Actress managed something very hard to do these days: he built his own world. And not just an isolated bubble where he can work without disruption from the outside world, but a whole aesthetic, a lineage, even a mythology. It's more or less easy to make out where Actress' sound is coming from (there are elements of English intelligent techno from the golden age of Black Dog Productions / AFX, and then there is that layer of the modern kind of bass mutations), but the interesting thing is seeing where his influence is going. Darren J. Cunningham is not one to follow trends—rather he points out the direction the rest will have to go in. On his first LP, “Hazyville” (Werk Discs, 2009), some future movements could be sensed. It was all misty (as the title suggests), frayed, like a kind of deep-house drenched in bleach and stone-washed, even moving away from the dubstep of his early singles and into unknown territory. By the time “Splazsh” (Honest Jon’s, 2010) was released, Actress had completed the metamorphosis, the caterpillar had become a butterfly, and he was showing the different ways modern techno could go. Nobody, except Burial, has developed such a unique and influential sound. After “Splazsh” came the tremendous singles by T++ and Andy Stott on Honest Jon’s and Modern Love, respectively, marked by that tough abstraction, atmospheric lightness and a certain futuristic poetry; slow music, suspended in the void, curvy and disconnected from the rhythms and usual patterns. With Actress, techno forgot about the dance floor, but found a project for a future that seemed lost already.
“R.I.P.” won't have it easy, because it will be compared to “Splazsh”, which wasn't just another record, but a turning point. The best album of 2010 (The Wire said so, and yours truly humbly concurs) is still intimidating in the distance, separating good from bad techno with its magic wand, and most of all, ordinary techno from techno that wants to go places. However, Actress is in top shape and “R.I.P.” lives up to the expectations. He could only make it by being himself and not betraying his ideas, and while “Splazsh” set itself apart with a series of ironclad aesthetic features (pieces that sounded like sketches rather than tracks, the dissolution of the kick drum, the maximisation of a vibe somewhere between dreamy and drugged, flashes of old school in the more cosmic and Detroit-like phases, but also faded colours, textures and even forms), its successor suggests something similar. According to Actress, this won't be his only album this year, there will be another one; we don't know whether it will be an extension, a complement or a counterpoint, and if that is his plan, the obvious thing to do was to start with the work closest to the previous one, stylistically speaking.
There are fifteen tracks on “R.I.P.”, and the way he works, the initial idea is more important than the complete evolution. It's basically a collection of sketches, with many songs barely reaching the one or two-minute mark, and when they do go beyond that (sometimes even up to six minutes), it's to the detriment of a musical narrative based on conventional resources such as rhythm changes, elements entering and leaving (snares, bass drums, synths). It takes the shape of a kind of sound cloud that hardly changes, revolving around and reflecting itself onto itself. Even on “Splazsh” there were more beat tracks; here, with the exception of “Marble Plexus”, “IWAAD” and “The Lord’s Graffiti”, there is no rigid, dominant base to articulate the trip: everything is left to gravity, or rather, the lack thereof. Even without looking at the track titles, “R.I.P.” swamps you with zenith-like images about futuristic cities and grey skies; its sound makes you levitate, but most of all, it lets your imagination run wild, not like a soundtrack of a film about other worlds, but like a lucid dream of marvellous cities like the ones in the books of Italo Calvino or Lord Dunsany (without the space or sci-fi factor being vital). While other music can be expressed in colours and forms, Actress manages to organise his techno in non-Euclidian volumes, curvy, impossible forms. If Aphex Twin is the Mozart of ambient, because of his age and output, Actress could be the Picasso of techno: his drawings are recognisable, but his lines and forms defy the expectations of the ear with their unnaturalness.
So it is pure cubism that we find in the ambient fragments (with bass or bass drum, or neither, only some synth spirals or vocal sample curls) like that of “R.I.P.” (a mysterious intro, solemn yet fragile, like a light sleep), the six minutes of galactic lullaby “Jardin” (noises and an electric harp), the humming, reptile-like and straight bass of “Shadow From Tartarus” and “Ascending”, which, in a beautiful counterpoint, feinting with arpeggios, is the most stunning, cosmic moment of the whole album. But these are just random examples, because if we went track by track, sensation by sensation, there would be no angle to look at “R.I.P.” from: it's coherent, seamless, without intensity drops, happy and at ease in its own sonic world, as unique as “Splazsh” and even more ambitious, to the point of (almost) stripping techno of any recognisable element. Any electronic producer who wants to improve on this in the coming months (and become more important than Actress in what's left of this decade), will have to sweat blood, believe you me.