ALBUM REVIEW: Actress – R.I.P.

Written for the 405

Dance music, and all consequent sub-genres thereof, is primarily an extroverted style of music. It’s about impressing people enough to get them to, well, dance. What’s interesting is that the few true geniuses working in electronic music – from Kraftwerk to Daft Punk to Burial – are complete introverts, going so far as to hide their true identities from the public.

If they weren’t like this, arguably, the music wouldn’t work. If electronic music isn’t being worked over with a fine-tooth comb, every beat meticulously programmed, every build and release micro-managed to the second, it tends to be either tedious (if the producer just fobbed something off in an afternoon) or cookie-cutter (if they spent too much time mashed off their face in a club).

Since 2008’s Hazyville, Actress (current alias of the prodigious Darren Cunningham) has been re-addressing that dichotomy, by clutching at the strands of dance music that are perhaps the most extroversion-leaning – Detroit house, club R&B – and coaxing it into insular-sounding pieces of crackling, overcast slabs of introverted electronica.

With this, his third album playing the part of Actress, Cunningham decided to take on a fairly heavy concept: “I started the album with death,” he said in a recent interview, “that immediately puts you in a space that gives you some hope.” R.I.P. is about life, death, and what happens next. You don’t get that from Skrillex.

With a loose narrative structure informed by Paradise Lost the “story” of R.I.P. is told, perhaps wisely, not through lyrics (Cunningham’s Wolverhampton accent may have affected the sense of gravitas), instead opting for a shifting, ever-evolving set of dark, ambient, instrumental tracks. Fittingly, said tracks sound almost like techno limbo.

“You go through a few barriers with your sound,” Cunningham continues, “and you get to the point where you’re just dripping in your environment, dripping in the sounds you’re producing, and you instinctively know how to hone it and sculpt it together.” He’s right: R.I.P. sounds like the culmination of Actress’ work so far, pulling in the disparate influences on show in 2008’s Hazyville and 2010’s Splaszh – the two-step, the house, the hip-hop, the R&B – into something which is wholly distinct.

Continuing the introverted/navel-gazing style to its logical conclusion, R.I.P. is less concerned with bringing bodies onto the dance floor as it is with examining said bodies – and their lives – in extreme close-up. Accordingly, the music is slowed-down, and occasionally tripped out.

There are a fair few tracks are too fragile for an actual beat (such as the gorgeous “Jardin”, an “Avril 14th” for he dubstep generation), whilst on “Serpent” juttering house keys stumble over foreboding strings. The likes of “Holy Water” have a distorted hip-hop feel, with clipped samples and beats played ad infinitum.

This repetition and attention to detail is impressive, but it’s possible those lacking in appreciation for Cunningham’s obsessive qualities, or the sometimes oppressive atmosphere this creates in his music, may be left cold. For the rest of us, R.I.P. is a dizzying, wholly original bildungsroman from one of the UK’s most exciting and thoughtful contemporary producers.

8/10

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