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.

Revving the tempo to frantic video game speeds, the hint of old-fashioned hardcore nuttiness sounds distinctly fresh after the vogue in recent years for lower BPM, dragged down by dubstep's slide into 4/4 and the lachrymose deep house of Nicolas Jaar and John Talabot. Likewise, Cutler's reworking of heard-before sounds is galvanised by his distance from the original era, having first discovered rave through a box of cassettes found in a friend's dad's cupboard.

Faced with a crowd of smiley and boisterous nouveau crusties, Cunningham gleefully pulls the rug from under their feet by diving into a thick, churning texture and shadow, draining the colour from the room within seconds. He's playing a record, but it sounds like two at once, then three, then like the history of electronic music herded together and given the Disintegration Loops treatment. His eyes flicker and roll back as he listens intently without headphones, zoning out from the cluster of noses and camera phones poking over the booth.

His most perverse selection comes just a few records in, as the ghastly shrieks of Suicide's 'Frankie Teardrop' tear through the room, pinning arms by sides as amped-up dancers struggle to find a pulse in the murky fog. The committed are rewarded in the long run, though, with a set much denser and warmer than the skeletal iciness of RIP – flavours that may hint at his delayed follow-up Ghettoville.

Despite Cunningham's hardline approach being the very opposite of Cutler's Technicolor nostalgia, their pairing tonight has a timely sense of yin and yang synergy. Both are defined by their backwards glance, their obsession with exhuming the past, and with memory and decay. While Cutler paints with vivid colours and sharp contrasts, Cunningham pokes static and grime between the crevices of each beat; while Cutler builds and builds, Cunningham razes, deconstructing and decimating loops until they approach a point of terminal entropy.

Their polarity turns out to be as complementary as it is oppositional tonight, as the pair exemplify in a nutshell two dominant trajectories in electronic music right now – one the maximalist-turned-ethnographer, smiling and waving from the past; the other a spectre of yesterday's tomorrows, blurring and smudging the music we thought we knew into a sound that could only be here now.

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