Every week or thereabouts, Mutant Dance Moves takes you to the shadowy corners of the dancefloor and the fringes of contemporary electronic music, where new strains and dance moves are evolving.
Late last month, electronic music producer Darren Cunningham (who transgenders his work under the moniker of Actress) released his highly anticipated third album R.I.P to ecstatic reviews. And yet I can’t help but read the lead sentences for most of them and bristle at seeing Actress’s efforts mis-categorized as dance music. And judging by the blurry, concussive, and brittle sounds of R.I.P, it feels like Cunningham bridles at such genre constraints, too. The end result is an album that’s sumptuous yet strangely reactive, to where it feels almost begrudging in meting out its brilliance. Any beat that arises soon passes away.
British dubstep producers have been wiggling out from under that bass-heavy yolk well before US magazine editors knew how to spell ‘Skrillex.’ From James Blake giving up the DJ booth for a piano bench to Zomby delivering bagatelles instead of bangers to Joker eschewing dubstep for progressive pop, the genre’s finest craftspeople have worked hard to maintain distance from the dancefloor that birthed them. For long stretches of R.I.P, Actress flagellates his sound as if to scrub away any evidence of previous dance music tropes. Is Actress just playing Lady Macbeth?
Considering how formal yet fuzzy the beats from his debut album Hazyville were, it was Actress’s refusal to give in to dancefloor demands that actually kept me at arm’s distance from 2010’s Splazsh. (Warning: when Britain’s high-minded magazine The Wire slots you as the #1 Album of the Year, it’s likely to clear the room.) Titillating as the title “Bubble Butts and Equations” might be, it was more likely to move the mathematical latter rather than the former. As Simon Reynolds noted in his book Retromania, Actress “describes certain of his tracks as ‘studies’: ‘Hubble’ (Splazsh’s opener) for instance is a study of Prince’s “Erotic City,” which might be the least erotic way to undress the Purple One’s most licentious of tracks.
“For long stretches of R.I.P, Actress flagellates his sound as if to scrub away any evidence of previous dance music tropes. Is Actress just playing Lady Macbeth?”
Cunnigham told the Guardian last month that he perceives his samples “like ink, like paint,” yet rather than sketch a classical supine nude figure, he wants to drop Nude Descending a Staircase instead. So when Actress announced that R.I.P was about death, cited John Milton’s Paradise Lost as an influence, and arranged titles so as to suggest a trip through the underworld, I had to perform my own perceptional shift on it.
Take “Ascending,” a shimmering synthscape sandwiched between two beatless and pretty if ephemeral interludes. Powered by a pulse of negative space, the kick is merely implied, as if it were originally the structure of the track then expertly scalpeled out like some malignant growth. When a metronomic pulse does appear, it’s like Edgar Allen Poe’s telltale heart, muffled beneath floorboards as if to smother it to death. “Shadow of Tartarus,” one of R.I.P’s lone 4/4 tracks, has not a beat but rather a migraine throb coupled to what could be a grunge-era bassline, with a spine-tingling will o’wisp melody bubbling out from its unplumbed depths.
These beatless spaces brought to mind the first example of electronic music I ever experienced as a listener: Aphex Twin’s monolithic 1994 opus, Selected Ambient Works II. Specifically, it was the two-minute track that ends disc one, and also wrapped up a mixtape a friend had made for me. The track was an untitled thing that iTunes now labels “White Blur.” After only knowing music rendered with guitars, voices and drums, those two minutes from the mind of Richard D. James revealed an alien soundworld: machine noise, indiscernible human voices and windchimes, so familiar and everyday yet distorted into the realm of nightmare. I involuntarily shiver revisiting it even now, nearly twenty years on.
Unbeknownst to me at the time of first hearing it, SAW II was actually a corrective by James to his position as techno’s boy king, a way to move beyond the confines of British club culture after a string of classic singles on R&S Records. That James could make bangers that snatched from digeridoo loops and Willy Wonka dialogue was just one example of the man’s brilliance for beats. Such complacency breeds contempt though. Expectations in the early ’90s were for ‘acid,’ so the contrarian James dropped ‘ambient’ on his fanbase instead. Rather than craft music to gobble E to, James made them swallow Eno. Energy flash gave way to lucid dreamstates. There was a chance if you saw the man DJ around that time, he was putting needles to sandpaper instead of 12”s.
And after years of familiarity with Aphex Twin’s lunarscapes, it was startling when the remix compilation 26 Mixes for Cash revealed a reworked version of SAW II’s most disquieting track, “Radiator,” now sporting a vicious acid workover. Which was the original intent of this track? Was it a crepuscular ambient creation or something more clubready that James decided to mischievously erase all trace of beat from in a moment of spite? Doubtful we’ll ever peer deep enough into James’s mind for an answer.
But Cunnigham spoke about the limits of both collecting and making dance music though in a recent interview with Self-Titled Magazine: “Over the years I’ve bought a lot of techno records, records that are so good. But it leaves little room to be original … I guess what I do is more impressionistic in that sense. It’s just about that contained energy.” So even as R.I.P nears its end and a traditional beat returns to the fore, Cunnigham still frustrates. “The Lords Graffiti” is a fierce for all of three whole minutes, before sputtering apart, while “N E W” is about the best Aphex Twin impression I’ve heard since the man’s own Analord series of 12”s. By the time album closer “IWAAD” (read: “It Was All a Dream”) and its traditional four on the floor strobes to life, Actress finally capitulates: that lovely ambient netherworld he spent an hour concocting gives way to the rigors of the real world and its dancefloor. At the precise moment that the beat coheres, the disc comes to an end.
R.I.P. is out now on Honest Jon’s. Check out a video for “IWAAD” from Nic Hamilton below: