Chris Cunningham @ Roundhouse 01/06/11 Review

A synapse shattering, mind-melting visual and aural assault on the senses

Chris Cunningham is a name that some of you might not be all that familiar with so let me enlighten you. He is an English film and music video director who has been creating cutting-edge, groundbreaking videos for the last 15 years or so. He has had close ties to Warp Records since his first production for Autechre back in 1996 while more recent videos for Aphex Twin, “Come to Daddy” and “Windowlicker” are perhaps his best know. Indeed, his video for Björk’s “All Is Full Of Love” in 1999 won multiple awards and completely blew me away when I first saw it. Certainly, it would be fair to see that Cunningham is prolific, enigmatic and most comfortable inhabiting the fringes of music and video production.

So when I was recently asked if I wanted to attend the Chris Cunningham gig at the Roundhouse in exchange for writing this review, it would be an understatement to say that I leapt at the chance. Two warm-up acts were on the bill, neither of which I was familiar with. First up was 16-Bit, two young guys on decks who did a grand job of whipping up the assorted oddball crowd with a mix of jump-up d‘n’b, heavy dub-step and a smattering of high-octane electronica plucked from the Rephlex vault. Not entirely my cup of tea, but they certainly got the energy levels up.

The second warm-up act comprised of three-piece band, Factory Floor. Not having any pre-conceptions of this band I must say I was totally floored (!) by how interesting and original their sound was. Hard to define musically, but I would describe FF as a post-punk band with a heavy industrial, motorik bent, certainly influenced by krautrock bands such as Neu! and Kraftwerk. Indeed, I found the band’s four songs to be hypnotic, druggy, visceral and throbbing. Which is hugely ironic since I later realised that the ‘older looking guy on electronics’ is actually one Chris Carter, formally of English industrial post-punk band, Throbbing Gristle. Talk about full circle.

So, on to Chris Cunningham, who used the familiar set up of three super-screens, smoke machines and obligatory eye-piercing lasers. Opening up with a video of Gil Scott-Heron and Jamie XX’s ‘New York is Killing Me’ seemed apt given Heron’s death only the week before. Indeed, the dark, twisted train trails and Heron’s haggard, struggling tones couldn’t have been more powerful and certainly set the mood for the rest of Cunningham’s performance.

Short film re-hash ‘Flex’, a mirage of a naked man and women brutally beating the living crap out of each other, interspersed with a dog masturbating vigorously was also a standout. Its looping impact punched outwards, creating a devastating electronica beat, whilst its graphic nature went dizzyingly straight to the core, disturbing and entertaining in equal measure.

Other standouts included a little girl asleep in bed, starting out serene and then playful as her face began to contort in time with drill ‘n’ bass electronica. However, the girl then gets torn apart and put together in a shocking and visceral looped scene that was so unpredictable and disturbing that the audience hysterically shrieked and laughed in disbelieving horror. There was also a Boards of Canada mashup interlude of ‘Geogaddi’ which seemed to work really well by dropping the intensity and bringing a dream-like ambient sequence into the fray, albeit briefly. And of course, Cunningham ended with ‘Rubber Johnny’, a crowd pleaser and a video that doesn’t fail to mesmerise and shock by its sheer fucked-up-ness even on third or fourth viewing.

The only criticism would be the lack of new material but this wasn’t really a massive issue given that I had not yet seen Chris Cunnigham live. All in all, a visual and aural experience like no other, and one that will likely render me permanently impaired. Who needs drugs when you have Chris Cunningham?

Faisal Latif

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