Wednesday, 13 March 2013

Yin and yang synergy: Actress and Lone at Corsica Studios

First published in The Wire

Actress + Lone
Corsica Studios, London
2 February 2013

Celebrating the fourth birthday of London club night Them in the grubby cavities of Corsica Studios, this is an incongruous double bill on the face of it.

Last spring saw the release of two career defining albums by Darren Cunningham and Matt Cutler, aka Actress and Lone. On RIP Cunningham implemented austerity measures on his palette of stuttering techno and grimy synths to carve out a monochrome meditation inspired by Paradise Lost and the quasi-philosophy of “the music of the spheres” – serious stuff, in other words. Galaxy Garden, in contrast, transcended the Brainfeeder-indebted phunkiness of Cutler's earlier records (including Ecstasy & Friends, released on Cunningham's Werkdiscs label) in a riot of high-velocity euphoria that riffed on the melodic energy of '90s rave.

Playing first, Cutler brings the room to a peak-hour frenzy with a live set built largely from his two releases on the revived R&S Records – the latest album and the playful, uptempo Echolocations EP. Twisting acid squelch and metallic gamelan chimes are stacked atop hollow percussion and blissed out Balearic sighs, building a vision of earthly paradise that harks back to the techno-utopian fantasies of the Castlemorton era. Even the names of his tracks – 'Spirals'; 'Crystal Caverns 1991'; 'Earth's Lungs' – come from a halycon era, and this retro-futurist assemblage aligns Cutler with the digital maximalism of fellow Brit producers Rustie and Hudson Mohawke, whose colossal 'Cbat' he slips in mid-set.

"Vandross, Prince: they're saints to us." Inc. talk No World and stripping the blackness out of R&B

First published by Fact

Nearly two decades of musical training provided Californian duo inc. with a priceless sense of timing.

Armed with matching boyish visages and an acutely of-the-moment take on soft and soulful R&B, brothers Andrew and Daniel Aged found themselves on the sharp end of a trend with the release of their debut album, no world, on 4AD last month. 

But look past their well-timed entry into the divisive-but-blossoming genre of alt-R&B and you’ll find a pair of musicians who’ve been diligently putting in the hours since childhood, joining backing bands for enormo-stars like Pharrell, Elton John and Parliament and touring with personal heroes like Raphael Saadiq, all while barely out of their teens.

When they each tired of being “the only little white kid in the band”, the Ageds reconvened to form Teen Inc. (they soon dropped the inaccurate prefix), taking what they’d learned from the big boys to turn out the 3 EP in 2011, their own paean to funkified R&B and hyper-glossy New Jack Swing.

Nearly two years later, the sound of inc. has matured dramatically. Melancholic yet warm, no world draws on the gloopiest of late night radio slow jams and the glistening post-coital heat of neo-soul (D’Angelo and Maxwell are both revered as demigods by the brothers), while the occasional flutter of double-time trap drums hints at a maelstrom of heartache lurking beneath Andrew’s buttery-smooth voice.

The result is an almost archetypal expression of – yes – alt-R&B, the genre the internet hates to love. But where their peers like How To Dress Well and The Weeknd use vocal gymnastics to lay their hearts bare, inc. keep their cards close to their chest, burying vocals deep in the mix and forging a sound that complements their label’s legacy of misty-eyed dreampop.

The Aged brothers spoke to FACT about feeling like Jimi Hendrix, worshipping Saint Luther Vandross and stripping the blackness out of R&B – read the full interview on Fact.

Monday, 14 January 2013

A$AP Rocky – 'Long.Live.A$AP'

A$AP Rocky
Polo Grounds Music/RCA Records

As if being named after '80s hip hop’s most influential rapper wasn’t enough pressure on Rakim Mayers’ young shoulders, the delays that clogged the release of this big label debut mean Harlem’s own pretty motherfucker has a lot to live up to. By and large, it doesn’t fully deliver on the promise of A$AP Mob’s stoned’n’swagged 2011 mixtape ‘Live.Love.A$AP’, but Rocky’s decision to cleave himself from the likes of the terminally moronic A$AP Ant has proved a wise move.

Three outrageously bad tracks soil the mid-section of the album: the dopey ‘Fashion Killa’, the Skrillex-produced ‘Wild For The Night’ (in fairness, no more gruesome than you’d expect) and then the utterly risible ‘Fuckin’ Problems’, in which Kendrick Lamar, Drake and the ubiquitous 2 Chainz provide a modish chorus line as Rocky undoes all his good work as hip hop’s self-styled anti-homophobia ambassador with the unforgivable line, “Turn a dyke bitch out, have her fucking boys.”

But there are stunners too: the Clams Casino-produced ‘LVL’ and ‘Hell’, the bumping ‘1 Train’, featuring stonking verses from underground heroes Action Bronson, Yelawolf and Joey Bada$$, and a later quintet of gloomy and dissonant tracks like the sumptuous, Wu Tang-alike ‘Suddenly’.

He’s diluted his artistic credentials to gain broader appeal, but Rocky’s preternaturally charismatic and agile flow makes this patchy album something far more compelling.

Needing some Timeaway: an interview with Darkstar

First published in Loud And Quiet

In October 2010, Darkstar emerged from the then blooming scene we used to call post-dubstep with an album of ice cold urban romance, a quintessential night bus record with a surprisingly potent seam of '80s electronic pop running through its 10 tales of mechanical heartbreak. Half Human League, half machine, North was a milestone for the entire scene, proving to be the high waterwark of a moment that has since then splintered and lost cohesion, with artists like Mount Kimbie and James Blake moving further away from their dubstep origins with each release.

Darkstar, who formed in London but are originally from Wakefield, Leeds and Cheshire, spent over a year working on the follow-up to North. It wasn't an easy journey. Itching to get away from the grind of the capital, they sequestered themselves in a country house in Yorkshire's Colne Valley – to give you an idea of the rural surroundings, it's the next valley over from where Last of the Summer Wine is filmed – and diligently worked on the new songs, until a painful twist of fate forced a dramatic rethink.

It started as a writing trip, says James Young, the man who formed Darkstar along with fellow producer Aiden Whalley, before the addition of James Buttery on vocals.

“We just got a house in the country,” he says. “It's really weird up there though. Because you've got a lot of space and time on your hands you do lose focus. It's very difficult to maintain normality.”