Leon Vynehall’s ‘DJ-Kicks’ Entry Proves Fascinating and Frustrating in Equal Measure

Leon Vynehall crafts a crate-digging set which, while not always satisfying, at least remains one of the bolder entries in the long-running DK-Kicks series.

Leon Vynehall
1 February 2019

When British DJ Leon Vynehall’s debut full-length Nothing Is Still dropped last year, it served as both the culmination of the buzzed-about house artist’s litany of memorable EPs and singles as well as a proper introduction to his style for the uninitiated. It was relaxing and exploratory but with a real sense of purpose, his careful choices of subdued synth washes running into classical and jazz elements that resulted in a solemn, mournful record that paid tribute to the passing of his grandfather. The goal of the record was to tell the story of his grandparents moving to America, but through his own distinct musical vision, resulting in a musical travelogue that was one part biography and one part nuanced interpretation.

When reviewing it for PopMatters, Paul Carr noted that “Vynehall has woven a rich tapestry of complimentary sounds that serves a purpose far bigger than the music itself. It’s an artistic piece in the truest sense that works best as a singular whole, inviting the listener to take the time to clock off for its duration and immerse themselves fully. As Vynehall’s undoubted masterpiece, it serves as a fitting tribute to his grandparents and to anyone who has moved to new lands to forge a new life.”

In 2019, Vynehall very much kept the tradition of mining his past for musical inspiration going by adding another edition to !K7’s great DJ-Kicks series. Digging through his own archives and picking out rare and unheard selections, he crafts a set of music that points towards the classic house that no doubt got him into DJ culture as well as some more idiosyncratic inspirations that crafted him into the artist he is today.

First off, DJ-Kicks editions often come as two versions: one has a set of the individually selected songs by themselves while another features a mix-down by the artist. Often, the single-track mixdown serves as a way for the artist to show off their mixing abilities, but in Vynehall’s case, it is recommended you take on the tracks by themselves, as his mixdown blazes through some great picks far too quickly, leaving out some of the more interesting nuances his selections have to offer. Certainly, his mix also means that some of the more challenging numbers (the half-spoken/half-rapped oddity “Genie” by Kemikal, Bourbonese Qualk’s drum-and-scream entry “Moving Forward”) get mercifully shortened, but in the individual track listing, the rest of his numbers have time to shine.

From the Japanese psychedelic rock of Haruomi Hosono’s “Rose & Beast” to the dark Genesis P. Orridge and Dave Ball spoken story “Sex & The Married Frog”, it’s refreshing to hear Vynehall’s experiences outside the traditional house/DJ spectrum, and, although he pushes the limits of listenability sometimes (as on the droning drum entry “Nuws” by London SoundCloud mixer Shamos), it’s especially great to hear him go to more difficult places on what is normally a “look how deep my record collection is” kind of affair.

Yet Vynehall’s DJ-Kicks entry works best when he goes down club music history in order dig up some stellar blasts of house nostalgia. While the drum ‘n’ bass section that caps the end of the set makes for a surprisingly solid way to ease the listener out of the set (highlighted by Mirage’s excellent chillout rave number “Deep Range”), it’s his ’80s-indebted diva bit in the first third that may have the most nostalgic, rewarding cuts in the whole affair. Starting with the Bygraves’ 1991 single “Set Me Free”, with its Euro-coffeehouse vibes, there’s a breeziness found with these retro numbers that give Vynehall’s DJ-Kicks a lot of heart. Right after that, he ushers in the lo-fi synthpop of “August Is an Angel” by Degrees of Freedom from 1988, which is a simple bass-and-synth kind of ballad that’s anchored by little bells and flourishes that makes you think that Vynehall’s DJ-Kicks brother Four Tet may have easily jammed out to the same thing back in the day.

All in all, DJ-Kicks paints Vynehall’s distinct taste in wide swaths, pulling in a variety of nostalgic and occasionally difficult genre fare to give us the full spectrum of his influences. As with most DJ-Kicks entries, the record ends up being a bit longwinded, and unlike other DJ-Kicks entries, his flirtation with some occasionally atonal numbers pulls the listener out of the overall listening experience. Still, following a project that required him to heavily dive into his past to create something new, hearing a completely different side him proves to be a rewarding experience, and leaves you wanting to know even more about him and what he’ll dig up for us next.

RATING 6 / 10