Actress – the nom de plume of Black Country-born producer Dean Cunningham – first caught mainstream(ish) ears with his incredible 2010 collection Splazsh, and then delighted those same ears with his 2012 set R.I.P., both of which evoked electronic pioneers from Cluster and Harmonia to Oneohtrix Point Never, Autechre and Aphex Twin. His habit of releasing an album every 18 months or so continued ever since, culminating in this new album, Karma & Desire.
The recurrent themes throughout his work – artificial intelligence, and the tension between the cosmic and the terrestrial – are here again, and actually feed into the overall thematic structure of this new album.
The first full ‘song’ on the set, Angel’s Pharmacy, showcases his tendency to lean on hot, sensuous tones to deliver quite stark electronic compositions. Remembrance, which follows, swells in waves, growing outwardly, endlessly away into the ether. The featured vocalist on both tracks – Zsela – brings different shades of light and dark to both tracks, complementing the seesaw swing from hot to cold, passionate to distant.
Reverend opts to pursue a different mood altogether, with reflective, pensive piano notes glistening and billowing around the hazy vocals. The trio of collaborations with Sampha push at these same emotional nerve centres – VVY offers a distorted, almost psychedelic backdrop for Sampha to hit considerable highs, while the piano-led Many Rivers, Many Seas and the folk-inflected Walking Flames play in the same sandbox, with Kraftwerk-ian synth bubbles and Radiohead-ish pools of darkness emanating from what sounds like outer space.
Leaves Against the Sky, the most oppressive track on the set, is actually one of the highlights. Likewise Diamond X, with its retro-futurist sci-fi squiggles and glitched-out beats. Across the rest of the album, and there’s a lot more of it to listen to, there are moments of bliss, moments of horror, and moments of wonder. Like all of Cunningham’s work to date, this is (at least at first) quite a difficult album to love, but given some time its wonders become clear.
However, for all of its strengths, the album is somewhat let down by its monstrous length – 78 minutes, to be exact. That’s not to stay that Cunningham and his collaborators can’t hold the listener’s interest for the entire running time (they can), but that the whole experience can be overwhelming and a little draining.