2010 is far from over yet, but it already been a tremendous year for electronic music. Kieren Hebden has made the best of the Four Tet albums and there have been superb releases from Caribou, Pantha Du Prince and Luke Abbott among others.
The second album from Darren Cunningham, manager of the Werk Discs label and recording artist under the Actress moniker, therefore emerges into a crowded marketplace. Most of the aforementioned albums invest human feeling and warmth into what can sometimes be a detached and unemotional genre. By way of contrast, Cunningham stands out for making a virtue of his music’s mechanical coldness. There’s a track here called Always Human, surely an intentional slice of devious irony.
It would be inaccurate to classify Splazsh as a dubstep album, although it’s easy to see why it has received a favourable response from those enthusiastic about that particular movement. Cunningham continues from where previous album Hazeyville finished, this time developing tentative ideas into something more linear and coherent. Cunningham has located a fertile intersection between post-dubstep music and techno, drawing from grime, ambient and even ’80s funk. Whilst familiar four-to-the-floor club beats predominate, the interest lies in the way Cunningham’s precise details interact and integrate with them. He is adroit at building musical phrases – starting and resolving his bass lines in unconventional places and creating satisfying cross rhythms on tracks such as Bubble Butts and Equations. Discreet melodic ideas appear too but never linger long enough to become the focus of the music. Instead, the emphasis is on an unwavering claustrophobic, sweaty atmosphere.
This music is dark in the sense that it lacks light. It has the procedural clunk of industrial process, or the ingrained routine of hedonistic nights out that inevitably end painfully. It conjures up images of enclosed urban spaces at night – car parks, alleyways. At times, it sounds aggressive but it’s always ambiguous as to whether it is intended to be menacing or celebratory. Cunningham presents us with a tense, terse world that could be dangerous, yet one which simultaneously seems inviting and exciting. It might be a heartless landscape, but the brightness of pop music is often tantalisingly close at hand. The syncopated percussion on Get Ohn is reminiscent of the vocal quirks of Michael Jackson, whilst the humorous intrusion of Space Invaders sound effects briefly offers some levity on Always Human.
As Burial and Four Tet have already done, Splazsh makes inventive use of cut up vocal samples. Voices don’t so much drift in and out of this brutal landscape but are rather forced into rigidly demarcated rhythmic spaces. Sometimes the effect is robotic, as if to express a sense of monotony and repetition, whilst at other times the voices suggest a loveless sexuality – ecstatic but completely divorced from anything sensual or erotic. Supreme Cunnilingus makes this notion explicit, and emerges as the album’s weirdest moment. It’s a dislocated blur of sound that forsakes a recognisable beat, but messes around with rhythm and frequency in a jarring and intense way. It foregrounds obtrusive, technological noises that sound almost like ringtones. Only when the kinetic cyber funk of The Kettle Men follows is the tension broken.
Cunningham is skilled in sustaining uncomfortable moments right up to a breaking point but he’s also brilliant at making this self-contained, insular music sound sleek, modern and somehow appetising. Splazsh may not be the food of love, but it does provide a visceral and physical and thrill.