Darren Cunningham’s music as Actress has always had a nebulous, elusive quality, even as many tried to categorise it within the parameters of UK bass music. Now, with R.I.P., his third full length album, that sense of mystery and strangeness has become the core and focus of his sound. Following (perhaps sub-consciously) in the footsteps of a number of recent electronic releases (the two EPs from Andy Stott being a prime example), R.I.P. seeks to deny electronic music many of its powerful and most recognisable conventions. Four to the floor beats are often either absent or implied, and Cunningham seems most interested in exploring minimal textures and unexpected spaces.
The result is an eerie, peculiar hallucinatory world that is vivid, imaginative and, assuming the listener can yield to its demands, utterly compelling. Much of the music here is either misty of hazy, with its often beautiful vistas deliberately obscured. Bravely, Cunningham opts to introduce this approach from the very outset, with the opening title track both oddly mysterious and tantalisingly brief. The superb Ascending lives up to its title, its delicate layers of synths seeming to reach ever higher. Even better is Holy Water, an appropriately aquatic music on the nuance and impact of sound and texture. Like the title track, Holy Water is mercilessly concise at under two minutes, but it feels complete in its miniature form rather than sketchy or under-developed.
When Cunningham does allow a standard heartbeat pulse to predominate, as on the fantastic closer IWAAD or the more subtly insistent Marble Plexus, he makes sure to keep the overall mood angular and disconcerting. The result is a relentless, exciting hinterland between techno and murky, robotic shuffle. Marble Plexus has a ghostly character that somehow makes it timeless. It does not sound compulsively modern or of its time but neither does it sound historic or dated.
With individual track titles such as Jardin, Serpent and Tree Of Knowledge, there is a transparent Genesis concept behind R.I.P., although direct engagement with these ideas does not appear to be a pre-requisite to enjoying or understanding Cunningham’s thoughtful experimentation. The delicate clicks and whirrs that underpin the piano-meets-music box melody of Jardin might perhaps suggest tranquility and vulnerability, whilst Serpent does indeed have a more menacing, threatening tone. R.I.P. certainly has a strong sense of being a coherent suite of music, albeit one that is intentionally disjointed and fractured.
Paradoxically, the strong sense of coherence and form that emerges on R.I.P. seems to come from Cunningham’s delight in exploiting contrasts and strange juxtapositions. The heartbeat that finally emerges on Marble Plexus proves to be a false dawn, as Cunningham immediately dives back into more detailed, less immediate sound worlds. The subtle hint of danger in Serpent gives way to the stark brutalism of Shadow From Tartarus, which itself buries some relatively pretty sounds within its depths of noise.
Whilst R.I.P. certainly has some of the cold detachment that often characterises electronic music, it is also a remarkably thoughtful and creative work that has clearly benefited from a more personal and human compositional approach. It is the work of an open-minded, playful and hugely successful deconstructionist.