With the label keeping the new Actress album seemingly one of the most closely guarded secrets of recent times and having finally convinced the record company to send us an advance copy just a few days before the release date, this is what Tim thought of it...
With ‘Hazyville’ and ‘Splazsh’, Darren Cunningham offered nocturnal abstractions which flirted with UK bass, IDM, techno and house but remained distinctive and original in its hypnotic depth. ‘R.I.P’ signals a grander intent with a sound which retains that hypnotic quality but adds latent cosmic tones.
An ex-footballer originating from Wolverhampton wouldn’t be the first possible backstory to spring to mind when considering experimental electronic musicians. Though on the basis of Cunningham’s recent press interviews, there’s little conventionality in his origins or outlook. Judging by the unpredictable mass of sounds assembled and spliced together in the immersive collage of R.I.P, there’s little if anything resembling convention in his sound either. Having impressed significantly with ‘Hazyville’ and ‘Splazsh’, it appears Cunningham hasn’t lost his touch for inducing horripilation with raw, dystopian techno. It’s clear from the title track though, that Cunningham has embellished the visceral surges that frequently surface, with an added dimension, reflected in a more convictive production. The depth and complexity of this production suggests a pretty meticulous approach, as if Cunningham has been holed up for the last two years crafting ‘RIP’, like an obsessive, ascetic monk. The titles do suggest a certain element of spirituality: ‘Holy Water’, ‘Uriel’s Black Harp’, ‘Serpent’, ‘Ascending’, ‘Tree of Knowledge’ etc., and there is a loose thread in the music which hints at what Cunningham might be considering; life after death in paradise or hell. Though, erudite speculation doesn’t seem an appealing possibility, when the quality of the production and the sounds amassed on ‘RIP’, are gratifying enough.
The title track is the most immediately accessible testament to this quality with a cinematic assertion of mood established over a minute and a half of ruminative ambience shot through with grainy static and subtly underpinned by subdued but full-toned bass: as good an example of any (so far this year) as to how to start an album. The aptly titled ‘Ascending’ continues this establishment of mood with a flickering astral loop which retains a persistent, anticipatory pulsation similar to some of BNJMN’s recent work in that it remains content to ‘ascend’ forever on the cusp, building and building until eventually breaking in an anti-climactic end which nonetheless maintains a momentum of intensity and coheres with what follows. ‘Holy Water’ takes the celestial element further, hovering in beatless incandescence before ‘Marble Plexus’ administers a coarsened edge of sibilating synth and static, accompanied by tinny percussion and mesmeric throbs. ‘Uriel’s Black Harp’ is only reminiscent of Brainfeeder’s Teebs in the way it unites harp music with ambience but rather than setting an idyllic scene (as on the whole, Teebs does) it creates an ominous atmosphere which effectively lessens the intensity established, accommodating the onset of ‘Jardin’; undoubtedly a clear highlight. ‘Jardin’ stands out purely for the fragility and subtlety on show, emphasizing Cunningham’s ability to remain proficient on both sides of the spectrum (i.e. beatless ambience and the uncompromisingly heavy)
There are only a few producers who seem able to do this consistently (Richard D. James and Wolfgang Voigt are a couple of examples that come to mind) but ‘Jardin’ and ‘RIP’ as a whole, make a strong case for Cunningham’s inclusion in these upper echelons.
‘Serpent’ follows ‘Jardin’, with an offbeat, discordant chaos of violin loops combined with the recurrence of post-punk-esque guitars, accompanied by a backdrop of incessant thuds which eventually become the kind of deconstructed house percussion Andy Stott is famed for. ‘Serpent’ ends before it reaches its zenith, strangely and abruptly as if someone has, with purposeful intent, skipped the track: ‘Shadow from Tartarus’ then streams forth in all its industrial glory, like a dark, distorted techno corruption of Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound, with added effects which sound like the powering up of some supercomputer. ‘Tree of Knowledge’ calms proceedings with disorientated pitch bends before another cosmic interlude in the form of ‘Glitch’. ‘Raven’ again shows Cunningham’s predilection for static ingrained in expansive, ominous electronica constituted by recurrent loops which are foregrounded and manipulated, ensuring a constant fluidity. Considering the length of ‘RIP’, you’d expect at least some filler at this point – but if anything, the final tracks are some of the strongest. ‘Caves of Paradise’ sounds as if it was recorded in what the title designates, with distant clamours arising frequently and acidic stabs coupled with a garage-intoned bassline in the foreground, making for a heady, full mix of sonority and immediacy. ‘The Lord’s Graffiti’ then fades in with dramatic strings and raw 4/4 percussion like a manically impatient twist on Theo Parrish’s work. ‘N E W’ is then Cunningham as cathedral-organist conducting a sombre but stunning funeral before a re-indoctrination into the raw and unhinged in ‘IWAAD’ which includes a funk-addled Joy Division bassline, samples of incantatory hollering and familiar glimpses of Actress-like motifs - i.e. more distorted static and ambient, hypnotic depth.
On first listen, it’s a lot to take in. But after a few returns to ‘RIP’ the quality of the production becomes clear. Cunningham’s evidently meticulous approach has paid off, ensuring the little details aren’t forgotten in all of the cosmic grandeur. Fans of ‘Hazyville’ and ‘Splazsh’ will still find a lot to like, but may have to adapt to Actress as an assured album-artist, which is no mean grievance. Ironically enough, Actress’ ‘RIP’, an album so replete with death in its referential title(s) and tenebrous sound, is likely to live long in the memory.