‘R.I.P.’, the opening, title track of Actress’ third album is short and ephemeral, like something from Boards Of Canada’s Geogaddi album drained of all nostalgia and colour. It’s a transient opener, made up of synths and the quiet fuzz of noise that both pulse, and it’s gone before you know it – or at least subsumed by second track ‘Ascending’, which builds on a very similar heartbeat ambience. These tracks very much set the tone for the rest of R.I.P., which develops through repetition, remains resolutely beat-free for the majority of its run time and often mesmerizes you with its attention to the most minute details.
Darren Cunningham’s last album as Actress – Splazsh – was fractured and wide-reaching, taking whole genres as inspiration for particular tracks and stretching and reconstructing them in longer forms. R.I.P. retains that ambition but applies it more broadly – Cunningham has arranged the tracks here into a narrative loosely inspired by Paradise Lost. These pieces of music are generally shorter and feel more unified, while still drawing on influences as varied as minimal techno, Detroit techno, modern classical, IDM and the broad spectrum of UK bass music.
Much of R.I.P. (as you might expect from its title) sounds decayed, mournful and grey – it’s been produced in a way that can make it sound mechanical and slightly damaged. There are hopeful elements too – strange, pretty melodies buried in the gloom, as they often were on the early Autechre and Boards Of Canada releases. For example, the album’s central track ‘Shadow From Tartarus’ is driven by a grimey, worn beat that sounds like it’s disintegrating, but eerie melodies rise and fall, in and out of the mix. Meanwhile ‘Jardin’ is one of the tracks on the album most indebted to minimal techno, but also incorporates a dainty, improvised melody that picks its way through the distorted, almost featureless backdrop.
The beats become a little more prominent as R.I.P. reaches its latter stages – ‘Caves Of Paradise’ is a highlight, with a clanging pulse that inches towards 2-step while still retaining the 4/4 drive that subtly propels the majority of the album. Muffled voices and a sample of a flute loop in and out. ‘The Lord’s Graffiti’ sounds like a celestial rave confined to the inside of someone’s head. The album finishes on a high, with the muted house thump and twisted vocal of ‘IWAAD’ approaching The Field, with less snow and ice and more fog and haze.
It’s easy to grasp that R.I.P. is a personal album for Cunningham as you listen – from the song titles to their detailed though imperfect production, this is clearly a labour of love, something in which he has absorbed himself. The appeal to the rest of us may well be the distinctive, mediative quality of these pieces of music, their fractured, worn beauty, and the way they convey, wordlessly, the themes of mortality, time and spirituality that Cunningham has obsessed over. Other electronic artists have addressed similar themes recently – Burial’s recent EP seemed half-preoccupied with the physical sounds of vinyl and their emotive qualities, Zomby took on death in his typically unfocused, inventive fashion, while Hype Williams’ last few releases have reflected on mortality through the prism of grime samples, ancient synths and meandering monologues – but none have crafted a captivating, enveloping, unique record quite like Actress.