London producer Actress has earned his abstruse reputation. Though Darren Cunningham thankfully doesn’t indulge in electronic music’s pervasive “anonymous producer” trope, interviews reveal a musician with a deeply held, idiosyncratic philosophy regarding his art. (This one from NPR last year is fantastic). Then there’s the music itself: much of 2012’s R.I.P. is devoid of beats, constructed instead around build-and-release synth pads, the crackle and hiss of static and white noise, and field recordings warped into obscurity.
Last year Cunningham was scheduled to play Decibel Fest but canceled last-minute. As a result, his performance at the Crocodile last night was one of the festival’s most anticipated. The Croc was at capacity more than two hours before his 12:30 a.m. set began, though some of the crowd was only there to see Lapalux, a future bass/hip-hop producer and Flying Lotus protege whose dexterous sample manipulation was impressive, even if his music sounds like a Tumblr feed.
True to form, Cunningham was wearing mostly black and a hood when he came on stage to stand behind a table full of equipment and a MacBook. The stage was completely dark, and he spent most of his time staring at his computer, but coming to an Actress show expecting visual simulation isn’t the right move. The focus is the sounds he produces, a fact that Cunningham’s introverted lack of stage presence reinforces. I’ve finally gotten into the habit of wearing earplugs to shows, but I removed them midway through the first song, and I was able to fully hear the texture and nuance of Cunningham’s productions. Soon after that, he began an extended ambient piece based on some faint piano and a repeated crackling pattern, and the projector turned on. The visuals were a good metaphor for his organic-sounding, difficult music: yellow and green polygons expanding on themselves before suddenly collapsing, only to rebuild again. It’s a good sign for Decibel that so many people would pack a club at 1 a.m. on a Thursday night to see such outre music.
Worth a quick postscript mention is Natasha Kmeto, whose 45-minute opening set was the most enjoyable of the night. Kmeto is the most interesting artist on local label Dropping Gems’s deep roster, and live, she blends her trademark futuristic R&B with crowd-pleasing deep house cuts. She manipulates, processes, and loops her singing voice to great effect, and her beats had the crowd moving to a degree that I don’t often see at Seattle shows. One to watch out for.