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The Lead Review

The World, The Flesh, And The Dancefloor: Karma And Desire By Actress
Kashif Sharma-Patel , October 22nd, 2020 08:45

A welcome addition to Actress’s spiralling discography brings a newfound bodily urgency to the work of the Wolverhampton-born producer, finds Kashif Sharma-Patel

Actress has been something of a force of nature within electronic music and club culture. His latest album Karma & Desire brings out the different iterations of his sound into something more introspective. Where his previous solo album AZD (2017) focused on the life-as-chrome and machinic selfhood, this album is trying to think in terms of organic viscerality through ideas of reincarnation and karmic action.

There is a sense of nostalgia throughout, with tracks such as ‘Angels Pharmacy’ and ‘Remembrance’ featuring female vocalist Zsela giving off hazy club vibes. The turn to voice, Actress’s first time, has formed a deeper sense of worldliness, the invasion of corporal sensation into his production style. ‘Turin’, featuring vocal lines from Aura T-09, is a drawn-out deep house vamp which slowly builds into a formidable piece of music. ‘Loose’, too, is a well-constructed track that builds a high-tempo centrepiece out from a woozy start, manipulating the singing of Christel Well into the style of an over-produced vocal sample hovering at the edge of the mix. In ‘Reverend’ this manipulation of voice continues with a minimalist psychedelia interspersed with reverb-heavy chattering like the ghostly remnants of a voice-note or radio broadcast.

This minimalism is really driven by piano melodies, often painting a cinematic picture. The track ‘Save’, for instance, develops this sound in an electroacoustic fashion, building a narrative of self-direction within a malaise of shifting emotions and desires. Actress seems to be reflecting on his oeuvre, often ending up somewhere more cathartic and inward-looking. His collaborations with Sampha, in particular, create space out of syncopated melancholy. Sampha makes use of his upper range in ‘VVY’ which feels blurry and glitched, while the artist still holds his space. There’s a minimalist jazz turn here which enters into the realm of the ambient. A similar sentiment is found in ‘Many Rivers, Many Seas’ and ‘Walking Flames’, the other two tracks produced with Sampha, where desire is understood as a manifestation of love. ‘Loveless’ seems bounded in a concentrated nostalgia with vocal lines from Aura T-09 and a dubstep-styled bassline offering something of a supplement to the Sampha tracks. A self-reflective sadness permeates somewhat ironically in ‘Public Life’, featuring Italian pianist Vanessa Benelli Mosell, while tracks like ‘Fret’, ‘Diamond X’, and ‘XRAY’ demonstrate a wistful energy that runs through Actress’s sound.

If Hazyville (2008) and Ghettoville (2014) spoke to specific urban imaginaries rooted in contemporary spatialities of race and class, then Karma & Desire resides somewhere more specific, inward-looking and self-oriented. There’s something conceptually much deeper, though many themes of a spiritual and philosophical nature have been found throughout his work, particularly in R.I.P, (2012). But in foregrounding the conceptual, the music is perhaps more familiar. You wouldn’t call it innovative or experimental per se, but rather more concentrated and purposeful. With Karma & Desire there’s a sense of his accumulated practice being reflected on and expressed.

Where previous records might explore the urban environment as an almost cyberpunk field of conceptual inquiry, the latest record seems to posit a cyber-organic relationship, something more ontological, related to being and becoming. Legacy Russell’s recent book Glitch Feminism is a manifesto that builds on a cyberfeminist tradition of thought to centre queer people of colour as vectors of a liberatory relationship between embodiment and the digital. While Actress is not making glitch music per se, the move towards a more corporeal sound with its vocal, cinematic and electroacoustic tendencies asks us to think what’s going on here around the question of gender-as-genre and the slippages therein.

If we were to compare to his free mixtape 88 released in July, we would find here drifting sparse sketches more in line with his earlier output. And yet a mournfulness undergirds both this mixtape and Karma & Desire, something perhaps appropriate during the protracted lockdown of clubs, even if it’s not necessarily emanating from those conditions. Reincarnation – the many lives lived before – as a motif can be understood as a meta-theory for the various iterations of the Actress project, from his long discography through to his collaborations with orchestras and AI bots. The everyday life of the urban street and club culture is segued into moments of contemplation and reflection on this record, while simultaneously holding onto the fleshiness of life.