Electronica’s golden boy steps up to the DJ-Kicks podium – for an Oscar or a Razzie?
Over the course of four superb albums, Actress, known to his birth certificate as Wolverhampton-born Darren Cunningham, has signposted new routes for house, techno and bass music, winning crossover acclaim and sales in the process. In terms of combining underground and overground success, only Aphex Twin and Burial can hold a candle to him.
Producer-genius he may be, but like Richard D James, Cunningham is an idiosyncratic, polarising DJ. Eschewing the ubiquitous laptop and employing a mixing style that is either “shit” (copyright half the Soundcloud commenters) or deliberately and determinedly old skool (copyright the other half), he typically spins a blend of crate-dug classics, bootlegs and bleeding-edge newies, sometimes radically pitched and often purposefully distorted. His sets have a rough, ragged quality that runs contrary to the deep, intricate sound of his recorded work, and at their best – a Boiler Room appearance at Primavera, where he followed a Mariah Carey bootleg with a lengthy, overdriven acid workout – they can seem like pirate radio broadcasts from hell.
How does that translate to his first ever commercial mix? Things start shakily. For a while, it looks as though the loopily stoned appeal of his live sets has been ironed out in favour of a succession of quick cuts and fades, with an opening stretch of foggy techno proceeding too neatly from one tune to the next. The effect ends up being more akin to one of those tastefully segued ‘Back To Mine’ compilations than a statement of intent from one of the scene’s brightest talents. When the sequence is interrupted by Autechre’s ‘Pen Expers’, a track you probably already have, and then followed by Chameleon’s ‘Thought 2’, the kind of DJ tool you’d expect to find in a more intricately woven set than this, you’d be forgiven for thinking the mix is a dead duck.
Thankfully this period is followed by a sharp uptick in quality. Though Cunningham’s track selection is hindered (presumably) by the vagaries of the licensing process – meaning boots are out – what remains is his determination to place old with new, and they rub up against each other in surprising ways. A downtempo John Beltran track from 1995 meets the 2014 digi-funk of Moon B’s ‘Those Moments’ and then, before you know it, becomes the dark drone of ‘Toil’ by Snakepiss.
As competing tunes are crunched together, the mix comes closest to replicating the unpredictability that makes Actress-the-DJ such an enticing prospect, as well as setting up an appealing final furlong that features a new track from the man himself. ‘Bird Matrix’ is a narcotic 13-minute opus that was trailed ahead of the main release and it’s a beauty – almost worth the price of admission on its own.
In short, then, it’s a good mix. Not a great one. Not as anomalous or as game-changing as we dared hope for – this is Actress, after all, so we had a right to hope big – but recommended nonetheless.