Actress – R.I.P review

“I can’t explain how I made those tracks, it’s just impossible,” Darren Cunningham said when describing the process of making his third album, R.I.P, in a press release back in February. “It’s like painting with button and sliders… Melting and dripping, seeping yourself liquid into the machinery.” It’s a rare moment of honesty from a man whose Twitter persona is one of the most baffling of any of his peers – whilst he obviously doesn’t shy away from the limelight like Zomby, happy to undertake quite serious, thoughtful interviews, his online identity is nevertheless filled with misdirection and incoherent half-statements which veer off on tangents as if he’s mentally channel surfing.

Listening to R.I.P is at times an experience akin to flicking through Cunningham’s thoughts. Listening to his previous album Splazsh was a similar experience; across 14 tracks he flitted between musical shapes and structures, with the impressionistic house of “Lost”, “Senorita” and “Always Human” brushing up against the more abstract shapes of “Supreme Cunnilingus” and “Casanova”. Although Splazsh is still a peerless album, the one criticism you could make (if any) is that the album was mainly comprised of genre experiments which tried to apply Cunningham’s ideas to more recognisable structures, and there was always the feeling somewhere in the background that he wanted to go further. R.I.P is the development he was obviously trying to make – the sonic building blocks are roughly the same, but the number of tracks that fit identifiable structures are in the minority, each sticking around for just enough time to make their presence known before the mood shifts – making for an even more challenging, and sometimes unfocused listen.

For better or worse, R.I.P is defined by this lack of focus – but by largely freeing himself from the constraints of genre Cunningham has created something he’s been edging towards for the better part of a decade – the exploration of sound in its purest form. Nowhere is this more evident than on “Holy Water”, tumbling in on itself in a mélange of shimmering sinewave droplets, as if there’s a complex mathematical equation governing its intricate folding motions. Similarly with “Tree Of Knowledge”, whose pitch-shifted waves seem to inhale and exhale like a slumbering behemoth, crumpling and swelling, repeating the same motion ad infinitum. Perhaps the most delicate of these impressionistic sketches is “Jardin”, whose synthetic piano is tied to an intricate rhythmic crackle, and wouldn’t sound out of place on a Raster Noton release.

Even in the rare moments when the album breaks out into dancefloor concerns, the record still feels locked in an interminable stasis; rather than travel, tracks fold time inwards. “Caves Of Paradise” for instance is a literal echo of Detroit techno – both acoustically and in tone. But it’s a cubist approximation, its cloudy off-beat stabs mingling with stray synth flutes, like a zombified Theo Parrish production. Like Splazsh’s standout track “Lost” it places the listener in the memory of a dancefloor, but here the key effect however is one of inertia – lacking in mental footholds it pulls you further into its sludge rather than spitting you out. And although “The Lord’s Graffiti” is arguably the album’s most euphoric moment, the harsh cuts employed as the track plateaus creates the odd effect of a remote memory wipe.

That R.I.P should play around with the flow of time is perhaps unsurprising given Cunningham’s love of cannabis, something he is quite open about. Speaking in an interview with Dazed Digital, he says that “I enjoy smoking weed… because of what weed can do to you sometimes, it can make you quite paranoid, or it can make you be quiet at certain times, or it can make you feel euphoric, or it can make you feel a little bit tense about certain situations or vibes or whatever, it goes into the music”. Cunningham’s weed smoking is something many writers skate around, but it’s obviously an integral part of his persona, and in the context of R.I.P it bears mentioning. Distortions in the perception of time, the disruption of linear thought – all of these are short term hallucinogenic effects of the drug, effects which seem to be replicated in the insular sketches that make up the album. The most striking example of this temporal distortion is in “N.E.W.”, whose gently drifting melody has a totally amnesiac effect that makes you question whether the preceding album even happened. Most would finish on this note, but jumping to the tentative euphoria of “IWAAD”, with a female vocal sample recomposed into a barely contained howl reminds us that Cunningham is a man prone to wild changes of mood whose tireless quest to achieve sonic mastery never ends.

Looking at the reactions of his peers to R.I.P on Twitter – and we’re talking the likes of Four Tet, Floating Points and Jacques Greene – it’s clear that Cunningham is now a revered figure on the scale of Richard D James. One reason is that he’s become one of those rare producers who can create music outside of a linear plane. But perhaps more than anything, people want to know what makes him tick. And even though he has been fairly candid in interviews of late, there’s always a sense that he’s not telling you the whole story – perhaps because he doesn’t know himself. But immersing yourself in R.I.P is more effective than any interview at conveying Cunningham’s inner workings – unlike many producers who use their music as a way to become something they’re not, R.I.P is practically an info-dump of his raw cerebral data. It will fascinate his fans and baffle outsiders, but one thing is clear – he’s just getting started.

Scott Wilson


Tracklisting:

1. R.I.P.
2. Ascending
3. Holy Water
4. Marble Plexus
5. Uriel’s Black Harp
6. Jardin
7. Serpent
8. Shadow From Tartarus
9. Tree Of Knowledge
10. Raven
11. Glint
12. Caves Of Paradise
13. The Lord’s Graffiti
14. N.E.W.
15. IWAAD