- Top 100
June 11, 2012
by Greg West
As Actress, London-based Darren Cunningham has been producing a body of cutting edge EDM ever since his career as a footballer came to an abrupt end due to injury. His previous releases, Hazyville and Splazsh, were lush soundscapes of hazy techno, somewhere in between art house (Colin Stetson), and the club floor (Oneohtrix Point Never). His latest release strips backs clouds of smoke, and eschews mirrors for straight up geometry—math driven ‘beats’ and intricate lucid soundscapes—to deliver his best work to date.
Part of the genius of this iteration of Darren Cunningham’s vision is the way in which the clarity of sound and the staggering, intricate detail, function to represent a subject that is just out of sight, with an almost exactly 1:1 mimesis. Like a tilt shift photo, a painting by Seurat, or a magic-eye picture—the soundscape rises from a density of information that details a feeling, or a sound, at it’s vanishing point.
Tracks range in length from half a minute to six, but each one is a completely separate, sovereign entity. Glint coruscates in and out of view in seconds, like sunlit dew, all progressive chords and music box melody, with chimes and plangent waves of skronk that smell like fresh cut grass. Meanwhile, Caves of Paradise seems never ending within the space of four minutes. Pan pipe exhalations—each a single chord—stagger out over an ambient dance beat lifting the track into the sublime. A chant like vocal slips in and out, while compressed round-edge bassy synth notes count out a 4/4 beat. It’s a club ready gem of ambient trance that succeeds because it uses the rules of dance music—looping, grounded danceability—and then works hard to subvert them by constantly enquiring against their limits.
A few other tracks are straight up (dirty) Detroit house. The Lords Graffiti, all driving beats and tech house sweep, with breaking syncopation and familiar oscillations, could be played in any club in the world, and fit right in. It’s accomplished EDM and fantastic in it’s own right—but these tracks seem like a derivation from the rest of the album, that is more considered and introspective.
Most of the album leaves the club floor to one side and instead continues the finquiry and subversion into existence or spirituality, that’s hinted at in the albums meta-text. With the Requiescat in Pace title and the praying-mantis-esque prayer referencing album art, the tracks sport titles ranging from Raven and the Tree of Knowledge to Holy Water and Uriel’s Black Harp. It would all be a little pompous or cringe-worthy, if the tracks weren’t so evocative and bottomless. Rather than the neat clichés of pseudo-spirituality, or even the wide eyed innocence of progressive hip-hop, Actress presents us with the ghosts of his own uncertain epistemological investigation—constantly probing the fine balance between visceral experience and the sublime, hammering at the fine line between soul and body, working to dismantle the barrier.
The album’s closing track is titled Iwaad—and maybe it was all a dream, or maybe it’s a reference to Islamic sounding words that are actually nonsense, in the same way that there is a creeping fear of Islam’s increasing presence in Europe—but the track opens with ominous, threatenting chords and beats that condense from the air like horror movie strings; and a relentless pulsing wave of alien noise pushes along that creeping fear, relentlessly driving it deeper into the ear and into the psyche. Until suddenly, and without our notice, the music pushes us through primal bodily response and in a rush of adrenaline opens up a pathway to exaltation
In a recent interview Cunninham says, “the record covers a whole load of different themes. It covers fear, it covers loss, death, spirituality, sin, repentance, magic, a certain black art …” And it’s true, it does reflect all of those things—but mostly, it rewards the listener with experiences, rather than conclusions—and the experience is fantastic.
Released in April on Honest Jon’s Actress’s R.I.P. is available everywhere.
Craving more soundbreaking U.K. EDM, check out my review of Logos’s latest release here.