Photo: Courtesy of Ninja Tune

Actress Explores the Voice on ‘Karma & Desire’

Rather than continue to experiment with more bells and whistles, studio guru Actress has stepped back and experimented with the most elemental of all sounds: the voice.

Karma & Desire
Ninja Tune
23 October 2020

The music of Darren Cunningham—aka Actress—has always placed a special emphasis on texture. It’s full of clicks, glitches, static-crackle, and synthesizers so corroded they sound like they’ve been run through a feed chopper. His last major-label LP, AZD (not counting this year’s self-released 88), was centered around the concept of chrome, and nearly every sound bore some association to it. On his latest album, Karma & Desire, the main theme seems to be the human voice itself.

Cunningham’s music has always been rife with vocal samples, but his studio albums have never featured any live vocals. On Karma & Desire, the spell is broken. The Wolverhampton-born, footballer-turned-producer includes a laundry list of guests: Christel Well, Zsela, Aura T-09, Vanessa Benelli Mosell, and the popular R&B singer Sampha. However, you’d be mistaken if you thought this was Actress’ “pop” record or attempt at vocal house. The new LP is probably his most ambient project to date—ghostly, somber, and brooding. There are fewer beats here than on any Actress album since 2012’s R.I.P.

Here, the human voice functions more like an instrument than an addendum to the music itself. That is especially evident on tracks like “VVY”, where Sampha’s vocals are little more than indecipherable murmurs gliding sleepily around the main piano lead. On “Angels Pharmacy”, Zsela sings “destiny is stuck in heaven blowing nitro” in a half-whispered, spoken-word delivery that, coupled with all the steamy, emission-like synths, makes it seem as if the song really is blowing nitro. The repetition of “in heaven” continues onto the next track, “Remembrance”, and goes on for so long that it begins to sound like gibberish. This is probably the point. Karma & Desire is not interested in the voice as an object of lyricism or lingual clarity, but as a tool of hypnosis or religious cadence. The focus is on the raw texture of the voice itself, not what it says.

Instrumentally, the album is essentially divided into two halves: the first half is largely piano-driven, and the second half is more beat-driven. That can occasionally make for an uneven listen. The frontloading of quieter, meditative pieces does pose a challenge for the listener’s attention. At 17 tracks and 78 minutes, this is the longest LP in Cunningham’s discography, and its length isn’t always rewarding. The eerie, drifting ambience of the first half often makes one wish Cunningham had sprinkled more upbeat songs at the beginning. “Many Seas, Many Rivers” is eight minutes of mumble-singing from Sampha over chipmunked backing vocals and a labored piano lead that features little variation. It’s easy to imagine many listeners nodding off at this point of the LP, given that it’s right in the middle.

Thankfully, Actress saves the best for last. Karma & Desire ends with the best three-track closeout in his career. And in a career of epic closeouts, that’s no small statement. On “Turin”, Actress lays down an absolutely slamming deep-house groove with beautifully chopped, breathy vocals from Aura T-09. The next track, “Diamond X”, is much weirder but no less riveting. Retro sci-fi FX play over a scuzzy, glitched-out groove that calls to mind the deconstructed techno of his second album, Splazsch. The LP ends with “Walking Flames”, another collaboration with Sampha. Here, the young R&B prodigy delivers a humming, soulful melody over a twinkling piano and a gorgeous flute passage from Kara-Lis Coverdale. It’s probably the closest thing to a pop song in Actress’ discography, and it works wonders.

On the whole, Karma & Desire has a smoother, cleaner sound to it than anything Cunningham’s made. In many ways it recalls the bleak, minutiae-scanning aesthetics of 2014’s Ghettoville, but it doesn’t have the same dingy urban atmosphere. Here, there are signs of life. There’s room to breathe and sing. Actress’ music has always felt like a soundtrack to some post-human dystopia, but on Karma & Desire, the music sounds strangely human.

Rather than continue to experiment with more bells and whistles, the studio guru has stepped back and experimented with the most elemental of all sounds: the voice. Because of the album’s strong vocal presence, it may be his most accessible work to date. Even so, Karma & Desire is still everything we’d expect from an Actress LP—foggy, impenetrable, and deeply cerebral. The runtime may be a bit long, and some experiments may fall flat, but the best moments here showcase Cunningham at his finest.

RATING 8 / 10