The Quietus - A new rock music and pop culture website


R.I.P Rory Gibb , April 12th, 2012 07:33

Darren Cunningham recently performed at the Tate Modern, where he played a live set inspired by the intricate dot matrices of Yayoi Kusama, the Japanese artist whose work is currently the subject of a retrospective at the London gallery. It was a smart pairing: Cunningham's music as Actress has become increasingly enamoured with similar themes as Kusama's work. R.I.P, Cunningham's third album and follow-up to 2010's enigmatic and brilliant Splazsh, is fascinated by microscopic detail and the laying bare of patterns that emerge at the molecular level. And just as there's something distinctly biological about Kusama's sprawling dot patterns, which infest flat surfaces and distort their shape, R.I.P frequently sounds like living tissue brought to a standstill. It's as if he's hit the pause button on his music's metabolic processes, leaving it poised mid-chemical reaction. Even since around the time of Splazsh his music's been hinting at natural processes dropped to freakishly slow tempo or repeated ad infinitum, the better to understand their finer details. On any given track he'll obsessively examine a handful of individual motifs, which become its sole purpose and expand to fill its entire headspace. (He's previously described some of his tracks as character studies of other songs, zooming right in and analysing, as on 'Always Human', a take on The Human League's 'Human'.)

But if Splazsh and 2008 debut Hazyville were macro-level explorations of Detroit electro and techno and UK-rooted dance music, R.I.P is more like electron microscopy. Here he's delved so deep between the beats that they're often difficult to discern clearly. Instead they're often implied, as great structural realities fixed within the surrounding grainy matter - like 'Tree Of Knowledge', whose boughs creak loftily - or off in the distance somewhere, as vague ticks in the background. Even R.I.P's more obviously four-to-the-floor tracks feel almost coincidentally so: the depth-charged UK funky of 'Raven', one of the album's highlights, is driven by near-indistinct percussion, its drum hits springing to life thanks to chance meetings of static crackle and sub-bass throb. Later, grainy synthetic flutes wind their way around its central structure, lending it a spacious and merrily pastoral feel slightly at odds with the darkened corners of much of the album.

In spite of these warmer and brighter moments, R.I.P is still Actress' most oblique record to date. One of the most surprising things about Splazsh - still a fairly challenging techno record, one caked in rust and grime and bloody difficult to mix well - was how welcoming it proved for such a wide variety of people. That's less likely to be the case with R.I.P, whose introspective streak makes it a more demanding listen. Not that there's any lack of riches here - for a start, it contains Cunningham's most nakedly beautiful music to date. Where many of his earlier recordings thrived in creating a sense of barely controlled chaos, almost everything on R.I.P moves with an easy grace, and even its most abrasive and oppressive tracks are astonishingly texturally rich. You could dive headlong into 'Serpent'. On the surface it's terrifying enough - four minutes of intense and hallucinatory techno, like a pleasant dream turned very nasty indeed. But listen closer, and Cunningham keeps upping the magnification across its length, stacking up additional details - new harmonies, light percussive dustings of vinyl crackle - even as its swaggering central melody remains in focus throughout. It bleeds immediately into 'Shadow Of Tartarus', whose bass hits the body as a massive but indistinct force, like hot desert wind.

With such careful and skillful sound design, Cunningham has largely forsaken the muggy feel of his earliest music for pinpoint precision, at least in terms of texture. Sonically there are times when R.I.P is more reminiscent of producers like Mark Fell or Alva Noto, people whose interests as often lie in the pure properties of electronic sound, rather than their dancefloor functionality. However, the way he actually constructs his tracks remains very much an impressionistic process. For all these are intricately detailed, very beautiful sound sculptures, they're still very much alive. These aren't museum pieces, and there's a great softness, intuitiveness and fluidity to Actress' music, an intrinsic funk cribbed from his roots in swung UK genres like garage and his love for Detroit techno. It's frequently mournful or sepulchral in mood, yes, but R.I.P is far from dead and buried. So who or what exactly is Cunningham laying to rest here?

Given that it's certainly his least bodily-minded album to date, it's almost tempting to feel like it represents a parting of the ways with club concerns. Much of Splazsh would have confused a crowd, sure, but there were still long-form techno tracks studded across its length that worked spooky wonders on dancefloors - opener 'Hubble', the Detroit techno clamour of 'Let's Fly', or the electro-convulsive blast of 'Lost'. Most of R.I.P's tracks are short and sketch-like by comparison, and with beats buried so deep in the mix it's tough to imagine them setting all but the deepest and druggiest of dancefloors into motion.

However, production-wise Cunningham's connection with the club has always been ambiguous to say the least - in the past tracks would cut off abruptly mid-groove making them difficult to mix, or melt away almost to nothing. That's never had any great impact on his DJ sets, which tend to be vibrant if unpredictable beasts. Doing marvelously confrontational things like playing huge hunks of beatless material to peak-time audiences, or veering without warning from abrasive electro to deep house to The Cure's 'A Forest', they’re a tad reminiscent of Chicago's Jamal Moss (aka Hieroglyphic Being) in their freeform approach to genre and tempo. And just like Moss, I've seen his sets scare away casual audiences but leave a core of dedicated dancers willing to follow him through various nexus points where house and techno meet electro, pop and noise. So although it's tough to imagine a crowd getting sweaty to R.I.P, body movement is still encoded within its contents, both in its influences and the way they're wielded. 'Ascending', for example, is a delicate glitterspray of a track, so fragile that the addition of a proper beat would probably scatter it to the wind - but it's still possible to hear the mechanics of techno grinding away, somewhere deep beneath the surface.

R.I.P's deathly concerns are instead articulated by its central theme, which winds through the album's tone and track titles in a loose narrative. Cunningham has cited Milton's Paradise Lost and Jamie Jones' Music Of The Spheres, and its track sequence moves from the moment of passing - opening 'R.I.P' - through 'Ascending', a wander through both heavenly and hellish spaces ('Jardin', 'Serpent', 'Uriel's Black Harp') and finally a moment of realisation, 'IWAAD': It Was All A Dream. It's tempting to imagine it as describing Actress' working process on this album - in the materials accompanying the album's release Cunningham he described it as "melting and dripping, seeping yourself liquid into the machinery". So the R.I.P here becomes a little death, a clear-minded meditative state followed by a sudden gasp and plunge back to reality.

R.I.P is clearly a very carefully thought out record. There's a sense of calculation here that wasn't present in Cunningham's past music, which often reveled in its flaws and jarring transitions. As a result, it loses some of his earlier looseness and spontaneity in favour of something rather more fixed in place and monumental: music hewn from (headstone?) marble rather than living tissue. Perhaps an album to admire, then, more than to love, in the way that proved so deceptively easy with Splazsh and Hazyville. But then part of Cunningham's enigma has always been these pieces that are as much about spatial geometry as about narrative. With vectors jutting out at odd angles and hanging static in space, R.I.P practically begs to be handled, examined, shuffled and rotated in every direction, the better to identify each tiny grain of sand and dirt that's gone into its construction. That it sits frustratingly out of physical reach serves to heighten its impact.