel distinct – almost like two paintings in the same gallery.
Fortunately, the role of curator suits Cunningham's talents, and despite the choppy mixing and non-continuous programming, DJ-Kicks never feels as alienating and outright strange as some of his past mixes – even if it does channel their raw energy (see the pitched-up, 140bpm version of Zennor’s ‘Tin’, or the supersonic bombardment of Autechre’s ‘Pen Expers’ which comes in after only three songs but somehow still works). This is mainly down to the sheer quality of almost every selection here. DJ-Kicks is one of those wonderful mixes that sends you scurrying off to Soundcloud with a glint in your eye, and a long list of producers to research. And the icing on the cake? ‘Bird Matrix’, sliding in as the penultimate song, thrumming and hypnotic – a gentle reminder that as both DJ and producer Actress is as good as it gets.
8Josh Suntharasivam's Score