Is Actress some weird wizard savior of scrambled electronic currents or just a savant who can occasionally press the right buttons?
Electronic music’s latest “It” kid is Darren Cunningham, founder of the pivotal Werk Discs label and the solo artist known by the transgendered moniker Actress. Since weeks before its release, Cunningham’s latest, Splazsh, has had both lips and ears oscillating nearly in synch with its frantic eccentric vibrations, some even praising the album as a masterpiece.
It’ll be hard for the average listener to tell whether Actress lives up to the hype upon first spin, or even second or third plays for that matter. It’s certainly a weird affair. Like other great electronic hopes/hypes before him, Cunningham’s own words don’t offer much help in how to approach the album, which seems to be marked by textural pockmarks, bizarre track lengths, cachexy rhythms, and unknown intentions. In our bonus features culture, the consumer of media is often given various entrance points to a work and pontification of the work’s merits becomes as much a labor of data analysis as subjective evaluation. In interviews, however, such as one recently conducted with Philip Sherburne (“Introducing: Actress”, Beatportal.com, 18 May 2010), Cunningham is elusive about process, dismissive of meaning, and laconic in responses. Like the music itself, Actress in speech only drops clues about his inspirations, aspirations, and destinations.
If the name Actress is to be believed and Cunningham’s art is in fact an act, the music he creates is a disembodied voice of something else, a transubstantiated house or techno. Yet, most of Splazsh sounds less like a study of electronic dance music than a perversion of it. These versions are not quite as ugly or dissonant as, say, V/VM’s deformities of pop, but they’re certainly not pretty either. It’s easy to detect in Actress a kinship to digital age scramble-jockeys James Blake and Mount Kimbie, who both glean junk bits to mount totemic edifices worthy of a shrine. However, whereas both Blake and Kimbie make errors sound like they exist in some harmonious astrological alignment, Actress embraces the wrongness and doesn’t seek to correct it.
It’s odd then that Actress should visually traffic in the perfect symmetry of geometric shapes (mostly triangles and, on Splazsh, octagons). Little is mathematical, or even ordered, on Splazsh. Songs seem to be vessels for ideas. On tracks like “Let’s Fly”, it’s unclear if the warbled and bubbly Detroit techno anamorphosis should enthrall with the oddball tenacity of its circuitous route or whether it’s just a “hey look at this” one-off on an album of like-minded stunts. For that particularly track, I’d go with the former, but each number reserves a case-by-case judgment. There’s a kind of installation level artiness to Splazsh that should easily wet the appetites of The Wire magazine crowd, particularly when this temperment is embedded into a more populist mediu as it is on tracks like the aforementioned “Let’s Fly”, the garage grotesquerie of “Always Human”, and “The Kettle Men”’s industrial skronk. Even if Actress isn’t nearly as stiff as those who regularly perform in galleries and present works with academic theses, it’s ultimately Cunningham’s unbridled confidence in the less-developed works and artier works of Splazsh that threatens to sink the whole enterprise.
There’s a part of me that thinks the hype behind this record might have been nonexistent had it been released on Tigerbeat6 in ’03. The revolutionary acts it proposes are kind of facile and certainly not groundbreaking. The Clicks n’ Cuts influence on Actress was made explicit on the blip hop of last year’s “Machine and Voice” single for Instra:Mental’s NonPlus label and all the talk of “encoding errors” and “low bitrates” are reminiscent of discourse that was being explored approximately a decade back. If much of the wonkiest and most abstract dubstep is actually a danceable postscript to IDM, as has been proposed before, Actress may be the post-‘naughts answer to glitch and microhouse. Though those of us cognizant during those movements may have gotten dreary-eyed over the excess of laptop glow at the time, the return of glitch to the conversation is not necessarily a delimiting factor, but it is worth noting to those who might have forgetfully excluded that heritage in all their fascination with Actress’s technique.
With that said, it’s perhaps the recombinative possibilities that fascinates Splazsh’s champions the most. Is it Alva Noto’s Todd Edwards record? Theo Parrish’s DJ Screw collaboration? After you get past this conceptual framework though, does Actress’s album hold up as a piece?
This reviewer’s noncommittal answer is “maybe”. I’ve tossed and turned so many times over the ingenuity and/or crapness of Splazsh that I can only conclude that there is some kind of strange magic to it, be it alchemical or hocus pocus. It seems to work better on headphones than in the car, but better in the car than on a stereo. Much of the tracks saunter along and seem determined to make tedious what was initially captivating. The most egregious of these also happen to be the two tracks with the silliest names. “Bubble Butts and Equations” seems purposely set to annoy, recorded on a toy keyboard from what appears to be the mic-in end of a tape recorder. When the stop-start bass drum rushes in, it drowns out the rest of the sound. Purposeful mixing or not, it sounds neither cute nor cutting-edge, just sloppy. And then it just keeps going. The back and forth stutter of “Supreme Cunnilingus” (get it?) is more varied, but plays a bit like a buffer overdrive demonstration.
Even the opener drags. “Hubble” is over eight minutes of a monochromatic centimeter-length shuffle in the vein of the empty factory industrial engineering familiar to any one with a Basic Channel, Echospace, or Modern Love record in their closet. An odd choice to lure in the listeners, one might think, but the cut’s a misdirection, a red herring suggesting that Splazsh might pick up where Actress’s gloomy 2008 effort Hazyville left off. Examining the scraps of voice and the 8-bit laser battles behind the cold ether in the foreground makes for a fine listen, but even after many run-throughs of Splazsh the duration of the track just remains ponderous to this reviewer.
Less aggravating is “Maze”, which too is overlong, but at least conveys with its length a sense of claustrophobia, forever encompassed within the labyrinthine titular namesake. Like a fried Carl Craig, Landcruising with a Klonopin in hand, the slick elegance of those Detroit synths melt into the anime mythos of Nintendo via the percussion SFX, which sound like a Mario Bros bounce. It’s a sad trapped world, rhythmless and thereby almost sterilized in this capacity, all heartbreak and no 808s.
Drugs are an easy critical shorthand for any post-psychedelic music, but they specifically apply to Actress, whose tunes are often distorted lens renditions of electronic artifacts. The samples of “Purple Splazsh” are Chicago House grinded through Miami Vice, a psilocybin-soaked convertible night drive through Vice City that ends abruptly when the motor of the stomping beat just disappears. Did Cunningham mean to castrate one of the most enjoyable tracks on Splazsh so? Or did he just not know a way to end it? More questions unanswered.
Perhaps the best track here is “Lost”, which is actually a remix of a song of the same name by Various. Despite the four-on-the-floor, “Lost” transmits a strange time signature, which is made even more troublesome by the ways the main melody unquantizes itself and then auto-corrects while a gargling voice that slightly recalls Tracey Thorn coos rhythmically as a dance cue. On this track, Actress showcases the best of his talent, which is perfectly weird without being too haphazard. The ace tracks on Splazsh exercise their surrealism like Ernst and Magritte did, by making the familiar outlandish and by turning tropes indecipherable. After some time and patience with Actress’s Splazsh, I still can’t say that it lives up to the hype, but I am glad that people are talking about Cunningham. He’s exactly the kind of enigma we need and at least worth some time to try to figure out.