Eric Estornel's DJ-Kicks is branded as a Maceo Plex effort, but its darkness will surprise those who know only his most successful pseudonym. For those familiar with his work as Maetrik, it marks a welcome return to the grinding tech-house that's filled the bulk of his career, long before the sunshine funk of tracks like "Vibe Your Love" helped spearhead the rise of the all-conquering Crosstown Rebels family.
Estornel's contribution to !K7's august mix series is a node between his two identities, an occasionally uneasy alloy of Maceo Plex's Dr. Jekyll and Maetrik's Mr. Hyde. DJ-Kicks has previously served as a platform for these statements (see Scuba's 2011 installment, which hinted at the at the strides towards arena electro he'd eventually showcase on Adrenalin and the aptly titled Personality), and Estornel manages the playoff between the two deftly. It would have been easy to merely segment the mix—a passage of Maceo Plex here, a chapter of Maetrik there—but instead, he works on the duality within each record. Early on, there's the Blak Spun mix of TV Baby's "New York Is Alright," which perforates its city-eviscerating vocal with hi-hats plucked from a Robert Hood record, stitches both to a low end that's pregnant with dread, and then throws in a blaring saxophone to puncture the tension. Then there's his own flurry of edits, which inject anxiety into the proceedings, even on lush beat workouts like S.A.M.'s "Nangijala," where enveloping synths darken into bursts of noise.
Estornel is too shrewd of a DJ to rely purely on moments though, which is likely why the mix's real emotional clout is in its overarching ebb and flow. His opening choice is an apt one; Bitstream's 1999 cut "Bit Logic," released under the The Monsters from ID moniker, channels Drexciyan electro as it clatters snares through choral pads. It's an early marker that this mix won't be entirely predictable, an impression that's compounded by a progression through the melancholy house of Voice Stealer and DJ Stingray's electro wiggles, which have been pitched down to a point where they're unrecognizably deep. But as the beats straighten, Maceo Plex rears his head more noticeably, first in the throaty vocal of Mathias Schaffhäuser's "Nice to Meet You," then in Love from San Francisco's groove-laden take on "Raise the Dead," which strips the original of its bongos in favor of Balearic pads.
There's a brief shift into tech-house cruise control before Maceo Plex's DJ-Kicks exclusive, now a tradition, bumps things out of the rut. "Galactic Cinema" is the epitome of Estornel's schizophrenia, as its cloyingly saccharine vocal has been bolted to all manner of subterranean growls and crackles. Things get darker from there, as Estornel gives Maetrik free rein to baste even serial groove merchant Move D in creepiness, part of a closing third that holds the mix's most cogent meshing of its dual personalities. Despite wrapping things up with the sun-drenched finale of Maceo Plex's "Mind on Fire," this edition of DJ- Kicks is a mix that could well alienate some of Estornel's newer fans. Still, it could also win round those who had simply lumped him in with the diminishing returns of Crosstown Rebels' many copyists. Maceo Plex's DJ-Kicks shows an adroit understanding of how to blend catchy and creepy, and Estornel should be applauded for not following the easier path. But then, as he's proven through constant reinvention over the course of his career, that's never really been who he is.