Actress’ second LP, Splazsh arrived in 2010 around a time of reprieve for dubstep. There seemed to be a palpable sense in the air that the past four or so years of bass music was in for a bit of re-examination. Text devoted to the genre seemed unsure of what to call the branches splitting in more jagged and knarled directions with each passing day, communing with other realms of dance music in a violent back and forth and turning “dubstep” into an annoyingly broad catchall. James Blake had taken R&S from prototypical UK bass label to the home of an electrostep singer-songwriter, Flying Lotus was reinventing hip-hop and jazz, and Hyperdub duo-turned-trio Darkstar released an overcast synthpop record. In the midst of all this arrived Splazsh, heralded as an omni-genre dance masterpiece, staking a solidified voice that seemed to truly represent a post-dubstep world. Actress’ followup, R.I.P, is even more ambitious, seeking to transcend everything the UK producer has previously achieved and where he’s achieved it.
Of course Actress himself has come a long way since Splazsh, logging in time with Damon Albarn’s DRC Music and remixing indie titans like Panda Bear and Radiohead along with continuing to manage his own label, Werk Discs, and designing a number of sound installations. There’s a lot riding along with Darren Cunningham in the lead up to R.I.P, not the least of which is expectation, and it’s commendable – if not unsurprising, given the producer’s track record – that he’s risen to meet the challenges head on.
R.I.P‘s ambition precedes the music. Cunningham cites John Milton’s epic, Paradise Lost, as well as classical celestial ‘music of the spheres’ philosophies as influences. The music itself seeks to subvert many of the genres Actress worked in on Splazsh, namely techno and bass, in many cases by turning traditional structures inside out and pulling them apart before piecing them back together again in new and unexpected ways. “New and unexpected” might sound overly broad, but these words come without any equivocal evaluations of quality attached. Actress’ approach to subversion and manipulation of dance music structures is exceedingly theoretical, its execution academic. R.I.P is a very unapologetic and experimental record in the realest sense and, unfortunately, the results can often feel detached and pedantic.
The biggest difference between Actress’ second and third record is perhaps a more prevalent absence of beats. Much of R.I.P skews closer to ambient music, submerging its techno, often 4/4 rhythms beneath layers of digital hiss and throbbing compression, while layers of percussive synth patterns phase in unwieldy, slowly modulated shapes. The attention to bookish patchwork design reminds me of library music using dance music mutations. It’s a compelling idea on paper, but most of R.I.P lacks any earnestness or much real feeling at all.
The main problem I have with R.I.P is one I had with Splazsh. Its upper register is colored an oddly disinfected monochrome, rendering the tracks bone-cold and often emotionless. Many of the more ambient tracks like “Ascending” and “Uriel’s Black Harp” would benefit from letting their individual intricacies breathe a little, but instead they’re plagued with weirdly compressed lo-fi touches that keep them distanced – heard and seen, not felt. The thirty-second “Glint” is an exception. Heftier tracks like “Raven” and “Tree of Knowledge” from the record’s Shed-esque middle section are better, but the former’s piano keys and dystopian synths are suffocated into near nothingness by the compressed bigness of the shuffling kick. I quite like the quick melodic synth flourishes that appear in bursts near the track’s middle and carry the song out, but they still sound distant and burdened by digital age.
R.I.P is by no means a bad record. In my mind, it’s certainly worthwhile, and it does have standouts like “Serpent,” “The Lord’s Graffiti,” and “N.E.W.,” where I start to think I understand what Actress is attempting – filtering familiar and contemporary dance music designs through a lens of time and space that degrades them into something unrecognizable and novel. Maybe a similar conceit to The Caretaker’s recent releases (a conceptual project I’ve had similar problems with). Then again, that’s how a lot of Splazsh sounded as well. Its followup simply doesn’t hold the same tension or drive.