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Actress - R.I.P

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Artist: Actress

Album: R.I.P

Label: Honest Jon's

Review date: Apr. 24, 2012

That Darren Cunningham recently soundtracked Yayori Kusama’s exhibition at the Tate Modern makes a lot of sense. Cunningham’s albums as Actress have increasingly betrayed an expert gallery guide’s working knowledge of genres – here techno, over here U.K. bass music, over there hip hop. Hazyville, from 2008, was thoroughly immersed in techno but, fitting of the title, strayed into stylistic ambiguity; 2010’s Splazsh built on that confidence with more focused, hexagon-sharp waves of momentum out and away from that radiant techno core. It was a frustrating listen because you’d never know which push was coming from track to track, but in time it has rewarded with an unmatched attention to detail.

You’d be forgiven for thinking R.I.P (without the final period, peculiarly) is the album where Cunningham does the addition, carries the three, and puts it all together for his coalesced magnum opus, his defining with-capitalization Statement. In fact, R.I.P is even more ambiguous than his previous efforts precisely because it doesn’t step up. Listening from Hazyville through R.I.P will show how he’s ably absorbed the cultural detritus he occasionally posts to Twitter in addition to the formal history of the music he reveres. What’s changed is that Darren still hasn’t; R.I.P is a producer on the move and everything is moving with him.

If you didn’t know anything about Actress going into this, you’d be annoyed. The beatless opener “R.I.P.” (with period) recalls a 1970s sci-fi soundtrack, “Ascending” cruises similar cosmic contrails with its thump from the void, “Holy Water” drips like a faucet two inches away, a zoom back out to the freely fuzzy “Marble Plexus,” a page out of Flying Lotus’s book with “Uriel’s Black Harp”…

It’s a necessary bore to say this isn’t consistent. Songs laser in on a drop and a piano tinkle (“Jardin”), then zoom out to cover galaxy-sized sonic territory (“Raven”), then hide in the “Shadow of Tartarus” or under the “Tree of Knowledge.” The problem with Cunningham’s musical palette in a full-length setting is that he paints ideas with billboard-sized strokes or with the tip of a knife, never pausing to use so much as a two-inch brush. The distinct haze that envelops so many of his productions is the only middle ground, the only way we can be sure it’s the same artist at work.

What makes Actress so enigmatic and wonderful is that he can delight you for a minute, frustrate you for an hour, and hook you for a lifetime. R.I.P is no exception. Like Splazsh, I walk away from this album wondering how the hell one can know a subtle touch of anonymous hiss so distinctively and who in the coming months will attempt to replicate it. Unlike disciples Patten or Rkss who revel in more aggressive immersion, Actress has backed off on the beats for this album and preferred to let the melody, the hook, the idea do the work. Songs aren’t finished thoughts unto themselves in the way that we expect from official releases – this is partly why Cunningham has no dip in quality from album to 12” to EP to remix. Every release is official, every thought fully formed. It just so happens that some of those thoughts (“Holy Water” is 1:40, “Glint” is 37 seconds, etc.) are a lot shorter than others.

So yes, R.I.P is Actress continually shifting and exploring, growing and rippling, being himself in the only Statement-less way he knows how. Its 15 songs aren’t for everyone and with few overt melodies, it’s definitely not for everyone. But that’s art, isn’t it? How can you know you’re doing something worthwhile if everyone agrees? (Nevermind that I don’t even agree with myself half the time.) This is Hazyville, populated by us listeners, led on a tour by Actress. Funny thing is, you realize in listening to R.I.P that he isn’t just the gallery guide; he’s the gallery, too. To me, that kind of indistinct ambition is worth admiring.

By Patrick Masterson

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