Review Summary: Heavy is the head that carries the crown of burden
It’s not an entirely alien concept for an artist to release their defining work well into an established career, that landmark that unwittingly serves as the bar by which all past and future releases will find themselves judged against. What is a little strange however is to see an artist attempt to define themselves
beyond the obvious and immediate opportunity. And while Darren Cunningham might not be as long in the tooth as the maturity and organic atmosphere of his music would seemingly indicate, he’s certainly been around long enough for us to have had enough time to at least try and understand him. But Cunningham, as his producer alter ego Actress, certainly hasn’t made it easy for us: by way of association and journalistic marketability is he a techno artist, just as he also is an electro and garage producer. We’d also have you believe that at one point he even made dubstep, and while Hazyville
occasionally rubbed shoulders with what has now become the go-to cliche in electronic print, he treated that particular blueprint with the same casual-reappraisal that’s seen the UK electronic music scene wander around genre-less and indefinable for the last few years. R.I.P.
, Cunningham’s latest effort, and possibly the first of two LPs to be released this year, is perhaps the best chance we’ve had to try and find an in-road into the heart and mind of this most shadowy of icons. Anonymous only by way of musical identity, R.I.P.
is the one Actress album that feels as if it makes the most sense.
What makes Cunningham’s music such a divisive experience is his almost complete abandonment of a comfort zone for the listener. His music is neither here nor there, instead existing exists in its own time, completely on its own terms; which in a way robs his output of cutting a truly imposing figure when measured against the more clearly-defined work of his contemporaries. You could argue that Cunningham is perhaps something of a rarity in his field; and while that idea might wind up as the only way to offer forth a comparison (Actress against Actress), upon exploration the argument isn’t entirely one-sided. He exists in his own monochromatic spectrum, an in-between meeting point where the collision isn’t the outcome, but simply just a refinement of the process. It’s the aftermath of the implosion, the tiny fragments and molecules that form and coalesce at the point of impact that Actress typically concerns himself with. And he treats his audience the same way he views the world around him: they’re forced back to a distance, privy to a world of distorted electronic wreckage, the hardcore continuum putty in his hands.
But whereas Hazyville
were by and large, ordinary albums presented in an extraordinary way, R.I.P.
is the opposite: a concept album loosely inspired as much by John Milton’s Paradise Lost
as it was by Jamie James’ The Music Of The Spheres
, talk of “gardens, serpents and mythological caves” feels almost strangely absent as the album slowly begins to sink in. It’s structured as a journey, or perhaps more potently as a descent, and while the album is certainly sequenced to enhance the obvious metaphysical nature of Cunningham’s existential plight, truthfully the “back-story” certainly feels like little more than padding. What begins slow and hazy, almost dream-like even, gives way to the almost industrial-like death crunch of Cunningham’s typical tape hiss and weighty bass kicks. What does set this apart from Actress’ earlier pieces is the incredibly organic feel that this album seems to thrive on. How machine and wire gives way to heart and string, here vinyl fuzz and synthesizer seem to shimmer and convulse on their own accord, taking shape in a squirming dance of serpentine electricity. What was once seemingly automated now writhes and breathes with the sounds of a dying hard drive pushed far beyond its limits.
is an album that can quite easily be dissected into two very distinctive sections: there’s the battery acid techno of tracks like ‘Marble Plexus’ with its dying synthesizers and haunting otherworldly echoes and ‘Shadow From Tartarus’ with its pulsing and thunderous electro reanimation, and then there’s the library haunt of ‘Jardin’ and the almost calming ambient call of ‘N.E.W.’. And somewhere in the middle of that lies the rest of the album, either pooling its collective resources to one or the other of its polar opposites. And Cunningham, no stranger to melding more unorthodox ambient arrangements to his wireframe Bladerunner-like sci-fi motif, handles what would otherwise be seen as a jarring transition with the telltale hubris of someone deep in their own personal journey.
The problem here is that he treats R.I.P.
as a kind of serialized account of his introspection, cliff notes for his own personal apocalypse. Much like Zomby’s 2011 effort Dedication
does Cunningham all too frequently spend time traversing the wrong alleys, only to shortcut his way through the more revelatory of moments (conversely, the 37-seconds of ‘Glint’ bear an unmistakable appreciation of that particular album’s grand misdirection). Which by all means may be entirely intentional, given the outside influence of the work, but as a defining statement it finds itself more times than not without a voice. It’s still an incredibly compelling album, and as perhaps the first true insight into the man behind the moniker, its an incredibly though-provoking piece of quasi-techno and ambient allusions, one that wears its crown of confessional theology as a caustic icon of temptation. And heavy the head that carries that burden because for all its stunning traits is Actress operating at his most humble and reflective, and Cunningham as a man bereft of paradise is an artist caught in rebellion; R.I.P.
, as a document of that struggle, suffers at the hands of others at work in his place.