Woozy, wonderful, hard to pin down
The democratisation of the music-making process has been a curse as well as a blessing. Dance music today can sometimes resemble a field of thousands upon thousands of identikit laptop jockeys, each one running the same computer programs, fiddling with the same pre-sets, strip-mining the same exposed seams of clubland history. There is no new thing. Electronica is eating itself.
If anything, this effect is heightened by the rare producer that carves his own path – and one such is Darren Cunningham. Wolverhampton-born but south London based, he debuted on his own Werk Discs before signing up to Damon Albarn’s Honest Jon’s imprint, releasing 2010’s excellent album ‘Splazsh’, visiting the Congo as part of Albarn’s DRC project and appearing (in his ‘Thriller’ guise) on Radiohead’s ‘TKOL RMX 1234567’.
There are echoes of dance genres past and present on Actress’ third full-length, ‘RIP’ – hard, technoid 4/4 thud (‘Marble Plexus’, ‘Shadow From Tartarus’), the cries of disco divas filtering up from some distant purgatory (‘IWAAD’) and skippy two-step drums that would seem to locate Cunningham’s starting point in early ’00s UK garage (the faintly Burial-esque ‘The Lord’s Graffiti’). Yet the charm of Actress’ music is the way it eludes any direct reference. Synthesisers float everywhere, pitch-bent or glowing, translucent. On ‘Uriel’s Black Harp’, plucked notes filter woozily through a strange, cicada-like chatter. Cunningham is as likely to soundtrack an installation at the Tate Modern as he is to DJ in a club, and it is this refusal to submit to the rigours of genre that allows Actress’ music to float free.
The finished result is something of a trade-off. Despite titles rooted in mythology and religion these tracks do not evoke anything in particular; not euphoria on the dancefloor, or melancholic journeys through nocturnal cityscapes. Something about them is essentially alien – yet, very probably, that is the source of their strange, uncanny power.