Actress is by no means the only electronic artist whose work consists in deconstructing the forms of club genres like techno and dubstep, and recombining them into a ghostly simulacrum of the original. Burial would be another who springs to mind. But Darren Cunningham is perhaps the producer whose experiments have taken him the furthest from the nocturnal urban environment of raves and into another place altogether. As the familiar elements of dance music – the squelch of an acid bassline, a vocal sample from a long forgotten garage track, a snare hit, the pulse of a kick drum – are warped further and further, and recombined in yet more unfamiliar configurations you might be prompted to wonder, How much further down this rabbit hole is Cunningham willing to explore?
Since his earliest releases, Actress’ compositions have tended to focus on a few simple core elements, usually a repeating melody and basic-sounding drum pattern. But this simplicity is deceptive, as familiar elements are arranged in unfamiliar ways. A melody that would normally be front and centre might be buried deep in the mix, a kick drum that ought to be the foundation of a house track finds itself spectrally floating above it. Like the auditory equivalent of looking at a photo negative, the picture is familiar but disorientating.
Actress’ 2010 album, Splazsh, was an exercise in this disassembly and dislocation of house and UK garage, subtly inverting them to produce something uncanny and new. Two years later, RIP jumbled the image further, reducing tracks to their bare building blocks and rearranging them to create a labyrinth, a maze in which to lose yourself among familiar objects. 2014’s Ghettoville felt like a final act of reduction, dissolving the image even further by blurring all sense of line and shape, leaving only texture. It’s a challenging listen – dank, murky and full of fuzz, distortion and crackle – a nadir of sorts, not in terms of quality but in how far down Cunningham was willing to plumb the depths of this well of inspiration.
So what of his latest album, Karma and Desire, which according to the man himself is a ‘romantic tragedy set between the heavens and the underworld’? The twin forces of light and dark have always been fundamental to Actress’ sound; his compositions tend to draw from a monochromatic palette of black and white – as well as the countless shades of grey in between. Given this, it seems fitting that the instrument most often heard on Karma and Desire is the piano. Arguably the most emotionally versatile instrument – the interplay of black and white keys mirroring the forces of dark and light – it adds a richness and depth, and a level of human warmth not found on previous albums.
One reason I initially struggled to get into Actress was his tracks tended to sound unfinished, like simple sketches of ideas. But over time I’ve found this minimalist approach is what repeatedly draws me back to his music. Above all else, Actress is the master of atmosphere. Like a subtle optical illusion, once you stop looking for elements that aren’t there (or waiting for a drop) you come to realise that what seemed like background is actually foreground and the whole perspective changes.
Rather than sketches, Karma and Desire feels like an album of vignettes – transitions from one place to another, whether Heaven or the Underworld, or somewhere inbetween. The presence of tinkling piano makes you feel like you’re in a black and white film noir, wandering darkened streets, from cocktail lounge to basement bar. And the vocals, from the first collaborators to feature on an Actress studio album, add a further dreamlike quality. The honeyed voice of Zsela on Angels Pharmacy, and Remembrance, adds a hitherto unfound luxuriousness to Actress’ sound, with her heavy-lidded delivery halfway between song and speech.
True to its theme of duality, Karma and Desire is an album split in two, with the clear electronic chimes of Gliding Squares marking a distinct break at the halfway point. It’s only a brief moment of clarity before things return to the languid pace and hazy atmosphere that characterises much of the rest of the album. It’s probably this sleepy pace, which at times can feel positively narcotic, that means Karma and Desire requires multiple listens to sink in. Many Seas, Many Rivers, is the epitome of this, and feels like wandering in behind the scenes of a rehearsal for a highly experimental theatre group. The tempo is glacial, with mournful piano, leaden percussion and Sampha’s vocals seemingly arriving at different pitches and from different directions simultaneously, creating a ghostly chorus.
Next up Loveless, by comparison is a relatively straight-up house jam, again with a mournful piano playing the lead alongside vocals by T-09. ‘Give me time, give me space’ pleads the refrain – which sounds like it could come from a typical house/garage track – but in this context feels like useful advice for better appreciating this album. Plus you can’t help wondering at the deeper implications, and whether your sense of the fundamental dimensions of reality are being warped in the process of absorbing it all.
Included among some of the most outré tracks he’s ever recorded, there are others that Actress plays straight-up. Leaves Against The Sky features the near-ubiquitous piano, over a simple pulsing kick-drum. This combination of bare bones techno with classical instrumentation is similar to what Claro Intellecto and Andy Stott were doing on Modern Love some years ago. The similarity is no bad thing, and makes me wonder the kind of tunes Actress might’ve turned out had he pursued a more straightforward techno sound.
As things stand however, with Karma and Desire Actress has cemented his place as one of electronic music’s most beguiling and confounding artists. While it may appear confusing at first, he’s created an enigmatic world where nothing is quite as it seems, into which you can find yourself repeatedly drawn deeper and deeper.